As the country grapples with record-breaking unemployment and stalled stimulus discussions, more and more people are going hungry, with food bank lines stretching for blocks and schools working hard to get meals to students learning remotely.
One solution has been popping up in cities of all sizes: community fridges.
The fridges, usually colorfully painted, can be found in public spaces like sidewalks and storefronts. Volunteers and community members keep them stocked with donated food and other supplies, and people can take what they need — no questions asked.
"COVID-19 has amplified the consistent need of access to fresh and affordable food," Mari Chavez, 31, who one of the original organizers of a network of community fridges in New Orleans, Louisiana, told TODAY Food. "... With the efforts we support, everyone has the opportunity to provide and to receive collective care."
While the pandemic and subsequent economic difficulty may have accelerated their use, community fridges aren't a unique idea; Ernst Bertone Oehninger, the co-founder of Freedge, a network that provides resources and information to community fridge operators around the world, said that he believes he first started hearing about the concept in 2012. Currently, Freedge's database lists nearly 200 fridges in the United States.
"The movement started in many different places at different times," he told TODAY, estimating that the first fridge in the U.S. appeared in 2019 or early 2020. "I think the U.S. is kind of late in the game, but that's cool, because people follow what's happening here a lot. That's a win."
What goes into operating a community fridge?
When it comes to starting a community fridge, organizers described the process as surprisingly easy. The most difficult part, according to Sandra Belat, 24, who is preparing to open a fridge in Denver, Colorado, is securing a location, but the community has been eager to support the initiative.
"So many community members are excited to volunteer," Belat told TODAY. "People on our team are really committed to making sure that they stay stocked."
"A lot of students were going through hard times, having really difficult moments in their families with coronavirus and everything happening," she said. "I would pick up a few groceries for them or go to food drives for them ... I was trying to figure out something else."
After connecting with another community fridge in Jersey City for inspiration and advice, Flores, 26, purchased a refrigerator and set it up near her home over the summer.
"It's a lot more work than I initially thought it would be," she said. "It can take, depending on the day and how much food we get for the day and whether I have to commute to pick up food, it can take maybe two to three hours a day."
Community fridge organizers are responsible for more than just putting food in fridges: They also need to keep them clean, ensure that the items inside the fridge are safe and healthy and keep the fridges stocked. In addition to food donations, many community fridges are given supplies and financial donations, so the operators can purchase items to put in the fridges.
"The food goes really quickly as well, which is a good thing to see," Lexie Solomon, 22, who operates a community fridge in San Diego, told TODAY. "That means it's doing what it’s intended to do, people are using it."
In most cities, the fridges have been embraced by the communities they support: Flores told TODAY that she had a strong volunteer network that helped her with daily fridge tasks. Meanwhile, the networks of community fridges are only getting larger.
Madelyn Lopez, 34, opened the UC Freedge in Union City over the summer. Flores said that Lopez reached out to her and the two have worked collaboratively since then to make sure that both fridges are evenly stocked.
"Say someone donates a lot and I know the other fridge is running a little low, we'll split the food and supplies," said Flores. "It's really nice to have a second person ... If there was a third one that would be even better."
What challenges do these fridges face?
The fridges do face a number of obstacles: Food codes restrict what food can be placed in them, and some city governments have ordered community fridges to be removed after receiving complaints. Solomon said that, just this week, their community fridge in San Diego was given a verbal warning.
"I know you're not allowed to leave an abandoned fridge in the street, that is in the city code, but I feel like for the city this is something they haven't dealt with before, as it's a fully functional fridge full of food," Solomon said. "It's not trash out on the street. It's being used and maintained. ... The community support has been so amazing and the fridge is getting so much use. I feel like it should be seen by the city as more of a good than anything."
Two community fridges in San Diego have been removed in recent months. A public information officer for the city of San Diego confirmed to TODAY that a complaint had been submitted about a "refrigerator in the public right-of-way sitting out and unattended" and said the refrigerator owner was informed that it could not be in that location but could be moved onto private property.
Even when cities approve of the fridges, there is still some risk: Flores said that her fridge in Union City had been knocked over and is now unusable.
"Someone flipped it and broke it and we're just waiting for it to be repaired," she said, adding a community member had volunteered to fix the fridge for free once parts came in. One of the resources on Oehninger's website specifically recommends fridge operators set up a camera at their fridge to deter these kinds of incidents.
"That vandalization is problematic," Oehninger said. "People imagine people vandalizing fridges and it’s not the homeless guy they’re imagining. Homeless folks won’t do that. They’re not dumb; they help take care of it."
Are community fridges a sustainable solution to hunger?
But, for the most part, communities and cities do seem to be accepting of fridges: Chavez, who operates the New Orleans network of community fridges, said that there have been "some naysayers" but they have been outweighed by supporters.
While community fridges can help with hunger in their areas, Oehninger emphasized that they aren't a long-term or sustainable solution to poverty and hunger. In many cases, government aid may be necessary, but if that's not available, connecting with other community resources can help.
"Fridges can only survive if they get connect with other community activities, not just by themselves," he said. "By themselves, they don’t do anything ... this change can only happen if the collective action with other community activities is done."