How to Start a Community Fridge

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book cover with photos of community fridge and food

Learn how to start your own community fridge!

Change Food’s “How to Start a Community Fridge” is a step-by-step manual for anyone interested in launching and maintaining a community fridge. Inspired by author Diane Hatz’s efforts and experience co-founding and running the East Village Neighbors Fridge in New York City, the guide offers common sense instruction on how to get a fridge up and running in any neighborhood. 

The pandemic has brought untold pain and suffering to so many people around the world, and has shed light on the critical situation with food insecurity and hunger here in the United States. From the overwhelming number of people struggling to find enough food to eat has come a growing movement of mutual aid and community building, all focused around a fridge.

What is a community fridge?  Simply put, it’s a refrigerator left in public for the community to leave food for others and for neighbors to take food that they need.  “Take what you need; leave what you can” is the movement’s motto.

There’s no official count yet of these fridges, but they number in the many hundreds, if not thousands. And they’re not only feeding neighbors; they’re also building community and helping strengthen bonds within neighborhoods all over the country and world.  They’re taking neighborhoods and turning them into connected communities.  

An added bonus is that the fridges are also helping to minimize food waste by offering fresh food that might be near its expiration date and might otherwise have been thrown out by a store or restaurant.

So, how do you start a fridge?  It’s as simple as finding a fridge and a place to plug it in, although it’s also more complex than that to be successful.  Steps include:

  • Research. Before you do anything, look at other fridges and see what they’ve done – especially look for ones in your area.  Find inspiration in the efforts of those before you.  Also, research any legalities of hosting a fridge in your particular area.
  • Partner.  There are specific reasons why you should partner with a nonprofit or fiscal sponsor. 
  • Policies and Best Practices.  All throughout your efforts to launch a fridge, you’ll need to make decisions around best practices.  What kind of food will you permit? How will you stock and maintain it? How will you handle challenges that will arise? These and many other questions must be answered early on to avoid potential problems down the road.
  • Build a Team. It’s nearly impossible to launch and maintain the fridge all on your own, so you need to find, recruit and train team leaders as well as volunteers to help with your effort.  There are many responsibilities to take on – managing volunteers, finances, fundraising, social media, food donations, etc. It’s helpful to start with one or two other team leaders/co-founders and to build from there.
  • The Fridge. After finding a fridge and the right location to plug it in, you need to maintain it and keep it stocked. Find out what your community needs are – are more people interested in prepared food like sandwiches or would they prefer ingredients to make their own meals? Or perhaps you need food for a combination of the two. When you launch, spend time at the fridge and speak with people using it to find out what they need.
  • Fundraising/Donations. You’ll need to raise money to help pay for electric costs, the fridge itself, and for food to put in it.  Determine how you’ll accept money (Venmo, PayPal, a fundraising platform etc) and the best way to get funds from your community.
  • Social Media and Promotion.  Build awareness of your efforts in order to get many neighbors excited about donating food (and cash!) and so those in need know the fridge is there.  An Instagram account is a must have; a private Facebook group for your neighborhood is also highly recommended. And do not underestimate the effectiveness of posting physical fliers around your area. 

A surprising, yet extremely rewarding, benefit of hosting a fridge is that you’ll start to feel connected to your larger community.  You’ll meet neighbors who’ve been living near you for years that you hadn’t known, with different backgrounds and experiences.  You’ll feel a sense of pride in your neighborhood.

And you’ll be part of a growing global consciousness of mutual aid, of people who are motivated to help others out of a sense of generosity and love. This is the power of a community fridge.  

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.