Community Fridges Stay Plugged In As Food Costs Soar

YouIn the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic refrigerators appeared in unexpected places. Volunteers connected the appliances to street corners across cities and towns. These community fridges became free access points for food, with no barriers or gatekeepers—just open the door to supplies, without stigma or oversight. According to activists, the refrigerators were necessary in order to address the food crisis. Two years later, these appliances are more essential than ever as food prices rise.

This is a surprising need for Tajahnae, the founder of ICT Fridge Project, Wichita (Kansas), in which she started. Stocker, who was inspired by the 2020 protests against racial injustice, raised $1500 in order to purchase, decorate, and store a refrigerator with food for downtown Wichita.

She thought that the last thing people should be focusing on was their next meal. The project was not to be stopped, she said. “We know the charitable sector alone cannot solve every problem,” she says. “It’s just a fridge trying to fill in the gap of a grocery store.”

Continue reading: ‘We Will Handle It.’ An Army of Women Is Taking on the Hunger Crisis in Local Communities

The state now has food insecurity policy. Volunteers have helped to make the project financially viable by stocking the fridge with donations. The fridges provide easy access food for the neighborhood—in contrast to the paperwork and bureaucracy that families need to sign up for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “Seeing the barriers of the SNAP program has me thinking they are right: these can be a solution for community members in Wichita.”

In contrast, the ICT Fridge Project says it’s for everyone: “No IDs, no tax papers, take whatever you need. It is open to all, no matter their income, students, families or individuals. Take an apple for a snack, or come get free groceries,” the group says on its website. “The fridge is for us, by us.”

The problems of food security in that fridge’s neighborhood, which is low-income, are anything but unique. The USDA estimates that 10.5% American families will be food insecure in 2020. Now, although statistics aren’t widely available, the non-profit Feeding America says the pandemic has increased food security, and many families who are food insecure don’t qualify for government assistance and instead rely on food banks for extra support.

It’s a stopgap that becomes permanent

Many community fridges are located in urban areas of the United States, and activists have installed them. They’re on street corners, outside cafes, at churches and housing developments. They are kept stocked by volunteers, who donate food from restaurants and make ready-to-eat meals.

People working in mutual aid movements—often led by women of color to address hunger needs in their communities—led the charge to create fresh, free food networks. Germany’s Foodsharing group was the original inspiration, and community fridges were quickly established around the globe as a temporary solution to a dire situation.

In Miami, volunteers fill community fridges up to five times per day—and Kristin Guerin, who runs a community fridge network called Buddy System MIA, estimates they typically are empty within an hour. “The need is still really high.”

LJ Abraham is a Memphis community organizer who manages three community refrigerators. She assumed that the greatest need would occur during the pandemic. She is now finding out that people are being squeezed by inflation and ending pandemic aid. “The need is a lot greater now than in 2020,” she says. “There’s inflation, the rising cost of groceries and rent going up, so a lot of people are looking for help.”

Abraham became inspired by a Portland news clip that featured a community refrigerator. She immediately thought about her community. Now the group, 901 Community Fridges, also accepts donations of non-perishable items—tampons, diapers, baby items, “anything that might be needed in the community.” The fridges are kept in communal spaces near community centers, churches, or housing developments.

It also supports other programs that promote food justice. For example, volunteers pack and prepare leftover meals from other food distribution groups for the fridges so they don’t go to waste. It’s kept stocked constantly by a network of volunteers and direct donations from other residents.

Her partner in the community fridge project, Ross Rives, echoes Stocker’s note that fridges have few barriers to access, unlike typical assistance programs. All fridges can be accessed at any time and by anyone. “This program has no real gatekeepers,” he says.

The doorway to greater goals

Rives and Abraham have also learned valuable lessons about people’s needs beyond food. A church hosted a fridge that was having difficulty keeping it cold. After a little digging, the group realized it wasn’t the fridge malfunctioning: someone was unplugging the appliance to charge their phone. The group was able to help the person locate an outlet inside the church so the fridge didn’t need to be unplugged. “Food is so tangential to so many other things,” says Rives.

901 Community Fridges was looking to rent a place to offer laundry service, education and immigrant services. “This one small program can expand for our city and our state,” Abraham says. “I think it’s super important to focus on starting small, learning, building and creating something meaningful.”

In Miami, community members paper the fridges with a host of flyers for services and citywide programs—just like a household fridge might hold sticky notes and invitations. “The fridges have become small community centers,” says Guerin, who recently advertised a free citywide kids summer camp on the fridges. “It’s so difficult to get the word out, and we have a stable way to get the information out.”

Others have continued to be community organizations despite new tragedies. Following the shooting massacre in a nearby supermarket, a Buffalo community fridge became a meeting place. With the area’s only supermarket closed, organizers were part of a community-wide effort to ensure residents had access to groceries.

People who manage community fridge programs say they are more likely to keep their gadgets around for the long-term, so long as there’s a market. Guerin says: “They have become a staple, and they will be for a while.”

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