Freedges, or “free refrigerators,” continue to grow nationwide

In the year since Victoria Jayne placed four community fridges across Philadelphia with free food, she has been amazed at how quickly they empty. And hungry Philadelphians seem to be picking up food from any refrigerator they can find: outside a doctor’s office, near an art space, next to a building, and even near a playground.

“The refrigerators, they completely turn over every eight hours,” she said. “You put something on at night. You show up the next morning and go.

Refrigerators are just a handful of the vast network of ever-expanding community food centers that have been launched across the country, in cities large and small.

During the coronavirus pandemic, as the economy was turned upside down and the demand on food banks continued to increase in many places, the desire of local food activists also created small locations where n Anyone can pick up a few items at any time with no questions asked.

While the concept has been around for many years, the pandemic has inspired the creation of hundreds of new free fridges in dozens of cities over the past 18 months and made it into something that is here to stay.

Ernst Bertone Oehninger, who runs freedge.org, an online list of free refrigerators in the world, cautiously estimates that the United States has 400 free refrigerators, and almost all of them have been created in the past 18 months.

Refrigerators keep proliferating, and some are moving into different business models and offering other products.

A refrigerator project in Chicago not only provides food for pickup, but also sets up boxes of free produce for local delivery. Another group in Washington state offers not only food, but health-related products as well. A suburban Boston food bank has expanded its traditional brick-and-mortar offering to include a free refrigerator, set up in front of a dry cleaners. And a refrigerator project in Los Angeles offers bedding and other camping-related items for homeless communities desperate to stay warm.

People rally to get free fresh produce from the Dion’s Dream refrigerator in Chicago on November 16. Evan Jenkins for NBC News

“It takes a whole host of programs and approaches to eradicate the multifaceted problem of hunger in the United States, and community refrigerators can certainly play an important role,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, economics professor and expert in poverty at Northwestern University, which is a board member of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

How they work

Free refrigerators typically operate on a fairly simple version of a motto: “Take what you need and leave what you can.” “

The aim is to provide reliable places for people to eat, especially in neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

“We have people shopping and leaving extras,” Jayne said.

Some free refrigerators across the country, sometimes called “fridges,” run on donated groceries. Others operate more on cash donations, which are used to purchase food to donate.

Community refrigerators in South Philadelphia rely primarily on donations of basic items like cooking oil, coffee, grains, and other items from food banks, grocery stores, nonprofits, and individuals. In addition, the group collects thousands of dollars in donations per month.

Small but mighty

Few of the people who use free refrigerators have the illusion that they can have a large and substantial impact nationwide. But every little bit counts.

A report released this year by the Department of Agriculture found that more than 10 percent of U.S. households, or nearly 14 million people, remain food insecure.

More than 1.3 million people go hungry across Pennsylvania, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit food bank 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, like the ones in South Philadelphia, can have a small but positive impact. One of the many benefits is that most free fridges never close, unlike food banks and pantries that have fixed dispensing times.

Jayne said community building is an essential part of the work she and dozens of other volunteers do.

“People need to eat. That’s really all there is to it, ”she said. “It is important to me that the needs of my neighbors are met.

Kristin Guerin, who launched her first free fridge in Miami over a year ago, acknowledges the efforts of free fridge organizers are tiny compared to the scale of the problem. But she’s proud of the little effort she’s made to alleviate hunger.

A community refrigerator in Miami. Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images

“A lot of the work we need to refocus on is countering that work to make sure we’re working for long-term change,” she said. “Community refrigerators are a band-aid. The ultimate goal is to end food insecurity.

Different models

While Philadelphia’s always-open refrigerator network is a model, another model operates in the Englewood neighborhood of south Chicago, where Dion’s Dream Fridge is open seven hours a day, five days a week.

The refrigerator is managed by Dion Dawson, 30, who said he started his location across from a playground just over a year ago. The organization mainly accepts cash donations but not food gifts, and it prefers to purchase food from retailers. Dawson said that unlike most personal refrigerators or refrigerator networks, his group is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that has grown in the last year from a $ 20,000 budget. to $ 300,000.

“We realized that we had to fill our refrigerator with brand new products in order to stabilize the quality and make sure it had the most impact possible,” he said. “From there, since September 11, 2020, we fill our fridge every day. We do not take donations or mutual aid.


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