Sandra Belat has a cool idea for helping people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity: Install community refrigerators around Denver so fresh food can be easily exchanged.
Belat, Jacob McWilliams and Florence Blackwell, of CU Denver's Women and Gender Center, are coordinating the effort to place outdoor refrigerators in three locations in November. Once each fridge is installed, people with extra food can stock it, and those with limited access to food can take what they need.
The concept of community fridges, while not new, has gained momentum across the country this year in response to increased food insecurity. The movement also aims to specifically assist people experiencing homelessness by making food more easily accessible. Activists like Belat see community fridge installation as a way to demonstrate how people can take care of each other outside of existing systems.
“Essentially, we’ve asked the businesses hosting the fridges...to keep [them] outside so individuals can access [them] 24/7,” says Belat (they/them). “Volunteers sanitize every now and then to make sure it’s COVID-safe, and volunteers from the community stock it.” Designated volunteers are also in charge of clearing the fridges of old food.
Accessibility is key, Belat explains, adding that they hope people will feel safe and comfortable approaching the food source. Community fridges are an expansion of what food pantries can provide. While pantries often serve canned or dried goods, these fridges will be stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and packaged meals. However, organizers ask that any packaged meal donations include a list of all ingredients, and they discourage the donation of raw meat.
It’s hoped that individuals and families donating food will also use the program as a way to reduce their own food waste. A 2017 National Resources Defense Council Report found that on average, Denver residents waste 3.5 pounds of food per week. The waste often occurs because people buy or prepare too much food. The fridges provide an avenue for sharing those extra items.
At a time when food insecurity is at an all-time high, the fridges can serve as an important supplement. In June, a Northwestern University study concluded that 23 percent of American households were experiencing food insecurity as a result of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. The figure is double what was reported in 2019.
The economy isn’t poised to get better anytime soon, according to a new study released by Gusto, an online payroll benefits platform. The company outlines a potential loss of 35,000 jobs and closure of 333 small businesses in Denver as the virus makes it harder to stay open during the winter. Such job loss could lead to more difficulty making basic food purchases and increased risk for homelessness.
On October 12, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) released its 2020 State of Homelessness report. The study found that 31,207 individuals in the Denver metro region accessed services or housing support related to homelessness between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. This comprehensive figure encompasses the complex and myriad forms of homelessness that extend beyond those of people who sleep outside.
Belat wants people experiencing homelessness to feel safe accessing community fridges. “Instead of calling the police if you see a homeless person, what if you could direct them to a community fridge?” they ask. “There’s a lot of houseless people in Denver. What if we treated them like humans and gave them a safe place to sit and eat a meal?”
For Belat, the community fridge installation is also part of a greater movement to decriminalize homelessness and support community-led initiatives that reduce the need for police intervention. Belat wants to see police departments defunded so that the money can be reinvested in community support systems. They believe that the new community fridges will serve as an example of what community members working together can achieve.
In creating Denver’s Community Fridge organization, Belat looked at successful community fridge operations that have popped up in other cities like New York City, Austin and Los Angeles. The movement even extends back to 2012, when Berlin’s volunteer-run Foodsharing — called Fairteiler in German — popularized the idea. “But in 2018,” Dayna Evans writes in Eater, “the German government’s food and safety regulators in Berlin cracked down on [Fairteiler], causing a large number of them to be locked by their stewards or moved to more private spaces.”
Although Belat hopes that won’t happen here, they acknowledge that there is a risk, because the group is not going through the city. “They have a lot of red tape,” Belat notes.
One goal of the program is for the initial three fridges to have a snowball effect in creating more. “I would love to see community fridges all over Denver,” Belat says. “We’re investing in something to last for years and years and trying to figure out how to create sustainable change. ... It’s much bigger than me.”
The three fridges will be painted in the next couple of weeks by Cya Davis-Thomas, Zachary Vulato, Ruth Rivera Ojeda and Jenn Guelich, and then installed at their selected locations. To stay informed, follow Denver Community Fridges on Instagram.