Have you spotted an old fridge on your block, possibly painted in bright colors and surrounded by frequent visitors? You’ve probably stumbled upon your local community-generated food-sharing program, also known as a community fridge.
Community fridges offer free food — from fresh produce to home-cooked meals — along with sanitary products and other health-related supplies to communities in need, no questions asked. Normally run by volunteers or individuals, the fridges are publicly accessible, and supplies are almost completely sourced from local generosity. While they’ve been around for years, community fridges have recently gotten more attention as a way for people to support each other in pandemic times.
Community fridges are much more than charity or interesting sidewalk art. They’re a prime example of bottom-up, mutual aid initiatives that put resources directly into the hands of communities that need them the most, veering from the model of charity-based food programs, which put the “power” of resource allocation into the hands of the few and often have criteria for who receives aid. As Free99Fridge, a network of “solidarity” fridges in Atlanta, explains on their site, “This differs from a traditional charity, with the goal of empowerment.”
Community fridges have gotten more attention as a way for people to support each other in pandemic times.
The beginnings of the community fridge movement are often credited to European food-sharing initiatives, like the Foodshare program started in 2014 in Berlin, Germany. What began as an anti-food waste movement quickly expanded. Freedge, an international network established in 2014 to promote and support community fridges, documents their use on every continent except Antartica, and at least 200 registered fridges across the United States.
The current food sharing movement in America is a response to growing food insecurity, made worse this year by financial insecurity caused by COVID-19. According to research by Feeding America, the nation’s largest nonprofit hunger relief organization, more than 50 million Americans were estimated to face food insecurity during 2020. With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb, community fridges can provide another safe way to volunteer while staying close to home.
There are a variety of models — ones that operate within larger city-wide networks, like those within Los Angeles Community Fridges (LACF), a decentralized network of community fridges run by volunteers, and A New World In Our Hearts NYC, as well as those stocked, cleaned, and managed by individuals.
Want to get involved, or even start your own? Consider the following advice from community fridge programs across the country:
1. Want to support a fridge that already exists?
First, find a fridge near you.
Don’t be quick to assume your neighborhood lacks one of these food-sharing initiatives if you haven’t spotted one already — go online to find where they are. Freedge has a searchable map of all affiliated fridge locations around the world. If you’re in Los Angeles, LACF has a searchable database of fridge locations that displays the fridge’s current stock and what is needed. A New World in Our Hearts posts all fridge locations on its Instagram page.
Many fridge programs operate and organize online, so hit up #communityfridge or #mutualaid on social media sites — Instagram is a good place to start — if you still can’t find a local fridge.
Pinpoint a community need.
A community fridge’s resources are based entirely on need and the availability (or lack) of certain foods, services, or supplies. Connect with your neighbors, other mutual aid networks, or the fridge organizers themselves to figure out what is needed before donating.
LACF’s Kira Morrison says volunteers are “always talking to community members, checking in to see what the needs are, and, you know, trying to adapt to those needs.”
Fridge networks address food justice and food waste; they also, according to Morrison, connect housing and racial injustices. In urban areas like Los Angeles, the rate of food insecurity is often higher in communities of color, for instance, South L.A.’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. Nutritional deficits lead to preexisting health conditions, which factor into the high rates of Black patients contracting COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In a perfect world, our city would be providing everything that the community needs,” Morrison says, “but that’s not where we are right now. So, in the meantime, we have to take the initiative ourselves to take care of each other.”
Figure out how it works.
Most publicly accessible fridges are available 24/7 to use and donate to, though every fridge has its own guidelines and procedures. LACF, for instance, uses an online check-in system to monitor fridge donations — visitors scan QR codes on each fridge they visit to log current stock.
In non-COVID times, most community fridges stock all kinds of food, from homemade leftovers to restaurant surpluses. LACF coordinates with local restaurants, food banks, and nonprofits to add a varied supply of food and other supplies to each of its fridges. But due to the pandemic, some groups like LACF no longer accept homemade food. Instead, the network asks you to stock its fridge with store-bought meals, produce that can be washed and sanitized, and canned or boxed nonperishables like soup or grains.
