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Addressing Food Insecurity with Community Refrigerators

by on February 23, 2023

Des Moines (Iowa) Public Libraries have partnered with Community Refrigerator Vendors to offer free food to the community. A community refrigerator is a resource provided by organizations, with the correct zoning permits, which can house free groceries for their neighborhood. Community Refrigerators are not intended to solve the food insecurity problem, but to be a part of the solution.

Here are ways to start and maintain Community Refrigerators in your network:

Apply for a Grant

The Franklin Avenue Library applied for a Microsoft Grant called ChangeX. The ChangeX Grant funds projects that intend to bring impactful ideas to communities. The library used the money from the grant to buy their refrigerator and groceries to start. If you cannot secure a grant, begin a fundraiser or move around your budget to purchase a refrigerator.

Consider where you will place the refrigerator(s)

Prior to the libraries establishing community fridges, vendors tried to place community refrigerators on willing residential properties. However, due to zoning laws and permit issues, these residents were fined by the city. The fridges were removed and another solution was needed. So,  some libraries and organizations in Des Moines put their community fridge(s) on the outside of the building. Other libraries and businesses held their fridge inside of the building and set it up in a room as big as a ‘Friends of the Library’ bookstore. Placing the refrigerator on the outside of the library allows unlimited access to the free fresh groceries. The community can restock the fridge at their leisure and there are no restrictions on when it can be accessed, morning into the night. When the fridge is contained in a building, the access is restricted to operating hours, unless an establishment is 24/7 like a hotel lobby for example.

Beware of challenges of maintaining a Community Refrigerator

There are difficulties in maintaining a community refrigerator on the outside of the building. On a community page associated with a refrigerator, garbage accumulated around the fridge and outside of the building. Apparently, donors would leave the boxes and garbage bags that the food was carried in when they restock the fridge. It left an unfavorable mess on the property. On the Facebook page, members have laid out some “housekeeping rules” to better manage the resource. If you decide to place your refrigerator outside, establish some instructions and policies so that you have an appropriate accountability system to how the Community fridge is operated and maintained. Also, establish ‘etiquette’ rules. For example, encourage no loitering, soliciting, or any other behavior that would make it uncomfortable for people to do what they need to do, get what they need, and move along

What food is acceptable?

At the Franklin Avenue Library, “standard pantry items are accepted: rice, dry beans, canned goods, oatmeal, pasta, etc.” They also accept freezer items such as frozen vegetables, fruits, and meals. Perishable foods require more discretion, but are acceptable. Places like the Sweet Tooth Urban Farm grow their own food. They give contributors the option of buying their raised food to donate to the refrigerator, or refer to a place that has excess food to give away. Moreover, some businesses that may have the food to donate are cautious of liability laws that may affect their reputation. Look into your state laws concerning federal protection against donating food that may prevent the willingness to participate in the cause.

How will you track its effectiveness?

Sweet Tooth Farms stock their fridge 24/7, no sign-ups required. Their attitude is “If you are hungry, use it.” In this case where there is no physical monitoring, some refrigerators used a Raspberry Pi to track how many times the doors are opened and closed. Organizations that house the fridge during operating hours can keep a door count on the traffic and also facilitate donations as they come in. If it is important to them to track what food items are being donated most, or what is demanded most they have free will to do so. However, discretion and a carefully-considered tracking system is needed in order to minimize stigma.

In conclusion, there are many ways to establish a Community Refrigerator in your neighborhood. Using Des Moines as a guide, they have employed fridges in libraries, at community centers, recreational centers, apartment complexes, and hotels. Use partnerships to solidify a constant flow of donations and allow the community to manage the refrigerator on their own to encourage personal responsibility.