Community Fridges Help Food Insecurity and Struggling Restaurants

There are no questions and no limits for meals.

Volunteers stock a refrigerator with free meals.
Volunteers stock a refrigerator with free meals.

Feed the Fridge

There are 20 refrigerators scattered around the Washington, D.C., area packed with nutritious meals, free for the taking. They’re part of a program to benefit people facing food insecurity while also supporting restaurants struggling during the pandemic.

Since “Feed the Fridge” was launched just over a year ago, more than 30,000 free meals have been provided to seniors, students, and families. Participating restaurants have been paid about $200,000 for the meals, which has helped them stay open and continue to pay employees.

Program founder Mark Bucher, co-owner of Medium Rare steakhouses, says he came up with the idea not long after the pandemic hit last March.

“I realized that as a restaurant owner, many restaurants were in danger of closing. But I also thought about what my late father would face in this situation if he were still alive, and I realized that the elderly were in great danger,” he tells Treehugger. “Scared to leave their apartment or homes, low on funds, unable to use food delivery apps on their phones, seniors would be reluctant to ask their family or friends for help. They didn’t want to be a bother.”

They started with a tweet offering to send food from their restaurants to any seniors who needed it. Then they offered to send brunch to mothers and grandmothers who were alone for Mother’s Day.

When the new school year started in August, and administrators decided students would learn from home, Bucher says they were worried that many children who relied on free school lunches wouldn’t have meals.

“We had seen community fridges in Los Angeles and New York offering fruits and snacks, but we put our spin on the idea by paying local restaurants to provide more extensive, healthy meals,” he says. “The funds come from donations to the non-profit organization WeCare/Feed the Fridge we founded. Thousands of meals later, we’re still going strong.”

The refrigerators are located in community and recreation centers and some schools in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland. There’s also one outside of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum. Bucher would like to expand to Northern Virginia as well. Eventually, he says, he’d like to see the fridges all over the country. 

On the side of the refrigerators are the slogans:

"...because you matter"

"...because you are our future"

"...because you work hard"

'Feed the Fridge' Helps Individuals and Restaurants

Student takes a free meal at a community center
A student picks up a meal at a community center.

Feed the Fridge

There are no questions or limits for the meals. People can just walk up and take what they need.

Clients vary depending on the location of the refrigerator, Bucher says.

“We’ve noticed a lot of parents will take their kids to the fridges to pick up a fresh meal and get them out of the house,” he says. “Community centers tend to get more seniors than the school locations because they may be going for another community activity and are able to pick up a meal while they are out.”

All meals are balanced with 33% protein, 33% carbohydrate or starch, and 33% vegetable. There are no sugary sodas and no processed foods. There’s everything from chicken noodle soup to Middle Eastern dishes.

“We’ve found that a lot of the kids eating our meals have never had dishes like tikka masala, and it turns out that that’s one of our most popular meals,” Bucher says.

By the end of this year, the goal is to deliver more than 500,000 free nutritious meals prepared by local restaurants.

Expanding to Other Communities

prepared meals for Feed the Fridge
Meals waiting to be packaged and delivered.

Feed the Fridge

Bucher calls the program a “win-win-win for the economy, the restaurant industry, and individuals who otherwise would not have a healthy, fresh meal to eat.”

Feed the Fridge organizers have heard from a community college in a remote part of Maine that would like to install a refrigerator.

“Not only would this be our first fridge outside of the Greater Washington area, but it would also be our first fridge in a rural area without access to a grocery store,” Bucher says. “We are planning a fridge there and hope to continue to spread the word so more people contact us about establishing Feed the Fridge in their communities.”

Each morning, volunteers picked up freshly prepared meals from local restaurants. The refrigerators are cleaned and sanitized before being loaded with as many as 100 meals each.

Then people can stop by and pick up what they need.

“We had a mother tell us that Feed the Fridge has made her feel like a better parent because she knows her kids will always be able to eat and they don’t have to wait in line for hours to get turned away by the food bank,”  Bucher says. “Her children are excited to get out of the house, go to the fridge and pick out their lunch every day.”