Typical acceptable food items include fresh produce, bottled water, canned goods, nonperishable items like pasta and rice, drinks that are not alcoholic, milk (and milk alternatives), frozen meat, eggs, and bread. Avoid raw meat, unsealed, homemade meals, and unlabelled, multi-ingredient meals (to protect those with allergies).
Non-food items are also helpful. For instance: hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, baking soda, pet supplies, baby formula, individually wrapped eating utensils, and hygiene products.
Check with the fridge’s owners directly — guidelines are generally posted on web sites or social media — to find out what users need most.
Expand your volunteering.
Community fridge programs rely on more than just donations. Most are run by dedicated teams of volunteers that handle a variety of tasks, from fridge maintenance to food transportation and social media management.
If you can’t donate food or other resources, consider donating your time. LACF encourages people to sign up as transportation volunteers to drive food from donating businesses to fridge locations. Volunteers can also help field inquiries from prospective volunteers or promote LACF’s fridges on social media. There’s even a need for people with experience in graphic design, Morrison says.
Free99Fridge suggests multiple ways to get involved. While LACF only accepts donations in kind (food, supplies, or your time), Free99Fridge also relies on monetary support for things like storage for extra stock, gas for transportation, and operating costs of the fridges themselves. You can still donate to its efforts on GoFundMe, which just reached its goal of $60,000. Free99Fridge also hosts an Amazon Wishlist for supplies, and needs a steady stream of volunteers to maintain fridges and host community food drops in the network’s neighborhoods. Sign up here.
A New World in Our Hearts, in New York City, requires hundreds of volunteers to maintain its network of fridges. During the colder winter months, the network has sought out volunteers with carpentry experience to construct fridge shelters at each location, and those with vehicles to help move food and fridges around the city. Sign up to volunteer with the network in any capacity using this google form.
2. Want to start your own community fridge?
If you’re interested in starting up your own fridge, you’ll need to think first about logistics: Where and how will you operate what is essentially a miniature kitchen, shop, and mutual aid program?
Consider the location.
Morrison recommends starting as local as possible, on your street or block.
While it seems like the easiest location to place a fridge is right in front of your own home, that’s not always possible. Many community fridges in the LACF network are outside art collectives and community spaces, like the Crenshaw Diary Mart, or in front of small businesses that are comfortable with groups gathering outside. Of course, you’ll need to get permission from business or property owners before placing the fridge.
Reference Freedge’s guide to state laws on public food-sharing if you’re unsure about the legality of setting up a community fridge and handing out food in your neighborhood. While food health codes generally only apply to food businesses, community fridge programs have been shut down by city ordinances in the past. Some cities also require a fridge to have liability insurance to operate. (Freedge offers liability protection for all of its partnered fridges; you can sign up as a Freedge host here.)
Accessibility is extremely important. Keep these things in mind:
The location must have access to a reliable electrical outlet.
The fridge should be easily visible to the public. Avoid placing them behind locked gates or inside buildings.
The area should be easy to access for people of varying abilities, not up stairs or in tight or cramped spaces. it shouldn’t block public access, either.
Consider your area’s weather — is there any kind of structure that can offer shade and shelter from rain and snow?
In Freedge’s guide to starting a community fridge, the organization says to consider front yards, churches, or a local school campus, if possible. Freedge also says the best locations are mixed commercial and residential spaces — areas that have established communities (and thus consistent donors and takers) as well as access to businesses that can provide extra resources, like diverse foot traffic and leftover food.
Find a helpful host.
If you have the space or run a business, community center, or manage an accessible location, consider taking on the fridge yourself. Many fridge networks, including Free99Fridge and Freedge, have application processes to join their networks as hosts and receive guidance.
If you can’t host a community fridge on your own property, you’ll need to find a host willing to take on the responsibility of providing consistent electricity and fridge access. Hosts range from individuals allowing fridges in their front yards to organizations like community centers or mutual aid groups, and businesses and other institutions that allow fridges on their private property. Freedge recommends finding a non-food, individually owned business — this allows easy, simple communication with the owner and prevents conflict with food-permit regulations that could affect food vendors. Morrison says the host should be enthusiastic and available for frequent conversation with volunteers or fridge organizers.
According to LACF’s Frequently Asked Questions, potential hosts should also meet the following needs:
Businesses or hosts should be willing to provide electrical hook ups.
