Practically Utopian

Food for free, working for nothing and something truly cool on the street. Teresa Linzner tells a tale of Brixton’s eclectic avenues.

Imagine a fridge accessible to all, full of free food and filled by people who don’t get any money for doing so. Think of a café where customers pay what they can with only a handful of paid staff. Sounds utopian, doesn’t it?

Yet both of these practices are in play at two community projects in south London. Ben Longman is one of a team of people who keep The People’s Fridge, a publicly accessible community fridge in Brixton replenished while Madeleine Boomgarden works five minutes away at the Brixton Pound Café. I talked with them both about how and why they think they work and why there might or might not be more of them elsewhere.

I met Longman at Brixton co-working space, the Impact Hub, which is located in Pop Brixton – an event venue and place for independent retailers and social enterprises, including The People’s Fridge. He and the fridge are not easily overlooked. Longman is often one of the first in and one of the last out of the Hub because he’s involved in all kinds of activities there.

Down the road at the Brixton Pound Café, people can determine the price of their food and drinks, on the basis of on their purchasing power as assessed by themselves. I didn’t know general manager, Boomgarden, before I asked someone at the café if I could interview “whoever is in charge.” As most days, she was there and agreed to talk to me.

Her last “regular job on the payroll” she says, was as head of communications for a charity about four years ago, before she left to travel in South America. When she came back she started freelancing and occasionally working from the café. “The café gradually became part of my life, as a great place to make connections,” she says. Over time she became the café’s marketing person then a general manager.

Opportunities – that really is the word I would use to describe what brings people here.

The Brixton Pound Café is named after a local currency accepted by some 250 businesses in and around the Brixton area. It’s one of a number of similar schemes in about a dozen UK towns and cities including Liverpool, Bristol and Lewes where people exchange their Sterling for a locally printed, and accepted, currency in a bid to keep money circulating within the community. Boomgarden says the cafe was “born out of the Brixton Pound, as sort of a natural extension of it.” She adds: “The Pound would exist without it but space just seems important.”

She points to a campaign against closing down library spaces around Brixton as an example of the community activities allied to the Brixton pound: “I think community spaces have always been important for people in Brixton. This is a physical manifestation of the way we feel about Brixton and the work we do here.”

Back at Pop Brixton, Longman agrees with Boomgarden’s view of the importance of space: “If you want to launch a community project,” he says “whether it’s a boxing club, an after school club for kids or anything else, it can be really hard to find the space. And the mechanics and the people”. He continues: “But in Brixton we have that. We’ve got the people, we’ve got the space and we’ve got different skills. And we’ve got voices in Brixton, different voices.”

Photo: Seb Wood

When asking Boomgarden about why she thinks extraordinary community projects like the café work so well in Brixton, she too highlights “diversity” as an important ingredient for building a strong community, capable of supporting such projects. “Having a mixture of people is key. That can either be an explosive mix or a creative mix. There are loads of people who have different skills to share here and a lot of creative people in particular.”

Other than that, she is motivated by an “incredible team of volunteers” to give time and effort to the café for free as “a chance to be and do something genuinely different and to feel that everyone involved genuinely has the best interests of people and Brixton at heart.”

“The place is just full of opportunities. Opportunities – that really is the word I would use to describe what brings people here. I’ve never worked in an environment where I was just able to take all these ideas of others and do something with them. […] Here, if someone comes up with an idea that sounds good, rather than putting barriers in their way and double-triple-checking everything, the general attitude is more like: how can we let this happen? And of course it can’t always happen and some [ideas] sink and some rise to the surface. Sometimes we’re on the edge of maybe falling over but it’s generally quite exciting to think: well maybe we can really do something radically different.”

At the start of our conversation, Longman is eager to establish its voluntary principle: “Probably one of the first thing worth knowing about the fridge is that everyone working on the fridge does so outside of working hours, on an entirely voluntary basis. Nobody has ever been paid a cent to contribute to this project. “

I ask Longman about what he thinks gets people to volunteer for The People’s Fridge. “Volunteers volunteer because they want to see something change and they want to feel like their time is being valued and that they’re making a difference,” he says.

