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A brightly painted community refrigerator sitting on a city sidewalk.
The Love Fridge in Chicago, IL
Kathleen Hinkel

Community fridges are lifelines for the neighborhoods they serve

You might have noticed fridges popping up where you live. Here’s how they work.

Sitting on the sidewalk near the intersection of Grand Avenue and Plaza Street, the colorful Coconut Grove community fridge is impossible to miss. When I arrive at the location with volunteer Lily Winter, the first thing I notice is the writing inscribed on top of the fridge’s painted design of lush foliage. It reads, in swirling calligraphy: “Life Is Better Shared.”

This fridge is part of the Miami Community Fridge network. In August 2020, the grassroots organization Buddy System MIA began placing refrigerators filled with fresh food across Miami-Dade County. Anyone can access these fridges for free, and the organization’s unofficial motto is “take what you need, leave what you can.”

“It’s so convenient,” Winter said. “Lots of people walk by to check out the stuff while I’m filling it. One of the ladies lives right up there.” She pointed to one of the apartments above the storefront. “I tell her, ‘Anything’s yours. It’s your fridge, it’s my fridge, its everyone’s fridge here.’”

Winter serves as the location manager of this fridge. She comes to check on it several times a week, including on Fridays, which is restock day. Every week, through a partnership with Good Samaritan Meals, Trader Joe’s donates 1,000 to 5,000 pounds of excess food to Buddy System MIA. Volunteers pick up the donations, which would otherwise be thrown out by the grocery chain, and use them to fill the Miami Community Fridge’s seven locations.

“We always get a lot of produce,” Winter explained, as she unloads boxes of food from her car. “There’s canned food, which goes on top of the fridge. And eggs this week! The eggs are great because normally we don’t get a lot of them.”

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, free fridge programs have sprung up rapidly across the United States. The database Freedge, which maintains a map of community fridges around the world, displayed 12 fridges in the US in March 2020. Now, 160 fridges can be found across 28 states.

Community fridges act as a grassroots response to a dire food insecurity crisis. Although official data is not yet available, Feeding America estimated that the number of food-insecure Americans almost doubled to 50 million people in 2020. Being food insecure means that they faced “the uncertainty of having, or unable to acquire, enough food due to insufficient money or other resources.”

“Covid-19 has only amplified and maximized every problem that was here. For all the people who were starving then, more people are starving now,” said Dion Dawson, the founder of Project Dream Fridge in Englewood, Chicago.

Community fridges are especially critical in neighborhoods where traditional forms of food assistance are difficult to access. For instance, individuals without cars are often unable to reach food bank locations. In Miami, Winter told me that some food distribution sites adopted car-only policies due to Covid-19 concerns and turn away individuals who arrive by foot or on bicycles. Community fridges act as a more Covid-friendly alternative: They don’t require people to congregate together, and volunteers all wear masks while they work. Many of the hardest-hit neighborhoods across the country also have a high proportion of undocumented residents who are ineligible for government-provided Covid-19 relief or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Sherina Jones, the founder of Village (Freed)ge, another network of community fridges in Miami, explained that a culture of shame around receiving assistance serves as an additional barrier. “Some people don’t want to come here face to face to receive food. They would rather wait for when nobody’s around. Because the fridge is out here 24/7, people won’t feel as vulnerable.”

While at the Village (Freed)ge, I met Jorel Mayers. He said that he moved to Florida in March 2020 to work as a chef “exactly when the pandemic started. I wasn’t able to work, and I needed some way to feed myself. You come, open up the fridge, and there’s food there. I think that’s the dopest thing ever.”

Although he has been able to find work since then, Mayers is currently without a home. He said, “It’s strict stipulations as far as the assistance you can get. But Sherina gives it out, man. Whatever she gets, she gives it out.”

A person holding up a turnip with greens stands beside a sign that reads “The Detroit community fridge. Fridge rules: Take what you need, leave what you don’t. Label all donations with date and contents and allergies.”
The Detroit Community Fridge.
Courtesy of the Detroit Community Fridge

Many of the largest community fridge networks in the US, like Los Angeles Community Fridges, The Love Fridge, and In Our Hearts NYC, describe themselves as mutual aid groups. Some organizers purposefully distance themselves from the nonprofit model, citing wariness about the corporate and political agendas of large 501(c)(3)s. The Love Fridge’s community agreement, which outlines the principles of the group, explains that they “reject saviorism and practice solidarity, not charity.” Although other community fridge initiatives — especially those found in areas that lack well-established mutual aid collectives — have found it necessary to register as 501(c)(3) organizations, they still strive to center similar principles.

“In Miami, only after becoming a nonprofit were we able to get food donations and to apply for grants,” Jessica Gutierrez, the co-founder of Buddy System MIA, said. “I can see people being against it because they’ve been let down by nonprofits before. It’s something I’m still trying to navigate as an ongoing student of food injustice.”

Gutierrez added, “We make sure that everybody we’re getting funds from are people who align with our mission. I won’t collaborate with people who are going to tell me that I can’t open my big mouth and make food a right.”

When setting up a community fridge, location is one of the most important factors to consider. Every fridge needs a host, or a building that supplies power to keep the appliance running. Organizers partner with hosts who are connected to their communities, and place fridges in areas that face food apartheid. This term, advocated for by food justice activist Karen Washington, notes that certain neighborhoods — especially communities of color — are geographically and financially barred from healthy food options due to factors such as race, geography, and economics.

