A solitary fridge and an open cupboard with five shelves stand next to each other outside the Besant Nagar Tennis Club in Chennai. They aren’t locked, but a security guard sits beside them with a notebook.
The guard’s job, however, isn’t to protect the items kept there. He’s only there to make sure everything there is fit for people to use.
This is the Ayyamitu Unn, a community fridge and donation counter set up on August 20 by orthodontist Dr Issa Fathima Jasmine.
Every day, from 9am to 7pm, people from nearby areas place fruits, biscuits, water and cooked meals inside the fridge. Others put shoes, socks, clothes, books and more in the shelves. And throughout the day, pavement dwellers, beggars, street children, and anyone else in need can come and take whatever they want from the fridge and shelves. They don’t pay a penny for any of it.
Ayyamittu Unn, Jasmine tells TNM, is a line from a poem Āathichoodi, written by Avvaiyar, a Tamil poet. “It means, share the food with the needy before you eat,” she says.
“I have been living here for a while and I see so many people living in poverty, without a roof over their heads and a meal they can afford. So many walk without shoes. I have had this idea of a community fridge for about four months but could only execute it now,” says the 34-year-old orthodontist, a resident of Besant Nagar and the Managing Trustee of The Public Foundation, which runs the initiative.
Jasmine estimates that at least 100 donors and recipients have been coming to the Ayyamittu Unn each day. She often gets calls from people who want to cook food especially for the community initiative. On Tuesday for instance, a woman called her to say that she wanted to cook 20 portions of sambhar rice and donate them to mark her husband’s birthday.
All the food, she explains, is monitored to ensure that people aren’t just getting rid of discarded or spoilt food. “The donors have to make an entry in the register before they leave, and the guard checks the expiry date and if the food is fit to be consumed. We don’t want people falling sick,” Jasmine asserts.
Although the initiative began only 10 days ago, says Jasmine, the donor response has been heartening. On August 26, for instance, a group of school children arrived at the Tennis Club, wanting to see Jasmine and make donations to Ayyamittu Unn. Not only did they make fresh sandwiches, some of them also promised to save up money so they could buy and donate books.
“I had tears in my eyes. It was so overwhelming,” Jasmine happily recalls.
Jasmine says she has even received enquiries for couriering food and other items from across India and even from Singapore.
While the donors have taken to the concept very quickly, however, the recipients of Ayyamittu Unn have sometimes been more hesitant. Jasmine visits the place four times a day, and tries to speak to some recipients without telling them who she is.
“Many times, they will just come there and look at the items in the fridge. They will not open it. I ask them why, and they say that they don’t know if it’s for them. They say that it must be for the marathon runners, as it’s a route they often take,” Jasmine narrates.
“It makes me a little sad that they are so wary of kindness. They are so used to being ignored that they cannot believe that someone is doing something for them without expecting something in return,” she adds.
Jasmine says that she hopes to start more such community fridges in other areas of Chennai, if time and resources permit. “I just started this with no expectations. But the kind of response it has got makes me believe that there is more hope than we believe,” she smiles.
Photos courtesy: Thepublicfoundation/Facebook