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The community refrigerator movement can change the way we think about helping each other

AJ Willingham, graphic by Leah Abucayan

The world has many problems. Big problems, big consequences require big solutions. In the midst of this “greatness,” the average person may feel too small to offer anything of value.

They may forget that, sometimes, the road to somewhere better starts small. It might start with a load of groceries, hauled down the street, so a neighbor can have a meal. No one has to wait for permission, no one has to worry if their efforts are worth it.

They can just do it.

That’s the philosophy behind community refrigerators, a growing mutual aid movement that supports struggling neighborhoods while tackling food waste and caring for the causes. greater food insecurity.

In 2020, Latisha Springer felt, well, like most people felt that year.

“It was a difficult summer. It’s really negative and overwhelming, and I get tired of thinking about how messed up everything is. I wanted to do something,” she told CNN.

Springer learned about community refrigerators while living abroad in Europe. The practice was first adopted there in the 2010s: A refrigerator, stocked by community members, for everyone to use at any time regardless of need or economic status .

“I think it’s a great concept – get rid of the middle man; direct access, open. ”

Then she thought some more. Why not here, in Atlanta? Why not now?

Springer says it all came together quickly.

While no one would call this kind of work easy, it is true that resources are simpler to earn and people are more interested in contributing than Springer thought. She created an Instagram account and posted some requests. A local business offered her first refrigerator and then provided her with some workspace. Two years later, Springer’s Free99 refrigerator project has four sites and two more coming soon, supported by a network of contributing businesses and hundreds of volunteers.

Springer quit and now holds a Master of Business Degree to use in coordinating some daily wellness checks and food reductions, arranging donations from vendors, and organizing community activities like cleaning the neighborhood. Keeping up with her volunteering schedule, maintaining inventory and transportation is a constant work, but Springer says she knows she can always rely on the people around her.

“Our community is amazing,” she said. “Whenever we need something, there is always someone who knows someone who can get it done.”

The concept of community refrigerators in the US seen as an ever-present need became clearer in the early months of the pandemic. That’s when Eric von Haynes, an organizer and artist in Chicago, started running a community fridge program with local mutual aid groups. Love Refrigerator Chicago now has more than 30 locations across the city, supported in part by grants and the efforts of Love Refrigerator volunteers and other local aid alliances.

“When we started, I wanted to make sure this was sustainable,” Von Haynes told CNN. “Food scarcity did not begin with a pandemic and it will not end with the end of the pandemic. We want to make sure we create lasting relationships.”

Food is provided by community members, restaurants, local chefs, urban farmers, grocery stores and grocers. The Love Refrigerator, like many community refrigerators, also offers a number of other resources such as domestic violence support and veterinary care through another mutual support group. (Community refrigerators often act as hubs for approved non-food donations like hand warmers for the winter months or baby supplies.)

Free99 Fridge and The Love Fridge are prime examples of how the same seed, once planted, can grow in different ways. Springer developed Atlanta’s Free99 refrigerator through social media and word of mouth, having no background in this kind of work. Already a figure in Chicago’s fertile mutual aid scene, Von Haynes began a new show that was immediately intertwined with related shows. Both have flourished.

Mutual aid, which the community supports, is different from charity because there is no decision about who gets what and why. These programs tend to be run with a “for everyone, for everyone” mindset and prioritize volunteering over donations – although both help. Mutual aid also allows people to tell what they need, rather than being told by the contributors.

Understanding the potential of something like this, such as a refrigerator that anyone can contribute to or take from, requires a lot of openness.

“I had a lot of setbacks when I started,” says Springer, “like, ‘Who’s going to keep an eye on who’s drinking too much? “. “But what is ‘too much?’ How do we know what people need, what are they using it for? ” She says her “refrigerator friends” – who use Free99 locations – often tell her they are helping neighbors in need or making sure the their family members are taken care of.

So many other questions, asked with skepticism or anxiety: Who looks after the refrigerator? (Volunteers who perform health checks and maintenance.) What about hygiene? (Again, volunteers. Also, the organizers try to make sure their refrigerators are private property to avoid city conflicts.) What if someone booked something. that bad on it? (Refrigerators are inspected regularly, and Von Haynes said community refrigerators are protected by the Emerson Act, which protects food donors from civil and criminal liability.)

Of course, there are rules for what community refrigerators accept. Key point? Don’t put in what you won’t take out.

Von Haynes says people are sometimes surprised to learn that grocery partners often contribute expensive foods like premium iced coffee, milk substitutes or fine chocolates, as if those in need of food deserved the price. bare minimum and no more.

“It has to do with the way people have been programmed,” says Von Haynes. In fact, community refrigerators help reduce food waste (another “common interest” in supporting each other). Not everything approaching the expiration date is bad; it’s just less likely to sell. Plus, retailers and restaurants often have a surplus of perfectly good food that for one reason or another cannot be sold.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food waste accounts for between 30% and 40% of the nation’s food supply. That means food scarcity often depends on what people can buy and access, rather than what is actually available. Community refrigerators help break down that barrier, whether it’s with an apple or a $9 cold beer.

That prospect might be uncomfortable – separating usability from value and value from cost. It can inspire defensiveness, a reflex of retreat into the belief that, because things are the way they are, that’s how they should be.

“While we wanted these refrigerators to serve people in need, we wanted to change that idea culturally. It is important that we get rid of the idea that every action should be based on need,” said Von Haynes. “We provide resources without guarding.”

He continued: “Food is a human right. “And everyone deserves to eat well.”

Community refrigerators may have started as something small and single, but from the start, they were rooted in larger systems of social justice and activism.

“You can’t talk about food insecurity without talking about poverty, unemployment, housing and health care,” Springer said.

Mutual aid programs and deeply intertwined issues of racial justice, dating back to the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast program in the 1960s, are said to have been used as a template. for the USDA school breakfast program. Community refrigerators are often decorated by local artists, with bright messages of nonviolence and solidarity.

In Atlanta, each Free99 refrigerator is named after a Black community member who was killed or taken into custody by the police: Breonna (Taylor), Sandra (Bland), Elijah (McClain), Tamir (Rice) . In Chicago, the locations and work of Love Refrigerator intersect with abolitionist groups and key locations around the city where community activism has been and is taking place.

Springer says that building relationships with refrigerator users is the most powerful part.

It’s disgusting how needy people who need to be treated. These are our neighbors, and like people don’t want to admit they exist.” she speaks. “So our friends are grateful for the food, but they’re also grateful that they can’t be invisible.”

“I think people are realizing that in the end, the only way we can do it is to lean on each other,” she continued. “This is how we should treat each other and this is the humanity we should operate on.”

In a caring hand, with the roots of an entire active community underneath, a single refrigerator can become their network. And together, they can become something more.

Must work, yes. It takes time. But Springer and Von Haynes are showing that it is possible.

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https://kesq.com/news/2022/04/15/the-community-fridge-movement-could-change-the-way-we-think-about-helping-each-other/ The community refrigerator movement can change the way we think about helping each other

Russell Falcon

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