Author: Stuart W. Germain, MA in Social Innovation, Saint Paul University
Introduction to Research Project
While planning out the research process for my thesis on community resource sharing and its potential for social transformation, it became clear to me that I would need to write an accompanying paper outlining the findings of this project. I wanted to provide the participants I interviewed and the organization I partnered with a digestible document that translates the findings to everyday praxis. At the heart of my project and the works that heavily influenced it, there is an emphasis on action and working for change, even though it often seems impossible because of the totality of the capitalist system. This paper attempts to move the findings of my research project into the realm of everyday action and ensure that it can help inform organizing around sharing and the pursuit of democracy, community, and equality that move towards social transformation (Wright, 2019, pp. 23-36).
This research project is a response to the climate crisis and societal inequality. I was personally inspired to pursue this project by noticing how inefficient the way that we consume things truly is. On a planet with finite resources, it does not make sense to continue pursuing economic growth over everything else. In addition, in a society with so much access to goods and rampant waste, there is something wrong when we throw away food and items that many people may need for the sake of profits and the generation of shareholder value. My experience in equipment sales demonstrated the rampant and unsustainable nature of consumption under capitalism and inspired me to search for potential alternatives. After exploring alternatives to capitalism and reading the work of George Monbiot (2017), I became increasingly interested in the concepts of sharing and the commons which Monbiot defined as being resources that are shared by a community and where everyone has the rights to access them. Examples of the commons can include water, natural resources, knowledge, land, and culture. However, the commons are also more than these specific things, they also describe “the community of people organising themselves to manage and protect the resource, and the rules, systems and negotiations required to sustain it” (Monbiot, 2017, p. 94). I looked for examples of community-based resource sharing and found several examples, including tool libraries, community gardens, buy nothing groups and community fridges. Because food is integral to the human experience and a basic need necessary to sustain life and enable other activities, I decided to explore community fridges as an example of resource sharing.
In addition to community fridges and sharing being integral to this research project, another critical concept is capitalism. This research builds on the body of work that recognizes that capitalism is detrimental to society, hinders human flourishing, and threatens our continued existence. This work was explored fully in the literature review of my thesis. The pursuit of profits over the well-being of others that can be seen in increasing food prices during 2022 and 2023 that are in excess of the increases in cost and have ultimately resulted in food retailers making record profits (Kim, 2023). This profiteering that has been justified through the guise of inflation and has resulted in many people cutting food consumption and in record food bank usage is a perfect example of how capitalism will move towards the maximization of profits over the well-being of people. Capitalism can be understood as organizing the economy based on private ownership of the means of production. This private ownership concentrates the control of resources in the hands of the owners, who exercise their economic power to further their interests and continue to increase their capital (Wright, 2010, p. 120). This definition of capitalism shows how it opposes sharing and social activities, especially attempts to move people to alternative ways of doing things.
This research sought to answer the central question of whether community resource sharing has the potential for anticapitalist social transformation. This question uses the definition of social transformation discussed by Erik Olin Wright and specifically refers to his concept of emancipatory social transformation (2010). The other secondary question that this research project answered was based on this concept of social transformation and the work that Wright put forward in his 2019 book, How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century. The first of these questions is inspired by a concept from this newer book by Wright, where he proposes a strategy for opposing capitalism. He calls this strategy erosion and pitches it as a combination of several methods of resisting, taming, and escaping capitalism (Wright, 2019). The main idea behind erosion is to fill the gaps left by the capitalist system to the point where it loses its dominance and can be replaced by a system that emancipates those currently subjected to it (Wright, 2019, p. 58). This first question draws on this strategy of erosion and asks whether the community fridge erodes capitalism. The second sub-question asked whether community resource sharing encourages thoughts or behaviours outside capitalism. The third and final sub-question that this research project answered was more focused on the impact of the community fridge and asked whether it contributed to human flourishing.
Research Method and Results
As mentioned previously, this research project focused on a case study. The case that I selected was an outdoor community fridge that is located in Ottawa. Because of the qualitative data collection and the scope of this specific project, I selected only one case of community resource sharing. My selection was also due to my desire to delve deeply into the lived experiences of fridge users rather than provide an overview of community fridge use more generally. The fridge that I studied for this project was accessible 24/7 and was based on the idea that users should take what they need and leave what they can. The fridge was hosted and managed by a local organization focused on providing food for people and believes food should be a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, the outdoor fridge was shut down a few months after I completed my data collection process. At the time of writing, it remains closed, but there is an indoor fridge at the same location that is accessible and operates in much the same way, except it is only open when the organization that hosts it is open. For my data collection, I analyzed documents, interviewed people using the fridge, and made observations by accessing the fridge and attending a community meeting. All of this data was gathered over two months prior to the shutdown of the fridge.