If the host is a business, it must have a good relationship with the community.
Hosts must be OK with unhoused community members accessing the fridge.
If the business sells food, it’s preferred that it also accepts EBT. While food in the fridge is free, low-income visitors may use host businesses to supplement their free meals.
Free99Fridge differentiates between what they call “plugs” and “hosts”— plugs provide the physical space needed for the fridge; hosts coordinate the maintenance — though one business or person can be both. The organization says the group’s “plug” must be willing to allow 24/7 access to fridges.
Keep in mind the potential costs of hosting a fridge. The network estimates that Atlanta hosts pay around $150 in electricity costs every year. In Freedge’s guide, the organization says the starting cost for fridges in its network ranges from $500 to $1,000, and monthly electricity costs are generally around $15 a month.
Build your volunteer team.
Sustainable community fridge programs require at least a few dedicated volunteers to regularly stock, clean, and promote the use of the fridge. Morrison joined her fridge team after connecting with volunteers on the official LACF Slack channel, which is open for anyone interested in starting or volunteering with a community fridge. LACF recommends connecting with other organizers in your community and finding interested residents (preferably those born and raised in the neighborhood) to fill up your team.
LACF also recommends establishing a point person (sometimes also the host) to coordinate fridge maintenance. The team should figure out a stocking schedule and assign specific tasks to different members — these could include a weekly cleaning, a transportation team to bring and stock food, and someone who checks in daily to report the fridge’s current stock and needs. Teams should also work alongside local mutual aid networks.
Find LACF’s full team checklist here.
Source your fridge and figure out a reliable food stream.
When it comes to picking out the fridge itself, Freedge says commercial glass-front fridges are the best: They offer a way for visitors to quickly scan food items, and they generally attract more attention. If you can’t source a commercial fridge, an older common one works just fine. LACF recommends finding older, used fridges for free online, on sites like Craigslist and online message boards like Nextdoor. Both Freedge and LACF also suggest adding decorations and signs to draw attention to the fridge, as well as contact information for users.
A fridge should have regular food donors, whether those are individuals or local businesses. LACF differentiates between charitable (food given intentionally to the fridge as aid) vs. non-charitable (food that cannot be sold or is in excess) donations. Ideally, a fridge relies on both to create a highly sustainable stock of food. The network suggests reaching out to local bakeries, grocery stores, catering companies, and restaurants about non-charitable donations of excess food that cannot be sold (like blemished produce) or other items that would otherwise be thrown out. Try to find businesses that are willing to make re-occurring donations. Individual food donations can come from community members, volunteers on your team, or other private donors.
Seek out other funding sources, if needed.
If you are struggling to stock a fridge using only the power of volunteers and community donations, check out community fridge microgrants, offered by already established fridge networks to help fund the creation of new ones. Freedge’s microgrants go specifically to fridge construction, including purchasing a fridge and decorating and constructing a fridge shelter. A New World In Our Hearts NYC is offering $500 microgrants for construction of new fridges and shelters in New York City.
Stay connected online.
Social media has been essential for many community fridge programs started during the pandemic. LACF, which began in late June, now has 1,000 members and 24,000 followers on Instagram, where organizers post most of the fridges’ information. Free99Fridge hosts Instagram Live sessions to teach people how to operate their own fridges and interview fridge organizers from around the country.
“Some of the fridges have their own social media, like the East Hollywood and Eagle Rock fridges in Los Angeles, and that’s great for putting the word out if certain fridges really need certain supplies,” Morrison explains.
Whether or not your main mode of communication is through social media sites like Instagram, community fridge programs must stay connected with communities, nonprofits, and local business to keep providing sustainable resources.
LACF says that responding to the needs of fridge users and offering means for feedback and collaboration are essential for long term work. The organization’s checklist includes this piece of advice:
Accept criticism without pushback. Make adjustments to your fridge set up as necessary. Again, listen to your community and respond to community needs.
Morrison says the mutual aid efforts of food-sharing networks like LACF show that people are becoming more aware of the inequities around them, and she thinks these community members will continue participating in community-based mutual aid. “I feel pretty optimistic that the momentum will keep going even after the pandemic is over,” she says, “because the needs will definitely still be there.”