In several city neighborhoods in Boston, community refrigerators have begun to be set up by volunteers in an effort to provide food for people who may be struggling to make ends meet. The volunteers get permission to install a refrigerator, use electricity, and make the refrigerator available to anyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
People from the community donate milk, eggs and other perishable items. Alongside the refrigerator are pantry shelves for donations of pre-packaged goods or other food items that don't need refrigeration. Whoever needs food can go to the refrigerator, check to see what's available, and take what they need.
The premise is not dissimilar from the Little Free Library movement where people build public bookcases for people to donate or take books. In the case of efforts like Boston Community Fridge, however, it's the body rather than the mind that is fed with the donations.
A reader we're calling Siobhan read about the refrigerators, noted that one had been installed near her neighborhood, and began to spend an extra $15 to $20 every couple of weeks when she went food shopping to stock up on food she could leave in the refrigerator or on the shelves. Each time she has made a drop off, before she leaves people arrive and take a can or carton.
"They are always quite nice," writes Siobhan. "It's rarely the same people I see taking food from the refrigerator."
Siobhan loves the idea of giving back particularly at a time when unemployment is higher than ever and people are struggling to make ends meet. She acknowledges how fortunate she feels to have a good job, a steady income and the ability to put food on her own table.
"I want to tell my friends about the fridges because I think it's such a great idea," writes Siobhan. But she worries that she might sound like she is bragging or acting self-righteous if she says to her friends, "I've been donating food to these community refrigerators. I think you should too."
"I know I'm privileged to have as much as I do," writes Siobhan, "and I don't want to come off sounding superior or judgmental just because I do this. I just think it's a good idea."
There's no reason for Siobhan not to tell her friends about the community refrigerators in the neighborhood. If, as she indicates, she mostly believes it's a good idea for those who have plenty to share with others who don't, then the right thing to do is to focus the conversation with her friends on the opportunity rather than on how much she has given over the past several weeks.
If Siobhan simply asks her friends: "Have you heard about Boston Community Fridge?" and lets the conversation flow from there, that's a great way to start. If the friends ask her whether she's donated food, she should certainly tell them. But by leading with an emphasis on the effort rather than on herself, she can rest easy that she is making her mention far more about giving to those in need than about bragging about a good deed. If all goes well, if her friends are able, they will drop off a thing of two as well.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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