The first data I collected was through document analysis which I conducted on two sets of documents: those produced by the fridge’s host organization and those created by individuals not directly involved in the community. The internal documents portrayed the fridge as a community-based initiative focused on mutual aid, with an emphasis on sharing and community coming together. The community fridge was not positioned as anticapitalist but rather as an alternative to traditional food charity and food banking, with a mission to provide access to fresh and culturally appropriate food as a fundamental human right for all. Media coverage has highlighted the fridge as a solution to combat high food prices, address food insecurity, and provide continued access to food during the pandemic. Online conversations and social media discussions have generally been positive, with no widespread perception of the fridge as anticapitalist but rather as a means to address community needs and reduce food waste.
In addition to the document analysis, I also made observations of the community fridge and the community surrounding it. Due to the outdoor fridge’s barrier-free mandate, direct observation was limited, but I was able to check its contents regularly and also attended a community consultation. The amount of food in the fridge varied by season, with more produce in the summer and early fall, which was often donated by community members or through local gardens. However, there were instances of expired or rotten food, indicating maintenance challenges. The host organization played a significant role in stocking the fridge, and there were occasions when its state declined due to their absence over periods such as long weekends. This observation of the limited amount of food in the fridge prompted reflection on the experiences of those facing food insecurity, which helped to shape the interview questions and data analysis process.
The community consultation I attended was organized by the organization that hosted the fridge. It focused on addressing issues related to using the community fridge that had been brought to the host’s attention. These issues included food hoarding and a lack of clear and comprehensive guidelines for its use. The food hoarding was an activity that clearly opposed the foundational values of the fridge and had led to confrontations at the fridge even though one of the existing guidelines for its use was that there should be no policing whatsoever at the fridge.
During the community consultation, the host organization established a group agreement that outlined the ground rules that were to be used for respectful communication. They shared the initial vision of the fridge and identified challenges such as high demand, inconsistent access to food, issues related to its usage, and a lack of donations from the community. They also highlighted the initiative’s strengths, such as community friendships and sharing recipes at the fridge. After this overview, the community members discussed potential solutions to the issues that had been identified. They all answered questions about fridge usage and submitted a handout with the answers after the event. Overall, the event had an emphasis on hearing all the voices that were present and maintaining a respectful environment.
Interviews made up the largest portion of the data that I collected. During data collection, I interviewed eight people who regularly accessed the community fridge. Of these eight, there were three who primarily left food at the fridge, and four were users who used the fridge as a source of food. The final participant was a volunteer who helped take care of and stock the fridge for the host organization but also left food in the fridge themselves. The interviews were semi-structured and were mostly conducted over Zoom or a phone call. Only one of the interviews was conducted in person. In these interviews, there were six main themes that came up when I conducted data analysis. These themes were: motivations and personal experiences, community, crisis, consumption, impact, and social change. I will now briefly outline these themes and the responses I received for each one.
For the theme of personal experiences and motivations, I found that all fridge users who were primarily taking food from it were motivated to access it out of a need for food. Two of the users in this group did identify that they would like to leave food in the fridge if they could. All of the users in this group stated that they did not want to get food from the fridge and identified a sense of shame they experienced when accessing it. None of the participants who left food in the fridge in this group lived in the immediate neighbourhood around the fridge. Instead, they came from outside the neighbourhood to leave their food in it. Generally, these users were concerned with reducing food waste and helping others. All of my research participants identified that the fridge was mostly empty. However, in sharing their experiences, even though the fridge could not be relied on for food, all the participants agreed it made a difference. The only motivation that was shared by all of the participants was that everyone deserves access to food. Even if they had been accessing the fridge regularly for a while, the participants did not identify an increase in motivations rooted in the values of community, democracy, and equality that are necessary for anticapitalist social transformation as it was imagined by Wright in his framework (2019, p. 23).
