The effort to make free food widely available through self-serve refrigerators around Denver is catching on. One of the groups at the forefront, Denver Community Fridge, unveiled its fourth outdoor fridge on January 10 at Amethyst Coffee, 4999 West 44th Avenue. Several other organizations, including the Little Free Pantry and Little Big Fridge, are also part of the movement.
"If you give people a chance to care for one another," they will, says Eli Zain, who helped create Denver Community Fridges last summer along with a team from the University of Colorado Denver's Women and Gender Center.
Community fridges operate on the premise of mutual aid: Those who have the means stock food and toiletries, and those who are experiencing food or financial insecurity take what they need. The grassroots exchange allows people to care for their neighbors, and has especially resonated during the pandemic.
“The people who are donating feel proud that they can give food directly to someone else,” says Jim Norris, owner of Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. The Mutiny Cafe fridge opened on December 5, and since then, fridges have opened outside of Huckleberry Roasters, 4301 Pecos Street, and Base Coat, 2700 Walnut Street, in addition to the latest at Amethyst.
Denver Community Fridge's goal to install a fridge in every neighborhood within six months is on track, thanks to community support and excitement, Zain says. Jacob McWilliams and Florence Blackwell from the Women and Gender Center — now joined by Zoya Sarow and Francesca Pezzali — are continuing to spearhead the project along with Zain, but a growing amount of momentum is coming from volunteers.
Not only are people continually stocking and using the fridges, but many are offering to donate and host fridges, as well. According to Zain, community fridges go beyond traditional food banks and pantries because they offer fresh produce and prepared meals, and they give individuals agency over what they want to eat.
“Our fridges are needing to be stocked daily,” Zain says. “People can bring anything that can be eaten immediately. Many of our volunteers work in the food industry, and they bring pastries after their shift. The next morning, they’re all gone.” Along with fresh produce and pre-made meals, fridges offer beverages such as water bottles, kombucha and individual milk containers, as well as other packaged food and personal health items. The only food that is not accepted is raw meat.
Some see the refrigerator project as a way to address societal problems that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 era. “Myself and the company have witnessed cruelty over the last year serving coffee in the middle of a pandemic,” explains Breezy Sanchez, co-owner of Amethyst Coffee. “The working class is struggling every day at the mercy of a government that doesn’t care about the working class. There is no relief. 'Evictions' has become a normalized word, and people need help.”
Sanchez's sentiment is echoed by Norris, who wanted to host a fridge at Mutiny as an expansion of supporting other community outreach programs like Help on Every Street, an anti-racist, anti-capitalist group that focuses on supporting those experiencing homelessness, among other mutual-aid initiatives. He says he started to focus greater energy on assisting nonprofits after the pandemic took away many aspects of his business. And since the fridge has been installed, he’s seen a difference in the faces of people experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood.
The fact that community fridges are meant to serve the unhoused population doesn't always go over well with landlords of the host businesses. Sanchez says that Amethyst didn't put a fridge at the Golden Triangle location (at 1111 Broadway) because of objections from the landlord. Homeless individuals are often asked to leave the property unless Amethyst employees are working, which is part of a greater struggle with landlords assuming they will cause trouble, she explains.
Part of the community-fridge initiative is to humanize those who are in vulnerable circumstances. Soon, the group plans to include deliveries directly to encampments. Zain hopes the deliveries will not only share food and supplies in the moment, but will also help spread the word about locations and offerings.
People with roofs over their heads are taking advantage of the community fridges, too, Norris points out. There’s a diverse population of people coming though — many of whom are having to choose between shelter and hunger because of the pandemic. “This is the start of how we start taking care of our own community,” he says.
Denver Community Fridge is one of a number of mutual-aid networks in the city that seek to support each other without governmental assistance. The organization works with Kaizen Food Rescue and Denver Food Rescue to help stock the fridges, and the team often communicates with other groups to brainstorm and see how they can all collaborate. “Since we started, there’s been a lot of love and assistance and support from every mutual-aid group in Denver,” Zain says.
The fridges are a small part of greater community assistance. “We know that this is a Band-Aid for the things happening, but it is still important to make people feel seen and supported in this collective grief and struggle to survive,” Sanchez says. “[The refrigerators] are vibrantly and lovingly decorated, because needing free food shouldn't induce shame, and so often it does. Anyone who uses this fridge should feel loved and seen by their community.”
“It’s hard to ignore that food security is an issue with these big, beautiful fridges on the sidewalk,” Zain adds. “They’re getting the word out.”
Visit the Denver Community Fridge Instagram page (a website and other social media links are in the works) to learn more about the organization's mission. While food items and personal hygiene products are the mainstay donation items, financial contributions can also be made through Venmo to @denvercommunityfridge.
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