Community Fridges Keep Families Fed in Times of Need—And You Can Help

Donation-based community fridges provide hope in food-insecure neighborhoods.

In many communities, the simple act of opening the refrigerator to find fresh, healthy food is a luxury. With people struggling, especially over the last two years, community fridges have sprung up around the country to provide fresh, nutritious food to those who might otherwise find it difficult to access it. With MLK Day just around the corner, you can honor his legacy by aiding organizations who run these fridges (or perhaps, starting one of your own!).

But how do community fridges work? In New York City, Selma Raven and Sara Allen were inspired to help change the situation when they noticed some of their neighbors were going hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the lead of innovators in Brooklyn she’d noticed setting up what are known as community fridges, Sara found a refrigerator on Craigslist. Meanwhile, Selma asked nearby store owners for permission to plug it in outside of their shops (and use their electricity). The plan was to fill the sidewalk fridge with free, fresh food for anyone who needs it, using donations of both food and money.

A few days later, the pair set up the Friendly Fridge in front of the Last Stop, a restaurant in the Bronx that’s just down the street from their apartment.

How a Community Fridge Works

Friendly Fridge New YorkVia @thefriendlyfridgebx/Instagram

Like other community fridges, the Friendly Fridge operates under a simple system: Take what you need and leave what you can. To supplement donations, Selma and Sara buy food almost every day.

“It’s grown so much,” Selma says. “People take food and talk to us—the community has come together in ways that I’m just humbled by.”

Community Fridges Across America

Mke Fridge Community Fridge Via @mkecommunityfridge/Instagram

The community fridge concept can be found beyond New York. Similar programs have been introduced in cities across the country, such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Philadelphia. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, organizers Hataya Johnson and Sarah Tramonte were inspired to launch the MKE Community Fridge in summer 2020. Sarah is a Taste of Home culinary producer.

“We want to bring people together over food,” Sarah says. “It’s a basic human need that unifies us. We hope this project will inspire people from all over the city and from different backgrounds to come together for a common cause.”

They made sure the MKE Community Fridge was stocked with fresh produce from farmers’ markets, local gardens and grocery stores. The produce would stay in the fridge for about a day or two, and more food was added every day. The project is temporarily on hiatus as the fridge’s last site was unable to host it any longer, but organizers and volunteers are actively discussing next steps.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the South Philadelphia Community Fridge aims to provide access to fresh food to all in the city through a series of community fridges set up in 4 locations across the city. The mutual aid organization partners with grocers and restaurants to stock the fridges with produce, staples and prepared foods that would otherwise be thrown away.

Mama Tee Community Fridge PhiladelphiaVia @mamateefridge/Instagram

You can also check out Mama-Tee Fridge in Philadelphia, which runs 18 locations in the city and won People Magazine’s Kindness Award in 2021. They’ve also opened Mama-Tee’s Pop-up Grocery Store to distribute the food they receive in a more efficient manner. You can find an exhaustive list of Philadelphia’s community fridges in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

If you’re looking for more fridges on the east coast, Eater compiled a list of community fridges in Boston. The Freedge website can help you find community fridges across the US and the world, and even provides you with resources if you’re looking to start your own!

In New York, the Friendly Fridge is also developing relationships with nonprofit food organizations. Selma and Sara even visited a local food share and dropped notes into packets, asking recipients to donate any extra food to the fridge. Similarly, “when we have extra, we find another location that needs it,” Selma says. “No one should go hungry. And thanks to this amazing neighborhood, we can all help.”

How You Can Help

If you’re near one of these amazing community resources and have the means to contribute, you can reach out and help keep the fridges stocked. Take advantage of sales at your local grocery store to buy extra, and donate the surplus. Many of the donation sites also accept dry goods and household items as well as fresh food. At some community fridges, hygiene products and face masks are accepted, too.

Wondering what items are most needed? Here are donations ideas to get you started. You can also donate directly to the organization if they accept cash donations, or contribute to their GoFundMe page so they can buy the supplies their community needs most. Some fridges also stock homemade food—so the next time you make a casserole that yields an extra pan, like our Make Once, Eat Twice Lasagna, consider donating the second pan, or try whipping up one of MLK Jr.’s favorite foods to donate.

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