For the theme of community, participants reported varied experiences with the community at large, mentioning cliques and other groups that used the fridge together. However, they did not necessarily feel included in those groups. Some participants felt a sense of community around the fridge, while others were less certain. Some participants expressed a desire to access the fridge alone due to concerns about cliques and discomfort with interacting with others. Despite some negative experiences, most participants believed that community members were doing their best and acknowledged that they did not know the reasons behind people’s actions. The experiences with the community varied the most by the user type that was accessing it. The participants who took food from the fridge mostly said there was a sense of community and were more certain than those who left food in the fridge. On this theme, all of the participants also brought up the issues that were central to the conversation at the community consultation, such as hoarding food or leaving inedible items. Overall, there was a sense that people’s actions, whether leaving improper food or hoarding it, were impacting the community around the fridge.
The next theme was a crisis, which in this case specifically refers to the COVID-19 pandemic, which sparked conversations around consumption, greed, and social change. Two participants mentioned that the pandemic acted as a catalyst for getting them involved in sharing initiatives and addressing inequality and food insecurity. In addition, some participants who accessed the community fridge for food also identified the pandemic as a reason for their increased need for support due to job loss and financial difficulties. However, the pandemic was also mentioned as a factor in the improper use of the fridge and increased consumption, with one participant suggesting there was a “revenge mindset” where people felt the need to catch up on what the pandemic had taken away. Despite the variations in the impact of the pandemic, it was seen as a significant inflection point in the lives of almost all participants.
On the theme of consumption, the research participants all had a general sentiment that businesses are greedy, contribute to waste, and promote excessive consumption. This belief was not linked to accessing the fridge by any of the participants. In addition, there was also a shared belief that food should be more accessible and seen as a basic human right. Many participants who left food in the fridge expressed concern about sustainability and sought alternative ways to acquire goods, such as sharing or buying second-hand. Two participants who left food in the fridge identified environmental and labour concerns as reasons for avoiding purchases from large corporations. Generally, this group had a distrust of prominent corporations and criticism of the consumption levels encouraged in society. The participants who primarily took food from the fridge had more diverse and apathetic attitudes towards businesses, with some expressing a belief in the right to sell food at whatever price businesses wanted and others being hesitant to take a political stance. However, for the most part, there was criticism of businesses for their role in limiting access to food, which was mostly attributed to greed.
For the fifth theme, impact, the participants agreed that the community fridge had made a difference in the community, but there was disagreement about the extent of its impact. There was no concrete way of knowing how many people use the fridge because there was no monitoring. In the absence of measurable data, participants shared their own experiences when talking about the impact. These experiences made it clear that the need for food in the community exceeded what was available in the fridge. One participant questioned the effectiveness of the fridge, citing issues such as hoarding of food and limited access for those with mobility issues. However, most of the participants were understanding of the challenges. They believed that the community fridge still makes a difference, but it cannot fully meet the community’s needs due to demand.
For the sixth and final theme, social change, there were varying degrees that this was talked about. Two participants were already involved in anticapitalist activism before using this fridge and viewed it as a space for exploring alternative systems. They acknowledged that the fridge had not inspired them to get more involved in social change, but it served as a point of hope and allowed them to integrate their values with actions that make a difference. They also pointed out that the constant use of the fridge and its empty state demonstrated that people are willing to engage with alternatives to the system if made accessible. The participants who took food from the fridge were generally not politically motivated. Instead, their focus was on accessing food rather than getting involved in sharing or organizing. Some of these participants mentioned the role of the government in addressing high food prices. They expressed a desire to help others in the present without worrying about things outside their control. The participant who helped with the fridge was skeptical of it and pointed out the abuses and hoarding of food, which went against the principles of sharing. They expressed the need to start something else to address the need for food in the community. The study found that the community fridge served as a point of hope and inspiration for some participants to continue pushing for social change. In contrast, others were focused more on accessing food and helping others in the present.
Discussion and Findings
The data gathered from observations, document analysis, and interviews provided a comprehensive understanding of the community fridge, its usage, and its impact on the community. The diverse voices and opinions of fridge users highlighted the complexities and challenges of accessing food and dealing with scarcity. The data revealed that there were issues with the community fridge experience. These issues ultimately played a role in its closure shortly after my data collection process was concluded. The main issues behind this decision were safety concerns and incidents that made it less inclusive. In their communication on the closure, the fridge’s host organization recognized that poverty, low wages, inadequate social assistance, and rising living costs were underlying reasons for food insecurity. It emphasized the need to advocate for systemic change. Despite the closure of the outdoor community fridge, the host organization continues to operate an indoor fridge, although it is not as easily accessible.