“It’s always challenging to recruit, train and coordinate volunteers to do unglamorous work, where the impact – social or otherwise – may not feel like radical change.”

But finding the volunteers with the right outlook, he says, has not always been easy. “It’s challenging to recruit, train and coordinate volunteers to do unglamorous work, where the impact social or otherwise, may not feel like radical change. Motivation is key. We’ve now got a lovely group of volunteers. And we’ve got no one person leading it. There’s no top-down hierarchy.”

He thinks that implementing a hierarchy might produce “one, very strong, driven leader, forging a project in their identity which might be very alienating to volunteers because they’re not joining an organisation but someone’s organisation.”

He goes on to emphasise the importance of collaboration and listening and adds that the fridge “doesn’t belong to a person but to Brixton and volunteers come in, feeling that they can change anything they’d like.” Hence, the feeling to have a possibility to genuinely change and do something differently seems key.

Longman also makes it clear that, while people involved in the project have different fields of expertise, there are no designated roles such as treasurer or marketing person which he thinks makes the project more sustainable. “If you do create those formalised roles – then all of a sudden, when a person leaves, they leave a massive gap behind. The way we do it, is to give everyone who’s been involved for x amount of time, access to everything: the email account, social media accounts etc.”

Photos: Teresa Linzner

However, there hasn’t always been such a “lovely group of volunteers”. Initially the team had hoped to get help maintaining the fridge from local food stall owners and staff. Although there is an agreement between them and Pop Brixton, saying that tenants must dedicate an hour of work every week to the community, this was “an absolute disaster.” People who had formally agreed to “just couldn’t be bothered. So we kept banging our head against the wall.”

But persistence won the day says Longman. That and adjusting his view of the project: “Thinking of something as a prototype can be a very helpful psychological trick. And that is really what the fridge was. Then you can take every failure as part of a journey of learning,” Longman says. “So we just went on and approached other people and in the end found some we could trust,” he adds.

Boomgarden’s challenges however, are more financial than recruitment – there is currently a waiting list for people who would like to volunteer at the café. “The downside of being in Brixton is that Brixton has exploded – also in terms of property prices,” she explains. So clearly remaining financially sustainable with a pay-what-you-can business model is challenging.

Meanwhile, the café lives on funding, the currency space hire, workshops, occasional donations, merchandise and selling art. And Boomgarden insists that, while she can’t think of a local community association where financial sustainability isn’t an issue, she believes there is enough support, goodwill and fantastic ongoing as well as planned projects “to be knowing that we’ll be fine.”

Does she think the café ever will live off what it sells on a pay-what-you can basis? She is equivocal: “This is just hard to predict. Maybe we could if we had more room. The question is: what motivates people to go to Starbucks rather than come here? Obviously it’s got something to do with habit. People know what they’re going to get and Starbucks just is on their route. To make people come here, instead, we need to explain our proposition and what we do as an organisation.”

And what is that proposition? “Re-imagining society and neighbourliness, but in a radical way,” she summarises, adding: “Our proposition is to offer a different way to think about how people live, work and interact. Coming into the café is not just about working on your laptop but about engaging in conversations and knowing that there are people around you can talk to.”

It is, she says, “The home of radical dialogue.”

Boomgarden says it’s the place for questions like “How can we support people and not expect massive profits? How can we provide people with meaningful work they genuinely feel connected to? How can we make people feel really welcome when they come into a place and they don’t have lots of money? How can we promote conversations that go on around Brixton and allow these conversations to result in something, rather than putting obstacles into people’s ways and being overly careful?”

She emphasises the importance that everyone in the Brixton community feels welcome at the café and how she and her colleagues look to draw new people in. She offers as an example, plans for a new project – a series of fermentation and pickling workshops to be led by kitchen manager Sean – include “reaching out to all kinds of people. We were thinking, if we do get funding and can offer this for free or pay-as-you-can, we will just be going around pubs, saying, look we’ve got this going on. Do you want to come? Just going out to places that don’t necessarily connect with what we do.”

