The community fridge

The next trend in food ministries invites communities to tackle food insecurity while eliminating food waste

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterians Today

A child reaching into a fridge (iStock photo)

When Darryahn Knightly, founder of Downtown Friendly, a nonprofit she started during the 2020 Covid lockdown to serve neighbors in need, approached First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn about providing the location and power source for a community fridge, the session wondered if there was enough demand for free food. First Presbyterian is, after all, located in an affluent bedroom community across the Hudson River from Wall Street.

But as the pandemic dragged on, church members noticed increasing demand for items in their food pantry. There was also more sidewalk traffic and inquiries about the availability of the nonperishable goods that were being distributed through bins on the church steps to reduce contact.

That’s when the Rev. Adriene Thorne, senior pastor of First Presbyterian, polled residents on NextDoor, a neighborhood app connecting people to the needs and opportunities among them, to gauge the interest in a community fridge. The response was “so overwhelming,” she recalled. Thorne couldn’t respond to all the inquiries. She also heard from folks in the rent-controlled senior living high-rise across the street about the struggles of living in a neighborhood with no affordable grocery stores.

Establishing a community fridge was beginning to look like the next best way to tackle food insecurity, which was rising in the neighborhood, and it was. Items placed in the free fridge disappeared as quickly as they appeared, observed Thorne. “‘Take what you need, leave what you can spare’ soon became the motto of the food pantry and fridge,” she added.

Mutual aid, not charity

First there were food pantries housed in churches. Then those pantries morphed into the micropantry trend with “blessing boxes” peppering church lawns filled with boxed and canned food available for the taking 24/7. And now, community fridges are appearing across the country, fueled by a pandemic that has not only disrupted food distribution, but has also revealed the growing number of those struggling to put food on the table in neighborhoods that never thought hunger would be a problem.

Community fridges are not a new concept, having been popularized in 2012 by a nonprofit in Germany called Foodsharing. The fridges were a way to cut down on food waste by providing an outlet for people to share abundance and extras. Here in the U.S., the community fridge is to help not just with food waste, but hunger as well. These fridges are also not about charity. Rather, the community fridge movement is about “mutual aid” where those in the community are not just invited to take what they need, but to be part of filling the fridge as well, as Thorne pointed out.

“Mutual aid is when everyday people get together to meet each other’s needs. It is not charity, but the building of new social relations where people give what they can and get what they need, outside of unjust systems of power,” wrote Joel Izlar, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work.

Latisha Springer, who started Free99Fridge, a network of community fridges in Atlanta, noted that community fridges and their focus on mutual aid, while not new, “gained traction in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic and social justice concerns of racism and classism converged.”

For Presbyterians, the community fridge movement, though, sounds a lot like the spirit of mutuality held by the early church in Acts 2. In 2021, several churches and presbyteries began embracing the principles of direct action and established community fridges on their property where people could deliver or pick up meals and pantry items freely at any time of the day or night.

The Presbytery of Northeast New Jersey is one example. A community fridge at the former site of Wolff Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey, which is now a presbytery mission site, is just a midpoint in the food justice ministry being developed by the presbytery. The ribbon-cutting for the fridge took place in January of this year, according to Jerome Lane, community ministry organizer for the presbytery. It is the latest effort to address the growing needs of the homeless and working poor in the city of Newark.

The community fridge stands outside a building that houses a food pantry and clothing closet on the second floor and offices for LIHEAP (Low Income Heat and Energy Assistance Program) on the first floor. “This project is changing the way people look at food insecurity,” said Lane, adding, “There are working-class people with families that still face insecurity.”

The face of hunger revealed

“You know if we put a fridge on your property, it’s going to attract people with a lot of needs that don’t usually hang around here.” Those were Springer’s words of warning to the Rev. David Lewicki when they were discussing a community fridge as part of North Decatur Presbyterian Church’s ministry. Lewicki responded: “I hope it does!”

 

Access to public transportation has made North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, a great location for a community fridge. Courtesy of Beth Waltemath

“People need to see what is happening in their community and be able to help with that,” he said. Lewicki is co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian in Decatur, Georgia, which is in an affluent suburb inside the perimeter of Interstate 285 and accessible through the public bus system. “The city and the county offer so little in terms of resources for our homeless,” said Lewicki, who steered the church to adopt advocacy for affordable housing as part of their strategic plan and to partner with local grassroots organizers on the issue.

“Development continues to soar, but efforts to build or sustain affordable housing declines. I want our community — this church and its neighbors — to see the needs that have become invisible to us because of our location,” he said.

