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‘Food brings us together’: TV chef Big Zuu on the benefits of community fridges

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-12-15

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“I’ve eaten Afghan food before,” says Big Zuu , who presents Big Zuu’s Big Eats on Dave, “But today I’ve learned exactly how these women cook their stews with spices, and how they put a certain type of berry and currant in their rice. It reminded me that I’d never get that experience online – you might see a TikTok video or something, but it’s not the same as being shown in person by an auntie who’s been cooking it for 20 years who says ‘and this is how I make the rice’.”

The rapper and TV cook has spent the morning at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) in Feltham, west London, being shown how to cook the tastiest, authentic Afghan cuisine – and now it’s finally time to sit down and eat.

The association – which helps support refugees and asylum seekers – is one of many places to benefit from a wide-reaching Community Fridge Network, which received a massive boost when Co-op gave its support to the environmental charity Hubbub. Local businesses drop off surplus food (fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away), and members of the public can visit the fridge and take this food home for free, without being questioned about eligibility or referral. The scheme brings communities together and gives people the chance to learn new skills such as helping household budgets go further.

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  • Volunteer chef Najia Noory and Big Zuu

But as Zuu is finding out today, helping solve food waste isn’t where the project ends. Alongside picking up cooking tips – expect these to make an appearance on new recipes on his socials soon – he has seen first-hand all the community work that the ACAA volunteers carry out on site; from offering English lessons and professional support and guidance, to running sports clubs. Once all 250 new venues being funded by the partnership between Co-op and Hubbub are up and running, there will be 500 in the UK that are part of the Community Fridge Network – and they’ll save an estimated 34m meals from going to waste each year.

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Food at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association. Photograph: Dan Ross/Guardian
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  • Food is served at the association; the Community Fridge is open for all to take what they need

“The beautiful thing about communities,” says Zuu, “is that food brings us all together. Our communities are based on the people, and if you give the people a base to come together and work together and be involved in each other’s lives, it gives us so much scope to become better and help each other.”

The opportunity to give something back to the community is what attracted ACAA volunteers Farah Ashraf, a graphic design intern, and Alice Bletsoe, who helps coach the Afghan and Muslim girls’ football team.

Related: ‘We’re teaching young people essential life skills through dance’: inside Blackpool’s Skool of Street community project

Ashraf creates leaflets and social media content for the association, and previously hadn’t heard about the idea of community fridges, but has quickly seen the benefits: “Our fridges are used on a daily basis. We have a lot of people come in, especially those who need advice and support. Everyone is welcome to come and sit together to eat lunch. It’s a great way for people to socialise, meet new people and feel more comfortable. I’ve been really amazed how beneficial it’s been to the community.”

The Co-op funding for Hubbub was made possible by Co-op members due to the success of the retailer’s membership scheme. Through the scheme, 2p of every pound members spend on Co-op-branded products is shared between Co-op’s Community Partnerships Fund and Local Community Fund . The aim of both funds is to give local communities the support to help bring people together and bolster their resilience.

Bletsoe, who applied for the funding to set up the community fridge, says the scheme has become a launch pad for many other activities. “We decided to apply for funding to be able to expand the set-up we already had started here,” she says, explaining that every week they share food with people visiting for activities like ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes and planned to open the scheme up to all.

“We do cookery classes, and a women’s support group has been doing gardening lessons. Now we’re thinking they could grow herbs and that would link nicely with the community fridge. We’ve been given a great chance to expand what we do, and advertise it to the wider neighbourhood.”

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  • ACAA volunteer Farah Ashraf (left) and Juliette O’Loughlin, Co-op coordinator

​​Ashraf adds: “This project helps to bring people together from communities and cultures who wouldn’t usually have the means to interact. As a result, I’ve been learning how people can have a means to identify, empathise with and support each other’s personal circumstances.”

Post-pandemic, much has been said about the idea of “building back better” and it’s perhaps through grassroots schemes such as the Community Fridge Fund that this can start to happen. There’s high spirits buzzing around these local collectives, says Zuu, from his day at the heart of the operation. “The energy in the room was crazy, it was a beautiful thing to see.

“I kept thinking this will be something in the future that they will look back on and say: ‘Look what we started, look what we were part of,’ and that’s empowering. It’s also just for starters, because when this builds up, you never know where it can lead.”

To find a fridge near you and how you can support the Community Fridge Network, visit Coop.co.uk

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