community cupboard

Image provided by Bonnie Linden

Inspired by a Canadian example and driven by the desire to feed her disadvantaged neighbors, Bonnie Linden set up a community cupboard outside of her Californian home. Despite huge success, she was forced to relocate the pantry after neighbors complained to the city.

In 2017, Bonnie Linden read a Shareable article about a couple building a community cupboard in front of their home in Winnipeg, Canada. The concept was simple: set up a pantry box in a public space, which visitors can use to pick up or drop off donated food. Linden decided to give it a try, setting one up outside of her home in Capitola, California, east of Santa Cruz. Two years later, she and six other volunteers operate three community cupboards in the Santa Cruz area, which distribute 6,000 pounds of food each month.

“We stock the shelves daily — sometimes twice daily,” Linden said. “It disappears rapidly!”

Linden is just one of a growing number of people around the world who are using community cupboards and community fridges to alleviate food insecurity with groceries that would otherwise be destined for landfills.

The community cupboards set up by Linden are easy to construct and maintain. The cupboards are made from used bookcases, to which she adds plexiglass doors and dashboard protectors for insulation. The cupboards are then mounted on four-by-four posts and installed in publicly accessible locations with adequate shade to reduce food spoilage. Lastly, the cupboards are stocked with groceries donated from neighbors and local businesses and fixed with signs encouraging visitors to take what they need and leave what they can.

But Linden’s community cupboard faced legal hurdles. When she first set up her cupboard in Capitola in 2017, neighbors complained that it was attracting houseless visitors, who they accused of breaking into vehicles in the area. The Capitola City Council did not buy that argument, but her neighbors found another line of attack.

“[Neighbors] found an ordinance in the zoning code that prohibits food distribution from residences,” she said. “They threatened to fine me $500 a day if I continued to host the cupboard.”

After eight months of successful operation, Linden was forced to relocate her first community cupboard just across the Capitola city line, to the neighboring town of Soquel. The subsequent two cupboards she installed are both in Santa Cruz, where they remain unopposed by local ordinances. 

Contrary to the generalizations made by her neighbors, Linden has found that visitors to her community cupboards come from all walks of life. Yes, some are houseless people living along the Soquel Creek or out of their cars, she acknowledges, but others are parents who are in the area picking up their children from the nearby school. She’s also watched as “well-to-do folks use the cupboards as a place to get a free treat — drive up in a new Mercedes and take a bunch of stuff,” as she put it.

“I’d like to be able to have a conversation about privilege, how the cupboards are for the needy,” she said. Then the spirit of sharing seems to take hold again and she reflects, “but I suppose emotional neediness plays into the equation as well.”

Community fridges partner with supermarkets to reduce food waste

Community cupboards like Linden’s can be found around the world — as cataloged by Little Free Pantry — but similar efforts in the United Kingdom have reached new heights with community refrigerators.

In 2016, London-based environmental charity Hubbub teamed up with Sainsbury’s, the second-largest chain of supermarkets in the United Kingdom, on a campaign to reduce food waste. Hubbub launched a community fridge in the small English town of Swadlincote. Like a community cupboard, visitors to the fridge could pick up or drop off food, and businesses could make their own donations.

“At the time, the concept was new to the UK, but not to other countries like Germany and Spain, where ‘honesty fridges’ or ‘solidarity fridges’ were common,” said Kanahaya Alam, the campaign’s manager at Hubbub. “The Swadlincote Community Fridge was so successful that within weeks of launching it we received hundreds of expressions of interest.”

To formalize their support, Hubbub created the Community Fridge Network, which provides guidance and even appliances for those looking to set up community fridges in their own neighborhoods. Today, the Community Fridge Network spans England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland with 85 current fridges, and 40 more being planned.

“On average, each project redistributes up to a tonne of food and attracts 200 visitors a month,” Alam said. Those located in urban areas could distribute four tonnes (2,200 pounds) each month, she adds.

Although community fridges have the obvious benefit of preserving perishable foods, which cupboards can’t as safely do, they do have drawbacks. The reliance on electricity means fridges should be housed indoors, which reduces access and creates safety issues as visitors pass from public to private spaces. For those reasons, the Community Fridge Network mandates that members register as “food businesses” with the UK government.


This post is part of our Winter 2019 editorial series on waste reduction. Get our free ebook on this series: “Beyond Waste: Community Solutions to Managing Our Resources.” Shareable is a partner of this project with Greenpeace. 

Take a look at the other articles in the series:

Arvind Dilawar


Arvind Dilawar

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek,