An estimated 35 percent of all the food produced in China is wasted, and the total value of the food Chinese people throw away annually could be worth more than 200 billion yuan ($29.60 billion). Statistics from China's State Administration of Grain and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that food Chinese people throw away every year could feed 200 million individuals.
To help curb food waste, a shared fridge charity project, that encourages community members to place unwanted items of food in a communal refrigerator to help needy residents was recently launched in Shanghai, according to media reports. The scheme has been introduced at three locations around the city.
The first shared fridge in the city appeared on Xikang Road in Putuo district at the end of September. This fridge was organized by a restaurant owner surnamed Yang, and most of the food items in this fridge came from his restaurant.
Yang said he had always felt it was a big waste to throw away the dishes that failed to meet his restaurant's quality standards, because the food itself was good.
When he heard about the shared fridge project, he decided to work with the Shanghai Oasis Ecological Conservation and Communication Center, a grass-roots environment conservation NGO that focuses on reducing food wastes, to set up a fridge in front of his restaurant.
"Our restaurant staffs replenish the fridge twice a day, at around 11 am and later around 4:30 p.m.," explained restaurant manager Tan Jun.
"Most of the time, everything we put into the fridge in the morning would be taken away within one and a half hours, and the stuff we put in the afternoon would be gone before 8 p.m."
Some media reports said that food in the shared fridge had been grabbed by greedy members of the public looking for free food and the fridge was being emptied within 10 minutes once it was replenished.
But Tan said such this rarely happened. "There is rarely long queue in front of the fridge, and most people don't take more than one dish at a time," he said, suggesting that the media reports of greedy people snatching the food were not accurate.
One city news agency reporter watched the fridge to see who was claiming the food. After a restaurant staff member put 30 packages of desserts into the fridge, the reporter saw all of the sweets being taken by members of the public and they were all gone within 20 minutes.
Among those helping themselves to the fridge food were construction workers from a nearby building site, and some local residents. While most only took one serving, some took three or four packets and a few even returned to grab more.
"When staffs see people grabbing too much food at a time, we try to persuade them to leave food for other needy residents. In most cases, they take our advice," Tan said.
Restaurant owner Yang pointed out that though there was occasional misbehavior, most of the fridge patrons were civilized and obeyed the rules. "For example, some of the regular visitors to the fridge are poorly paid construction workers," Yang said.
"Because their monthly income is about 3,000 yuan ($443.97), and a meal at a local restaurant costs at least 20 to 30 yuan, they take the free food from the fridge for lunch or dinner. But they only take one dish for each meal, though that amount of food might not fill them."
Yang said the original purpose of the shared fridge was to provide free food to needy people and he wouldn't criticize people who took several dishes at a time.
"If we strictly limited the amount of food everyone took, this would be against the idea of having a shared fridge in the community. As long as people need that amount of food, they have the right to take it," Yang said, adding that he plans to replenish the fridge four times a day.
Another shared fridge can be found in a neighborhood community in Putuo district. Housed in a community reading room for the elderly, this communal fridge appeared on October 9, and it is usually open from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The fridge is run by community volunteers, and most of them are elderly. At this fridge random members of the public are not allowed to take the food from the fridge themselves.
People wanting food have to provide names, addresses and phone numbers before claiming food. Most of the food in this fridge is donated by nearby restaurants and supermarkets.
It is interesting that many of the people who come to see the fridge just look at the food on offer rather than claiming items themselves.
The volunteers recorded that on October 10, 29 people took food from the fridge. On October 11, only 14 people, claimed food, with 18 and 9 taking food on the following days.
A middle-aged woman surnamed Zhao told a local news agency that she lives nearby, and had been curious about the fridge.
"Putting a shared fridge in our neighborhood is really a good move, because it can cut food waste and help needy residents," she said.
Similarly a senior who lives in Jing'an district said that he had gone simply to have a look of the much-discussed fridge.
He felt it was a good move introducing this sort of project from abroad to China and he hoped his neighborhood would launch a similar project soon.
According to neighborhood committee director Zhang Jing, many people just wanted to look at the shared fridge to see how it worked and were not actually looking for free food themselves.
"A few days ago an elderly man from Changning district came here to see how the project operated, because he wants to introduce a similar fridge in his own neighborhood," Zhang said.
This theme was echoed by a senior neighborhood volunteer surnamed Wang. "There were lots of visitors in the first few days when we opened the shared fridge, and food was in short supply," she said.
"But now the number of food applicants a day has settled at around 15 people." She said most of the people who used the fridge were polite and only took one item of food.
Neighborhood committee director Zhang pointed out the committee planned to establish a distribution system to send free food to local residents with mobility problems. "We will also train our volunteers to classify the food in the fridge," she said.
But some people are concerned as to whether the shared fridge scheme can last, saying that its operation and maintenance needed capital and labor support.
Wu Wei is a staff member with the Shanghai Oasis Ecological Conservation and Communication Center. He is closely involved with the shared fridge scheme.
"The operational cost of shared fridges mainly comes from the purchasing of food, distribution and labor costs," Wu said. "Because the neighborhood committees and restaurant owners have provided venues and personnel to operate the fridge, the total cost is very little."
But he pointed out that if the scheme was expanded widely, problems could arise. "If we wanted to establish more shared fridges in Shanghai, it could be difficult to find enough food to meet the demand. Also, if the locations were scattered throughout the city, food distribution could be a challenge."
Wu said the shortage of volunteers was another issue. A shared fridge needed volunteers on duty throughout the day but volunteers were usually unpaid or only given a small amount of money. "If the scheme was going to be widely promoted, there could be a shortage of volunteers," he said.