Fridges are filled from a variety of donation streams. People send money through platforms like Venmo, CashApp, and GoFundMe. Others place anonymous food donations directly into the fridges. Organizers also participate in food rescue efforts, partnering with supermarkets, local businesses, and even other food assistance groups to save food that would otherwise be discarded.

Daniela Domínguez, an assistant professor in counseling psychology at University of San Francisco and author of the paper “Leveraging the Power of Mutual Aid, Coalitions, Leadership, and Advocacy during COVID-19,” argues that “the food, the resources are there, but the government is not prioritizing food insecure communities.” It’s telling that at the same time as a hunger crisis rages across the United States, the Department of Agriculture reports that about 30 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of the country’s consumer and retail food supply is wasted every year.

Eric Von Haynes, an organizer at The Love Fridge in Chicago, told me that a supermarket chain had informed him off the record that they disposed of over $1 million worth of food a week because it was nearing its shelf life. “The illusion of scarcity is based off of capitalism. The average customer just won’t buy things with that short of a shelf life, but it’s still food,” Haynes said. “These sites offer another opportunity to alleviate waste. No one should ever be hungry in this country. Ever.”

Each fridge responds to the needs of its immediate neighborhood. The Richmond Heights fridge, part of the Miami Community Fridge network, serves a large population of houseless people, so volunteers stock it with an abundance of pre-made meals. The Jackson Heights fridge, which is located in one of the most culturally diverse zip codes in New York City and the nation, provides halal meats and has put up fridge guidelines translated into eight languages, including Tagalog, Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin, and Spanish.

Community fridge organizers seek to provide accessibility for all. There is no need to provide an ID or an explanation to use the fridges. There is also no policing of how much food anyone can take.

“We have our fridges set up in a way that is not transactional. It’s about seeing the humanity in one another,” said Tahia Islam, an organizer at the Jackson Heights Community Fridge. “We listen, we hear what the community’s needs are, and we pivot in response. It has really changed the definition of care.”

Beyond providing an essential service, fridges become a fixture of the community. They’re characterized by their brightly colored facades painted by local artists. In The Love Fridge network, the community has even named some of the fridges, giving them endearing titles like “El Refri de la Vida,” “The Love Shack,” and “The Kindness Korner.”

“Someone let me know that she, with a bunch of other people, would have breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the fridge,” Emily Eicher, a co-founder of the Detroit Community Fridge, said. “It gave them a space where they could be their authentic selves, where otherwise they might not have felt heard or seen or cared about. It’s really given people a family.”

A worker in an apron cuts a ceremonial red ribbon held by two other workers across the front of a community fridge.
The Homestead Miami Fridge.
Daniela Gonzalez

Government policies toward community fridges vary widely around the country. The database Freedge offers a list of state-specific legal guides on their website. Organizers also gather on Slack, where one such workspace, the Freedge Learning Network, boasts over 210 members. They trade insights about how to weatherproof fridges, communicate with volunteers, and handle interactions with city officials. Although responses from neighbors are largely positive, organizers also discuss ways to navigate pushback from individuals, landlords, or businesses that might disagree with a community fridge’s mission of providing free food to all members of the community.

In New York, organizers formed Queens Fridges 4 Accountability, a coalition focused on tackling another issue faced by community fridge initiatives — what they call “the appropriation of mutual aid” by politicians. Volunteers like Farudh Majid and Tahia Islam noticed a pattern where local officeholders and political candidates staged photo opportunities in front of fridges, or even opened their own free fridges without communicating with local mutual aid networks, leading to them not getting regularly filled. Queens Fridges 4 Accountability wrote an open letter, signed by more than 70 mutual aid groups around the US, that called for politicians to instead focus on legislative solutions to food insecurity, such as improving the quality of USDA Farmers to Families Food Boxes or making corporate food waste illegal.

“I feel like sometimes, elected officials like the ‘rah, rah’ instead of getting into the gritty work. They like pretty activism that they can post on Instagram,” Majid, an organizer for the Ozone Park Community Fridge, said. “As an officeholder, you have the power to bring forth legislation. That is your lane, so stay in it! We can collaborate in a way that is comprehensive and respectful, without the need for co-opting.”

Civic mobilization among organizers highlights the fact that community fridges are, as Islam put it, “a Band-Aid solution to a deeper-rooted systemic issue.” As the coronavirus pandemic continues, organizations like the World Food Program predict that food insecurity will only worsen in 2021. And as long as problems like racism, economic inequality, and unfair housing practices continue to be underaddressed in public policy, mutual aid movements will be necessary to keep communities afloat.

“We’re just a small downstream solution to an upstream problem. But the work we do is still important,” Alyssa Rogers, another co-founder of the Detroit Community Fridge, said. “Downstream solutions allow the community to imagine pushing for systems to change. It gives hope.”

By the time Winter finishes stocking the Coconut Grove fridge in Miami, it’s brimming with food: paper bags full of fresh bread, an anonymous donation from a local business; ready-to-eat meals from the nonprofit Health in the Hood; produce from Trader Joe’s like eggplants, mandarin oranges, asparagus, and corn.

Winter echoes the sentiment of volunteers around the nation. “It makes me happy that people who are through the cracks can still get access to help. Even if it is just one fridge or one community, it’s something; it makes a difference.”

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