Arguably there is in fact a stark disconnection between the work done around the People’s Fridge and the rest of Pop Brixton. It is, and always has been “a fairly controversial space among those who wish the site was more inclusive and had more community aspects built into it,” Longman says.

“Our proposition is to offer a different way to think about how people live, work and interact.”

At night it is an embodiment of the gentrification of Brixton, packed with a young, hip, mostly white party crowd that can afford “jazzy burgers and craft beer.” During the day, however, people from across Brixton’s social spectrum visit it, which makes the fridge accessible to those who might particularly benefit from free surplus food.

Boomgarden thinks the café plays a part in reconciling the various parties created by the influx of wealthy people to Brixton. She thinks part of the attraction of the café is, “the idea that we are bridging a gap between one part of Brixton and another part of it. There is gentrified Brixton, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, and there is old Brixton with its radical heart. And we are providing a place that bridges the gap between the two.”

Looking outward and onward, I ask could or should there be more than one Brixton Pound Café? Boomgarden says the café project is not about growth. But she says there are intrinsic obstacles to growing the business: “It might be quite difficult to switch to pay-as-you-can on a larger scale. I think that would mean a real shift.

“To begin it’s about persuading people to even have an element of pay what you can. Someone working in another café recently said to me ‘We don’t advertise it but if somebody comes in and can’t afford food or a drink, we will always give them something.’

“So whether we need one big shift or whether we make one little shift at a time and things happen as a result, I don’t know,” she says adding: “Whether it needs that kind of shift in society, rather than locally, is another matter.”

To me, the fact that the fridge and the café exist feels like a precursor of a shift to a better future where change has happened on a much larger scale. At least in terms of changing people’s mind sets regarding food surplus and waste – in Brixton that has already happened.

While community projects can be hard to manage and sustain, their functioning depends entirely on people and the strength of the communities they form. That strength is clearly a product of people’s willingness to change and their being given opportunities in the form of space, an atmosphere of collaboration and listening and a yes-we-can attitude.

The projects described here in Brixton show, that with these key ingredients, all of a sudden something practically utopian seems possible.

 

Opening the fridge
A group of people interested in local food issues participated and, inspired by a similar project in Spain, came up with the idea for a community fridge. So they started crowdfunding for a “big, colourful fridge, with glass doors” which was to stand outside in the street, as a statement, to raise awareness of food waste. While Lambeth council was opposed to putting the fridge in the street, they were still supportive of the project as such. And so was the Brixton community which they demonstrated very generously. The campaign, aiming for £1,000, ended up receiving £2,500. On top of that, it got a fridge, donated by a member of filming crew who became very excited about the project while working on a programme about food waste. The only obstacle left was finding a publicly accessible, visible and highly frequented space for it. That space ended up being Pop Brixton.
A la Carte
The menu at the Brixton Pound Café depends on what gets delivered every Monday by surplus food distributor, FareShare. “We also get stuff from local bakeries, such as The Old Post Office Bakery. We get cakes from Sweet Carolina and what’s really good is when people bring food from their own cupboards. Then you know that the Brixton Pound Café and food surplus are getting into people’s mindset.”
Food chains and chains of thought
The People’s Fridge gets stocked at least four times a week, by Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Prêt-à-manger and – again – The Old Post Office Bakery. In addition, there are often ad-hoc donations from other local businesses. However, pick-up by volunteers can be hard to coordinate. There is just not always someone around to get “the four tomatoes a restaurant won’t use anymore”. Were People’s Fridges to become widespread and part of our everyday lives, Longman suggested, an app could provide a solution to coordination problems.

The fridge also seems to be doing a good job in terms of getting people to think about food waste. According to Ben, most people do not even take anything out of, it but just look into it or bring their kids and explain it to them. Many take pictures and spread them via social media and even school classes come here to learn about the fridge and its purpose.

Teresa Linzner

Teresa is an experienced researcher with an academic background in both Economics and Philosophy. She obtained a BSc in Economics and a BA in Philosophy in Vienna before completing an …

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