In the year since Victoria helped Jayne work on four community fridges across Philadelphia with free food, she was amazed at how quickly they ran out. And hungry Philadelphians seem to get food from any refrigerator they can find: in front of a doctor’s office, in an art space, next to an apartment building, and even in a playground.
“The fridges roll over completely every eight hours,” she said. “You put something in there at night. You show up the next morning and it’s gone. “
The refrigerators are just a handful of the vast network of ever-growing community food hubs that have sprung up in cities both large and small across the country.
During the coronavirus pandemic, when the economy was turned upside down and the demand on the blackboards continued to rise in many places, the desire of local food activists to create small places where everyone can pick up a few things at any time is also no questions asked .
While the concept has been around for many years, over the past 18 months the pandemic has inspired the creation of hundreds of new free refrigerators in dozens of cities, making them something that will last.
Ernst Bertone Oehninger, operator of freedge.org, an online list of free refrigerators worldwide, conservatively estimates that there are 400 free refrigerators in the United States and that almost all of them were created in the last 18 months.
The refrigerators keep multiplying, some are breaking out into different business models and offering different products.
A refrigerator project in Chicago not only provides groceries for collection, but also prepares free grocery boxes for local delivery. Another group in Washington state sells not only food, but health-related products as well. A grocery bank in a suburb of Boston has added a free refrigerator to its traditional stationary offering, which is placed in front of a dry cleaner. And a refrigerator project in Los Angeles is providing bedding and other camping items for homeless communities desperate to stay warm.
“It takes a variety of programs and approaches to address the complex problem of hunger in the United States, and community refrigerators can certainly play an important role,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, economics professor and poverty researcher at Northwestern University on the board of directors for Greater Chicago Food depository.
How they work
Free fridges generally operate on a version of a fairly simple motto: “take what you need and leave what you can.”
The aim is to offer people, especially in poor neighborhoods, reliable places where they can get something to eat.
“We have people who go shopping and leave a few extras,” said Jayne.
Some free fridges across the country, sometimes called “freedges,” run on donated food. Others are more likely to work with monetary donations, which are used to buy and give away food.
The South Philadelphia Community Refrigerators rely primarily on donations of staple food items such as cooking oil, coffee, cereal, and other items from boards, grocery stores, nonprofits, and individuals. In addition, the group raises thousands of dollars in donations every month.
Small but mighty
Few people who run free refrigerators have the illusion that they can make a huge, substantial impact at the national level. But every little bit helps.
A report released by the Department of Agriculture earlier this year found that over 10 percent of US households, or nearly 14 million people, remain food insecure.
A total of more than 1.3 million people in Pennsylvania are starving, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit national food banking organization. Philabundance, Philadelphia’s largest food bank, distributed more than 55 million pounds of food last year, serving more than 135,000 people a week.
Food policy experts say even a four-location refrigerator network, such as the one that exists across South Philadelphia, can have a tiny but positive impact. One of the many benefits is that most free fridges never close, unlike blackboards and pantries which have set serving times.
Jayne said community building is an important part of the work she and dozens of other volunteers do.
“People have to eat. That’s really all, “she said. “It is important to me that the needs of my neighbors are met.”
Kristin Guerin, who opened her first free fridge in Miami over a year ago, realizes that the efforts of free fridge organizers are tiny compared to the scale of the problem. But she takes pride in the small effort she made to alleviate hunger.
“A big part of the work that we need to re-focus on is countering that work to make sure we are working towards long-term change,” she said. “Community refrigerators are a plaster. The ultimate goal is to end food insecurity. “
While the Philadelphia Network of Always-Open Refrigerators is one model, another model operates in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, where Dion’s Dream Fridge is open seven hours a day, five days a week.
The refrigerator is operated by Dion Dawson, 30, who said it started its location across from a playground just over a year ago. The organization primarily accepts donations, not giveaways, and prefers to buy groceries from retailers. Dawson said that unlike most individual refrigerator or refrigerator networks, his group is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that has grown from a budget of $ 20,000 to a budget of $ 300,000 over the past year.
“We realized that we had to fill our fridge with brand new products so that we could stabilize the quality and be sure that it was as effective as possible,” he said. “We have been filling our fridge from there every day since September 11, 2020. We do not accept donations or mutual help. “