Community Fridges Are a Grassroots Response to Food Insecurity

Stocked by donations and maintained by volunteers, these fridges make life easier for many.

free fridge at Universe City
Community fridge at Universe City, NY.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images 

If you see a lone fridge on an urban sidewalk, it may not be a discard, awaiting pickup. It could be a source of free food for the neighborhood. These types of "community fridges," as they're commonly referred to, have been springing up in cities around the United States and Canada in response to a growing crisis of food insecurity. Even before the pandemic, many households struggled to put daily healthy meals on the table, but surging unemployment rates and bottlenecked supply chains have made it even worse.

Community fridges are a wonderful grassroots response to this problem. They are set up and maintained by local volunteers who care about their neighborhoods. These volunteers collect donations from restaurants and grocers; they post on social media daily to inform users of what's there and volunteers of what's lacking; and they organize the fridges so that the contents are clearly marked, visible, and always fresh. The fridges are cleaned regularly so that using them remains a pleasant, respectful experience. 

Julian Bentivegna, a chef and owner of Ten Restaurant on Toronto's College Street, started a community fridge this year after getting the green light from his landlord. He told the National Post,

"It’s been great to see just how much people care. When we first got started, I was worried we were going to have too many donations and not enough people taking from the fridges but ... it’s been a really nice balance of the two. We don’t police the fridges at all. We just let people take what they need and leave what they don’t."

In Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, Pam Tietze set up the Friendly Fridge. At first people were leery about it, wondering who would be using the fridge, but it has become a great success, with nearby restaurants using it as a spot to distribute free food. There are sometimes trays of prepared food, such as turkey burgers, and buckets of vegetarian chili, all free for the taking.

Tietze told Brooklyn Based a heartwarming story about a woman who used to go to a soup kitchen, but thanks to the fridge was now able to take whole ingredients to do her own cooking at home. "There's the dignity of going to a fridge instead of the [soup] kitchens ... I’m confident that we’re providing a service for those groups of people," Tietze said.

Universe City is an aquaponics farm in Brooklyn that frequently donates food to community fridges around the city. It also has its own sidewalk fridge (pictured at top) that's kept stocked with celery, apples, and cucumbers. Executive director Franklyn Mena told the New York Times that healthy fresh food is crucial for residents to remain healthy (or improve their health). 

"The more we have control over how we produce the food, how we process the food, and how we distribute the food as a community, then we have a higher and greater chance for finding wellness solutions for our people."

Mena's right, and the presence of Universe City's fridge proves that it's practicing what it preaches, but I can't help finding it sad that it's up to individuals to repair a broken food system that, surely, is the responsibility of a (good) government. 

The fact that one in four New Yorkers is considered food-insecure, as the Times says, is appalling. In Canada, the number is lower, but food insecurity still affects one in seven households. Also horrifying is the fact that upwards of 30 percent of all food grown for human consumption in the United States goes to waste. Well-meaning, generous people can do all they want to offset those unfortunate numbers, but far more effective solutions could be had by implementing better anti-food-waste policies and expanding distribution networks

The world's far from perfect, and there have been hard curveballs thrown in 2020 so far, but it's good to know that communities are still rallying to help in the small ways they can. You can look for a community fridge in your own city by searching on, Googling it, or searching the hashtag "community fridge" on social media – then make a donation.

As Jalil Bokhari, friend of Julian Bentivegna, told the National Post, it doesn't take much to extend one's privilege to others: "You’re going to the grocery store, you grab an extra orange or two, and if 30 people do that, then the fridge is stocked ... By the morning, they’re empty.”