A new solution to hunger? Refrigerators full of free food pop up around the Bay Area

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With millions of Californians out of work and struggling to feed their families, getting help during the coronavirus pandemic can mean waiting in a miles-long line of cars outside a food bank.

Or, in some Bay Area neighborhoods, it can mean opening an unassuming refrigerator sitting on the side of the road.

That’s the goal of the community fridge movement — an alternative solution to hunger popularized in New York City and now sweeping California. So far, local organizers have installed refrigerators in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and an effort is underway to set one up in San Jose.

“It’s just starting to become kind of a phenomenon,” said 25-year-old Sara Crispin, who hosts a community fridge with her housemates outside their West Oakland duplex.

Volunteers stock the refrigerators with produce, milk, prepared meals and other items, which are then free for the taking by anyone who could use them whether they’re from the homeless encampment down the street or the apartment next door. Fridge locations are publicized on Instagram and through word of mouth and fliers.

They’ve come at a time when a massive, coronavirus-fueled unemployment surge has led to skyrocketing demand for food assistance — and the threat of the virus can make the grocery store a scary option.

But the fridges also have prompted concerns about permitting and food safety.

“They’re well-intentioned, but quite frankly, the health and safety aspect really scares me on those things. Because anybody can put anything in there,” said Bill Lee, executive director of Martha’s Kitchen, a San Jose-based soup kitchen that distributes meals throughout Santa Clara County.

In Oakland, city staffers are still trying to figure out the best way to address the fridge phenomenon and to make sure refrigerators don’t block sidewalks or present a health hazard, according to city spokesman Sean Maher. In the meantime, he encouraged people to donate to established food banks.

“We recognize and applaud the altruism of our community — it’s part of what makes Oakland the amazing City that it is, there is no shortage of neighbors giving to neighbors,” Maher wrote in an email. “We must also consider the health, safety, and well-being of all of our community members.”

On Linden Street in West Oakland, a tall, white refrigerator sits in a make-shift shelter at the end of a residential driveway. A large cardboard sign taped to the door proclaims, “Free food. Comida gratis. Take what you need. Leave what you don’t.” On a recent visit, the fridge was filled with bags of greens, potatoes, squash, apples, bottles of water and a jar of pickles. A box of Narcan — a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses — sat next to a container of homemade cilantro-lime rice. Shelves next to the fridge held dry goods.

The grassroots group Town Fridge has set up at least seven refrigerators throughout Oakland and is continually expanding. Organizers scan Craigslist for refrigerators and other supplies, seek donations and ask neighbors to “host” refrigerators on their property. The group connects them to power inside the home via an extension cord and pays for the extra charge on the host’s electric bill.

“It’s a beautiful idea,” Crispin said. “And it’s a very simple idea.”

In San Jose, an effort to launch a similar program has raised $210 of its $1,200 goal on GoFundMe.

In San Francisco, SF Community Fridge and Mission Meals Coalition opened the city’s first fridge last week on the sidewalk in front of Adobe Books in the Mission District.

On a recent weekday, a man on a bicycle stopped to pick up a jar of salsa and a bag of sunflower seeds. Before the pandemic, he worked bussing tables and serving food in restaurants. He’s been without a job for four months now.

“I have no money for food,” he said.

That’s become frighteningly common. At Martha’s Kitchen, demand has doubled during the coronavirus crisis, Lee said.

Martha’s Kitchen received $250,000 in emergency state funds, allocated by the city of San Jose, when the pandemic began. But that ran out in May. With its reserves dwindling, the organization may have to start putting desperate people on a wait list if more funding doesn’t come through, Lee said.

Despite the dire situation, Lee doesn’t think community fridges are the answer. Nonprofits like his get permits from the county health department, and their staff members, who receive food safety training, are vigilant about throwing away food that’s been at room temperature too long. Lee worries well-meaning neighbors won’t take the same care.

The fridges do come with rules. In Oakland, for example, donors must label and date their contributions, and raw meat is not allowed.

“We take care of each other. So we don’t have any concerns with poisoning anybody or anyone playing with the food inside,” said Natalia Mount, who hosts a fridge at her gallery, Pro Arts, at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland.

But her fridge faces another problem. Days after it opened, the city told her she didn’t have the proper permit.

Now, city officials are working with Pro Arts on a solution to help the gallery continue with this “worthwhile project,” according to Harry Hamilton, marketing coordinator for the city’s Economic & Workforce Development Department.

Until then, Mount has moved the fridge inside her gallery, which, she says, defeats the purpose. The gallery is closed due to the pandemic, so patrons can access the fridge only if Mount or another worker happen to be there.

“Everything is on hold,” Mount said, “until we get permission from the city to house the fridge at the plaza.”

Get involved

To find out more, host a community fridge or donate, visit the following websites:

Oakland: linktr.ee/townfridge

San Francisco: linktr.ee/SFCommunityFridge

San Jose: gofundme.com/f/22qjufds00


Source: mercurynews
A new solution to hunger? Refrigerators full of free food pop up around the Bay Area