A Store Where All the Food Is Free
Rina Diane Caballar
Dusk is settling in on a wintry, windy afternoon in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. In the city’s center, a growing group of people gather in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, forming a line in front of a 20-foot-long white shipping container with a kiosk window. Despite the freezing weather, there’s warmth in this gathering: people chatting, smiling, and laughing; a few friendly volunteers welcoming those in line; and other volunteers handing out coffee, hot soup, sandwiches, pies, and curries. “We’re like family,” says Sandra*, who has been volunteering for The Free Store for more than two years.
The Free Store is run entirely by volunteers who redistribute surplus food collected from local bakeries, cafés, restaurants, and catering companies for free to people who need it most—the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, those with health issues, those recently released from prison, students, and refugees. Rather than running a restaurant or storage facility, as a soup kitchen or food bank might, The Free Store focuses on giving out perishable food that would otherwise be thrown away by businesses.
The store opens every weeknight from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. or until food runs out. Items collected that day are sorted and stocked on shelves, visible to customers who make their selections through the window. Volunteers then bag up the food for customers, who take it to go.
At the helm of The Free Store is co-founder and director Benjamin Johnson, who was inspired by an art installation run by local artist Kim Paton for two weeks in 2010. “It looked like a normal shop with food-filled shelves but everything was free,” he says. “The store challenged people’s relationship with commercial retail spaces when money is taken out of the equation.”
Johnson learned that several cafés supplied the store with perfectly edible items, unsold at the end of the day. He realized that this otherwise discarded food could help sustain a community, and after months of research and planning, The Free Store opened in November 2010.
According to Johnson, The Free Store redistributes anywhere between 800 and 1,500 food items to around 100 new and returning people each weeknight. These food items are sourced from 65 suppliers across Wellington’s central business district. “I’ve found that every café has surplus food but they don’t think it’s a significant amount,” he says. “Some days they might sell nearly everything and give us only one scone, a muffin, or a salad. But because we get food from 65 different cafés, all the little bits add up and their contribution becomes worthwhile.”
A year ago, French café La Cloche Central started donating sandwiches, pastries, and cakes to The Free Store. “We’re really happy to work with them and help people,” says store manager Allan Blondeau. “Before our partnership with The Free Store, we would give away our leftover food to staff members. Some [of it] would end up in trash bins,” he says.
When The Free Store started, their offerings were limited to scones, muffins, pies, and other baked goods. But they’ve since found healthier food sources. Johnson says they get a lot of good quality, nutritious food from catering companies—hearty meals like curry, roast chicken, and lamb with potatoes and carrots. And so far, there’s always been enough for everyone who comes in. They typically receive the most amount of food donations during their busy days of Monday, Tuesday, and Friday and the least amount on Wednesday and Thursday when there are fewer customers. “I can’t really explain it. There’s this perfect equilibrium. It’s quite amazing how it works out,” says Johnson.
At the heart of The Free Store is a team of dedicated volunteers. Johnson says that they have 15 to 20 volunteers daily whose wide range of tasks include collecting food from suppliers, sorting it, handing it out, making coffee and tea to serve customers, and engaging with people to make sure they feel welcome and included. “Out of those volunteers, I would say about 10 of them are people who first came in as customers,” he says. “We have people taking the food because they need it, but they also want to be part of helping and giving back.”
Before becoming a volunteer, Sandra was lining up for food. “I was in a difficult situation. I was struggling to pay rent and my partner lost some of his job hours,” she says. After three months of lining up, Sandra decided it was time to help out. She started as one of The Free Store’s friendly faces, meeting and greeting people as they arrived, then moved on to giving out coffee and tea, now she handles the food sorting. “The best part of volunteering is getting to know people and taking them as they are without judgment,” says Sandra.
More than an organization helping curb waste while providing food to low-income people, The Free Store is creating an accessible community of friends feeding each other. “The Free Store isn’t hidden in some back alley,” Johnson says. “We’re right on the street front where people from all walks of life can participate. We’re all friends and we look after each other as a community.”
Johnson says that in other parts of society, the people who come to The Free Store—whether they’re homeless, have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, or were just released from prison—are seen as conundrums. “For us, they aren’t problems to solve but friends to know. And this changes the whole dynamic because it provides a place of belonging for people,” he says. “People aren’t defined by what makes them vulnerable. Beyond those labels, they’re deep, rich, complex human beings.”
It’s this fluid dynamic of giving and receiving—with customers in need ending up as committed volunteers—that makes The Free Store a unique community. It’s also inspired similar free stores to open around the country.
“I’ve been changed and shaped by The Free Store community more than I’ve probably changed and shaped it,” says Johnson. “I think that’s the beauty of The Free Store—it’s not just us helping people, but that together, we learn and grow and we’re all changed.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
All photos provided by Benjamin Johnson.