En español | Outside a New York church, a bright blue refrigerator sits on the sidewalk, humming away even as its door opens and closes all day long.
There's a constant flurry of activity around the fridge, with a diverse flow of people filling tote bags with everything from fruit and yogurt to packages of pre-cooked chicken and salad greens.
Others drop by to unload items onto the shelves: peanut butter, eggs and broccoli.
Joy MacVane, 69, is the pastor of the Clinton Avenue Church in Kingston, New York, and the host of the community fridge, a place for members of the community to pick up and drop off perishable groceries.
"I love it,” MacVane says, enjoying the buzz of her church's neighbors gathering in the warm spring air around healthy food. “Outdoor fridges are very new on the hunger relief scene."
How Community Fridges Work
The basic notion of the community refrigerator is simple: Place a standard refrigerator in an accessible public space — particularly in food deserts lacking markets with fresh food — plug it in, and keep it stocked.
Most community fridges publish drop-off rules that emphasize unopened containers and checking sell-by dates, and have suggestions for keeping things clean and tidy. It is a place to offer food as well as take food, and to do so whenever it makes best sense for those in the community to visit. Think of a Little Free Library containing fruits, vegetables, proteins and dairy instead of books, and you've got the idea.
The Blue Fridge is one of hundreds of community refrigerators that have sprung up in neighborhoods around the world. There are more than 160 in the U.S., according to the database Freedge. Many have been set up in response to food emergencies brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The community fridge movement is a grassroots initiative in which people like MacVane seek to share food with neighbors during an unprecedentedly stressful time. Each community does it differently: Some fridges are in schools, some inside churches, many are out on the sidewalk for easy access. Unlike food pantries, people give and take without having to register or line up, and food is often available around the clock.
For Michael Paul, 58, who has lived in New York's East Village for 30 years, his local community fridge is a place to both give and receive. He needed support after leaving his job in retail a decade ago to care for aging parents, and the community fridge has been a way to supplement his grocery budget. Paul has also brought canned goods to share.
"It's helped immensely,” he says. “I live on a fixed income, and when hot meals at the church stopped, I suffered. It was two months of borrowing money just to eat."
A bright spot during dark times
MacVane's Blue Fridge is designed to welcome both the hungry and the helpful — and visitors can be both. Painted a cheery cornflower blue with a mini mural of hands offering and reaching for apples, bananas and cherries, the fridge resides within a custom-built shelter with a dry-erase board for neighbors to note what they'd like to see more of. With a jolly, emoji-like set of eyes also painted on its door and some text — “Only by Giving are you able to receive More” — the fridge feels more like a local character than an appliance.
But the reason for its need isn't cheery. The effects of the pandemic — loss of employment, disruptions to the supply chain, layoffs in the restaurant and service industry — worsened the state of food insecurity in the U.S., according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America. Before the pandemic, more than 35 million people were food insecure. The organization estimates that number rose to 45 million people in 2020 and is likely to remain close to 42 million people in 2021, the group found.
MacVane had just launched a free Sunday lunch program when the pandemic struck. “When the state closed down, we had to cancel our plans to hold community meals,” she says. At the same time, she spotted a post on Facebook about a community refrigerator that had popped up in Brooklyn. “We found a refrigerator in the church basement, lugged it up and painted it.”
A youth group offered to decorate it further, and Radio Kingston, a community-minded local radio station, stepped up to cover the cost of the extra electricity required to run the fridge. The Blue Fridge was quickly open to all.
As community fridges get up and running, some hosts post their own guidelines and suggestions online to help others get started. But each model varies.
The daisy-decorated East Village Neighbors Fridge in New York City, for example, reflects a partnership between a non-profit food justice organization, a restaurant and neighbors. Other fridge programs are connected to local feeding programs to siphon off some of their stockpiled products or with local markets. Some just rely primarily on the kindness of neighbors, who shop for extra food and drop it off.
When it comes to stocking, some community fridges focus almost exclusively on perishables while other sites include shelving or tables that act more like a pantry (often featuring breads and rice). Necessities like pet food and personal hygiene items might be included there, too. Volunteers help monitor supplies and keep the fridge clean. (MacVane has spied a neighbor who often comes by to pick up food doing her own spot-cleaning when she visits.) But one thing seems to run throughout the movement like the electricity flowing through all those outdoor extension cords — an emphasis on dignity.
"Don't bring something to the community fridge that you wouldn't put in your own refrigerator,” one set of guidelines counsels.
Community refrigerators and mutual aid
"At one time or another, we all have something we need and at another we all have something to offer,” says MacVane, who encourages folks dropping off food to look for something to take home. The model, MacVane says, is one of mutual aid that operates on the acknowledgment of abundance, not scarcity.
"There's plenty of food to feed everyone,” she says, “but it's not in the right places for so many people.”
For MacVane and other “hosts,” as the organizers of these initiatives are often called, the community fridge model strips away hierarchies and even logistical limitations of traditional feeding programs. No more lining up or registering, providing IDs or feeling like the recipient of a handout.
Like The Blue Fridge in Kingston, the Detroit Community Fridge quickly became a hub for locals as they delivered or picked up fresh foods. Like many community refrigerators, an Instagram account allowed the hosts to spread the word quickly, spurring donations and activity.
"Our fridge is based on radical love, sustainability and mutual aid,” says Alyssa Rogers, who teamed up with fellow Wayne University student Emily Eicher during the pandemic to place the community fridge (an unused one sitting in Eicher's garage) in an area of southwest Detroit that's home to multigenerational Latinx and African American families.
Those emotions aren't limited to the Detroit fridge effort. Sarita Ekya, one of the founding organizers of the East Village Neighbors Fridge, puts it simply. “Aside from providing the basic necessities, it gives an emotional boost, knowing that people care about you,” she says, estimating that their fridge sees upward of 2,000 weekly visits to the fridge and pantry, with some coming more than once.
"It's a horizontal model. It's a solidarity model” says MacVane, who rushes to the curbside to greet Harlan Matthews, a bespectacled 75-year-old who makes a weekly run to his local supermarket to offload perishables that are approaching their sell-by dates.
Big bundles of bread and bags of produce fill up the back of his mud-spattered Chevy Suburban and folks pitch in to help him unload. Soon, adjacent tables and the fridge are buzzing with locals talking and assessing what looks good. It's impossible to tell who might be taking and who might be volunteering. Which is exactly the point, MacVane says. “We're all welcome at the table,” she says. “We all sit at the same level."
Pamela K. Johnson contributed to this story.
Tracey Minkin is a contributing writer and editor who covers travel, food, and health. She is the Travel Editor at Coastal Living magazine and contributes regularly to Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, and Veranda.