Building Community and Feeding Others – Community Fridges Take Off

by ~

thousands of cars lined up for food

photo by William Luther/San Antonio Express-News

This past April, 10,000 cars lined up at an emergency food distribution event hosted by the San Antonio Food Bank.  By mid-May, New York City estimated that 1 in 4 city residents were food insecure.  Food insecurity is defined as not having reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

Before COVID-19, approximately 35 million people in the United States were food insecure, including 11 million children.  According to Feeding America, food insecurity was projected to increase to over 50 million people in the U.S., including 17 million children, by fall of 2020, less than a year later.  

COVID-19 has increased the number of hungry people and also uncovered how widespread hunger and food insecurity were before the pandemic started.  The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that global food insecurity will double in 2020 to 265 million people. 

Cities scrambled to help provide more food for residents, but if food did become available, it was oftentimes over-processed and not fresh or healthy.  And the need has been so great, food distribution events and pantries often ran out before everyone was served.

change food founder diane hatz at empty fridge

Change Food founder Diane Hatz at a quickly emptied fridge

So neighbors stepped up.  Around the world, especially in New York City, residents of neighborhood after neighborhood plugged in refrigerators stocked with fresh food outside of bodegas, restaurants and stores, and the community fridge movement took off.  Many also include pantries for shelf stable food and personal care items.

The concept is simple, and the movement’s motto sums it up – Take what you need; leave what you can.  Neighbors drop off unopened, uneaten food they don’t want, and other neighbors take food that they need.  Volunteers take care of the fridge – cleaning, sorting, arranging shelves – as well as picking up donations from local shops, bakeries and restaurants. 

Community fridges solve an immediate problem – getting food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, directly to those who need them.  Fridges bypass the roadblocks to most food pantries and government assistance – there are no forms to fill out, no identification checks.  There can also be stigma attached to needing food assistance – being able to take food any time day or night helps minimize or avoid any stigma.  

The East Village Community Fridge

Research is currently underway to count the number of community fridges around the country, but so many are starting at this time that an accurate count isn’t possible.

History of Fridges

Community fridges can be traced back to a group in Germany called Foodsharing.  Around 2012-2014, the group started putting leftover food that would otherwise be thrown out (or was taken from the garbage after being thrown out!) into refrigerators around Berlin in an effort to combat food waste.  Any thrown out food was clean, packaged, and not in any way mixed in with other trash.

Government authorities intervened around 2016 and shut down most of the fridges, but the idea had been seeded.  Community fridges most likely started in the U.S. around 2019, but they didn’t take off until the pandemic this year – the number began to explode in the past couple of months as government pandemic relief stopped and neighborhoods all around the country stepped in to help feed each other.

Mutual Aid

Neighbors helping themselves to free food

Community fridges are an example of what is called “mutual aid,” a term that simply means people voluntarily help each other and share resources.  You help me; I help you.  It’s that simple. 

The term was used in 1902 by philosopher Peter Kropotkin; he believed that cooperation was the driving force behind evolution, not competition as Charles Darwin promoted.  Since then, more formalized mutual aid networks have been created in order to help streamline and share resources, but any project or group can be considered mutual aid, whether or not they belong to a larger network. 

volunteers filling food pantry

Volunteers stock the food pantry which holds dry and canned goods

Mutual aid became essential when the pandemic hit in early 2020.  Cities and governments were unable to react quickly, so neighbors all around the world stepped in to help others who were suffering from COVID-19 and its effects. 

It’s as simple as checking in on the family or elderly person next door or forming groups such as East Village Neighbors, which I launched in my New York City neighborhood.  We rallied volunteers in the neighborhood to help distribute food, shop, run errands – anything to help any neighbor in need, no questions asked.  Thousands of people – or more! – around the world simultaneously, though without knowing of each other, stood up and immediately took action without any rulebook or guidance – they did what they could to help others in their community.  

It proved Kropotkin’s point that cooperation is much more important than competition.  As months went by, East Village Neighbors shifted from shopping for food to realizing neighbors needed food, so, together, local restaurant S’MAC, East Village Neighbors and Change Food®  launched the East Village Community Fridge.

filled fridge

Donated food in the fridge

Feeding Others

Community fridges are a stop gap, not a solution.  They are necessary right now while so many people are out of work and hungry, but at the same time, we need to be looking at next year and the years after.  It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest country on the planet so many people are hungry – and that the number is growing.  It is unforgivable that companies throw out food, and that large corporatized hunger nonprofits have so much funding but are not solving the hunger problem.

Communities must solve their own problems. Not only do we need community fridges, we need to train people to grow food in public spaces, as Change Food is promoting with “Plant Eat Share.”  We must pass living wage laws and not disparage proposals for universal basic income.  I believe we also need universal healthy food – you’ll hear more about this in 2021.  Every person has the right to basic healthy food – fruits, vegetables, seed, nuts and grains – for free.  No one should ever go hungry.  No one.

food for fridge

Donated food for fridge. Photo by Stacie Joy

So as community fridges help solve an emergency need, we must start planning for tomorrow and how we can provide healthy food to both ourselves and generations to come.

Please help Change Food expand its work beyond one community fridge – we’re developing a manual for other communities and are hoping to launch more fridges, are looking into other ways to provide food from communities to communities, and are working to develop materials to promote universal healthy food.  Support us in 2021!

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.