Hunger: The give-and-take from public 'freedges'

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The pandemic reversed the last 10 years of progress toward ending hunger in the United States, according to Feeding America. Millions more people than before are experiencing food insecurity, and a relatively new movement of community refrigerators is helping out – a bit.

At locations in cities and towns around the world, people can show up and take what they need from the fridges. They can also leave food, like a gallon of unopened milk that won’t get used or Lean Cuisines from the back of their freezer.

On a recent morning in downtown Worcester, Trevor Delapara is helping unload a few dozen snack size apple pies into one of several outdoor community refrigerators in the city.

“This was a Godsend for the people in the community,” Delapara said. “This fridge will be stocked right now. Come back in five minutes, it’s empty. Come back in 20 minutes, it’s full again.”

Volunteers Trevor Delapara and Cathy Pedtke put donations of apple pies into an outdoor community refrigerator in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM

The fridge is painted bright blue with the words “Free Food” stenciled on the door. Delapara, who owns a nearby food truck, is one of about 50 volunteers who every day check the contents of this refrigerator and several other outdoor community fridges around Worcester.

When volunteer Cathy Pedtke stops by around 9:30 a.m., she first checked the thermometer to make sure the fridge was cold enough, then looked at what was fresh and what needed to be tossed.

“We’ve got a lot of bread. We’ve got some nice juices that just came in this morning. In the drawers here we’ve got some kohlrabi. Those probably have been there a couple of days now,” Pedtke said, laughing. “Nobody really knows how to use kohlrabi.”

Guidelines posted online and on the fridge explain what foods can be donated. Fruits and vegetables, unopened dairy and pre-packaged meals are welcome. Not allowed: homemade casseroles, raw meat or fish, or expired items.

Pedtke popped open the freezer.

“We’ve got lots of frozen veggies. Got some frozen waffles. It looks like the person who stopped by earlier took some frozen waffles and a couple of frozen meals,” she said.

The person, an older man, came by while we were talking. He poked around the fridge like you do when you’re looking for something to eat and not sure what’s there. He took his items and didn’t stop to speak with anyone. Pedtke said she tends to give fridge users their space.

“I can understand that it’s a difficult time for anyone who needs to utilize something like this,” Pedtke said. “So I’ll say, ‘Hello,’ I’ll smile. And they’ll usually say, ‘Hello,’ back.” 

Volunteers Cathy Pedtke and Maria Ravelli stand next to one of several outdoor community fridges in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ravelli was part of a group of people who got the refrigerators up and running during the pandemic.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM

Community refrigerators are attempting to address hunger — as well as food waste.

A network of volunteers is key to a community fridge’s success. They connect with local farms and restaurants for food. Some volunteers loop in grocery stores. They keep the refrigerators clean and get the word out on social media that free food is available.

The California-based organization Freedge offers a blueprint for many of the fridges. It posts guidelines for finding affordable or donated fridges, and how to set up volunteer and food systems. It also offers details about Good Samaritan protections that could essentially shield volunteers from being sued if donated food was spoiled and caused illness.

A map and a spreadsheet on Freedge’s website show the addresses of hundreds of community fridges around the world, though many that borrow ideas from Freedge aren’t listed on the site.

Most fridges are full-sized and encased in wood shelters built by volunteers. Many have adjacent pantries for canned goods and toiletries. Electricity is paid for by business owners or residents who “host” the fridges on their properties.

A public, outdoor refrigerator in Florence, Massachusetts.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM

This summer in western Massachusetts, a group of volunteers set up a fridge on the bike path in Florence. There are others in Franklin County and Boston.

“Community fridges are a very nice, very straightforward way of supporting your neighbors,” said Andy Fisher, co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition and author of “Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.” 

Fisher commends the community-based response to the growing problem of food insecurity.

“I think of them as akin to the little free libraries that have popped up everywhere,” Fisher said.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, Trevor Delapara's jerk chicken food truck is right by an outdoor community refrigerator. The fridge provides free food to people who know it's there. Delepara says he often offers fridge users a plate of hot food.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM

But the problem of hunger is systemic, and Fisher said the community fridges are actually a distraction from the issues and real solutions to deeper problems.

“We need higher incomes. We need better government supports,” he said. “We need to reexamine capitalism essentially to see whether it’s really meeting the needs of everybody.”

Standing at his jerk chicken food truck in Worcester, Delapara isn’t trying to solve world hunger.

“People who have come [to this refrigerator] have kids and they [tell you], ‘You don’t know how much this means to us because it help us to make ends meet,’” Delapara said. “You get food stamps. How far can they go by the time you buy the meat in the supermarket? So this helps the little man, you know?”

Delapara was homeless once, he said, and hungry. Now he describes himself as an entrepreneur. When he’s cooking at the food truck and people show up at the community fridge nearby, he calls out to them and asks if they’re hungry.

“I offer them a plate of food because — what is a plate of food?” Delapara said.

It could be just enough to get you through another day.