In my full thesis, I reviewed the literature and several anticapitalist and post-capitalist frameworks. All of these frameworks indicate that we need to move beyond capitalism if humanity is going to thrive. Based on the idea that sharing and the commons can be an alternative to capitalism and private ownership, the community fridge I studied aligned with this assertion. It can be seen as an anticapitalist initiative outside the market, challenging the dominant capitalist narrative of individualism and competition (Gibson-Graham, 2006). In addition to being seen as an initiative based on the commons, it can also be seen as a mutual aid initiative, as it aligns with the principles of mutual aid that challenge capitalism’s values (Spade, 2020). Although not all participants specifically identified the community fridge as an anticapitalist or a mutual aid initiative, they recognized it as a novel concept different from the market. The host organization also positioned the fridge as a strategy for combatting inequality, a systemic issue inherent to capitalism. Overall, while the community fridge may not be explicitly anticapitalist or pursuing the goal of overthrowing capitalism, it challenges capitalist values and narratives and aligns with the principles of the commons and mutual aid, which puts it in opposition to capitalism.
When analyzed through Wright’s framework for emancipatory social transformation, the community fridge was also seen as a non-capitalist activity that challenged the dominance of capitalism by providing an alternative outside of the market (2010; 2019). Through its novelty, the fridge inspired new potentialities for alternatives to capitalist behaviours that many participants had never considered. In addition, the analysis showed that although there was an understanding of inequality present at the fridge, there was not to the same extent the presence of the values of democracy and community, which have to be present in combination with equality to move towards a better system than capitalism (Wright, 2019). The lack of true democracy was partly due to limitations imposed by the state and the restrictive ownership structures under capitalism since the host is technically the owner of the fridge and ultimately assumes the liability that accompanies ownership. Without a strong sense of community and democracy, the sentiments that were rooted in inequality are not necessarily anticapitalist but instead could fit into a broadly liberal conception which has been largely integrated into modern capitalism.
In answering my research questions, the data I collected suggests that the community fridge has the potential to bring about change, ranging from introducing new ways of consuming food to inspiring activism and long-term strategies to challenge capitalism. However, for the community fridge to fully realize its potential for social transformation, it may need a more explicit strategy for change and integration with a broader movement. The data also indicated that the community fridge could be seen as contributing to Wright’s strategy of erosion. However, more could be done to effectively enact this strategy by motivating fridge users to make change. On the sub-questions, the data shows that the community fridge can encourage critical thinking outside of capitalism for those who are already critical of it but may not have the same impact on those who are not critical of capitalism already. Lastly, the community fridge can address basic needs for physical sustenance and community connection, but it may not enable human flourishing without a broader vision or strategy for change.
This research project explored the potential of everyday actions outside of capitalism, such as sharing, in promoting social transformation. However, the findings indicated that while accessing the community fridge addressed immediate needs, it did not contribute significantly to eroding capitalism or inspiring broader social change. The research highlights the need for clearer communication of emancipatory values and articulation of a utopian vision to drive social transformation. It also emphasizes the importance of addressing politics and the state, including legislation and rules around ownership, to enable alternative initiatives to thrive. To be part of a broader strategy for social transformation, community resource-sharing initiatives need to mobilize participants to engage in movements and organize for changes in legislation and governance that support non-market based systems.
In conclusion, there is a need for initiatives like community fridges that address basic needs, but these initiatives can go beyond solving immediate problems. They can mobilize collective action, contribute to broader social transformation, and move towards a better world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that unforeseen events can profoundly impact our lives and how we perceive the world. Capitalism is not sustainable, and as more crises like pandemics arise, we must start building alternatives to fill the gaps it leaves behind. By participating in mobilizing, organizing, and creating alternatives, we can challenge the hegemony of capitalism. Community fridges and sharing, when implemented strategically, can play a role in transforming society and emancipating us from capitalism’s grip. They are a tool for change in the present that can open doors to other possibilities we may not currently imagine.
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Kim, W. (2023, March 17). Why are groceries so expensive? Food billionaires are raking in on inflation. Vox. https://www.vox.com/money/23641875/food-grocery-inflation-prices-billionaires
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