Since the introduction of a community fridge in November 2021, the fridge has been emptied and restocked twice a day. Students from local colleges, health-care workers from the local hospital and nursing homes, families driving in from I-285 and adults of all ages from the extended stay hotels near the interstate exits come on foot, by bus and by car to stock up on individually packaged meals as well as pantry items. There is also a sink for washing fresh fruit and veggies with water pumped from a container of spring water.

Erika Meyer, chair of the church’s community ministries, one of four mission committees, trained church members in the cleaning protocols. Meyer brought the idea of the fridge to the session and introduced Lewicki to Springer when Free99Fridge was looking for a location in the area with ample parking to serve working poor families that experienced food insecurity in the suburbs.

Spreading the word

“Hey neighbors, here’s a good thing we can do together!” was Thorne’s post about the community fridge on NextDoor. It got the attention of an architect who built the shelter for the fridge to match the historic brownstones in the area and a public relations maven who picked up getting the word out for First Presbyterian. A group of school kids, who never had anything to do with the church, saw the post as well and started a newsletter about the fridge and its weekly needs.

“The benefit of doing this initiative through NextDoor is that the church, while we support it, doesn’t own it. It’s called the Brooklyn Heights Community Fridge,” said Thorne.

The Rev. Adriene Thorne of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn says the community fridge is building stronger relationships among neighbors. Courtesy of Adriene Thorne

Thorne often tells her favorite story about the day she was cleaning the fridge wearing a sweatshirt but no clergy collar. “A lady walks by and says, ‘Thanks so much for cleaning our fridge.’ She didn’t know or care who I was,” said Thorne, adding, “The heartbeat of ministry is that you want the people to own it.”

Volunteers primarily use Instagram to make neighbors aware when the fridge needs more food. “There are currently close to 500 Instagram followers of the Brooklyn Heights Community Fridge,” said Thorne. The fridge located at North Decatur Presbyterian Church is also benefiting from social media, becoming the most active of the six locations run by Free99Fridge, which boasts 20,900 followers on Instagram.

Free99Fridge has a robust network of restaurants and caterers willing to donate food, and it mobilizes volunteers to pick up fresh food and produce from these businesses by using a designated Slack channel with over 1,200 subscribers. Calls to action appear regularly on Instagram as do pop-up events for community cleanups or to share produce donated in bulk through a gratis farmers market format. Volunteers love sharing photos of the meals they prepared for each location and comment graciously when businesses donate in bulk. All this online engagement expands the reach and volunteer base of community fridges.

Additional benefits abound

Stocking and cleaning are not the only activities that happen around community fridges. Mothers have sold their arts and crafts at special events to stock the Brooklyn Heights Community Fridge. In December, First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn held a “Crockpots and Caroling” event for people to share soup and song around the fridge.

“I’ve gotten to know people I wouldn’t have otherwise known, and I’ve become aware of the patterns of our unhoused neighbors,” Thorne said about what the community fridge has done for her and her congregation. Thorne, along with two of her neighborhood collaborators, have been featured on the local news and in newspapers, and recognized through multiple civic awards since the fridge officially launched in October 2021. Thorne recalled an encounter with a stranger who said, “This is the church that does things!”

As for Springer, she believes the community fridge trend will continue beyond any pandemic needs. “It should be a natural part of communities,” she said.

Thorne couldn’t agree more. “The philosophy of mutual aid resonates with the vocation of churches,” she said. “The church should be a place where all are welcome and all are fed — not just in this moment, but always.”

Beth Waltemath is the co-pastor at North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.

Community fridge objectives:

  • Eliminate food waste
  • Provide easy access to healthy food
  • Encourage people to connect with their community.

How to start a community fridge:

Build a firm foundation (Luke 6:48): A community fridge will need a cement pad to sit on, a power source and perhaps a structure to protect it from the elements. Installation costs could run between $500 to $1,000. Remember to factor in the cost of the monthly electric bill.

Ask and you shall receive (Matthew 7:7): Fridges can cost around $800, but many businesses like to donate appliances. As for stocking the fridge with food, recruit restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores to be part of the project.

Do all things decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40): Establish a cleaning schedule of 1–2 times a day, and then ask neighbors and school groups to sign up for a weekly slot.

Send out laborers for the harvest (Matthew 9:38): Find a volunteer to manage social media to mobilize volunteers and deliver donations.

Go to pcusa.info/communityfridges to learn more about establishing a community fridge in your neighborhood.

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