Friendly Fridges Keep Families Fed in Times of Need—And You Can Help

Donation-based community fridges provide hope in food-insecure neighborhoods.

In many communities, the simple act of opening the refrigerator to find fresh, healthy food is a luxury. In New York City, Selma Raven and Sara Allen were inspired to help change that when they noticed some of their neighbors were going hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the lead of innovators in Brooklyn she’d noticed setting up what are known as community fridges, Sara found a refrigerator on Craigslist. Meanwhile, Selma asked nearby store owners for permission to plug it in outside of their shops (and use their electricity). The plan was to fill the sidewalk fridge with free, fresh food for anyone who needs it, using donations of both food and money.

A few days later, the pair set up their Friendly Fridge in front of the Last Stop, a restaurant in the Bronx that’s just down the street from their apartment.

Friendly fridge with free foodCourtesy Feeding America

How a Community Fridge Works

Like other community fridges, the Friendly Fridge operates under a simple system: Take what you need and leave what you can. To supplement donations, Selma and Sara buy food almost every day.

“It’s grown so much,” Selma says. “People take food and talk to us—the community has come together in ways that I’m just humbled by.”

Friendly Fridges Across America

Decorated Friendly FridgeCourtesy Feeding America

The community fridge concept can be found beyond New York. Similar programs have been introduced in cities across the country, such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and Philadelphia. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, organizers Hataya Johnson and Sarah Tramonte were inspired to launch the MKE Community Fridge last summer. Sarah is a Taste of Home culinary producer.

“We want to bring people together over food,” Sarah says. “It’s a basic human need that unifies us. We hope this project will inspire people from all over the city and from different backgrounds to come together for a common cause.”

They made sure the MKE Community Fridge was stocked with fresh produce from farmers markets, local gardens and grocery stores. The produce would stay in the fridge for about a day or two, and more food was added every day. The project is temporarily on hiatus over the winter since the refrigerator couldn’t withstand the extreme cold, but Sarah and Hataya are planning to build a protective shelter for their fridge for the next season.

Nearby, another Milwaukee-based organization, Food is Free, saved its fridge from the freezing temperatures by “sinking its backside into the heated garage via a massive hole in the wall,” according to the group’s Facebook page, and is open despite the cold.

Stocking the Friendly FridgeCourtesy Feeding America

In New York, the Friendly Fridge is also developing relationships with nonprofit food organizations. Selma and Sara even visited a local food share and dropped notes into packets, asking recipients to donate any extra food to the fridge. Similarly, “when we have extra, we find another location that needs it,” Selma says. “No one should go hungry. And thanks to this amazing neighborhood, we can all help.”

How You Can Help

If you’re near one of these amazing community resources and have the means to contribute, you can reach out and help keep the fridges stocked. Take advantage of sales at your local grocery store to buy extra, and donate the surplus. Many of the donation sites also accept dry goods and household items as well as fresh food. At some community fridges, hygiene products and face masks are accepted, too.

Wondering what items are most needed? Here are donations ideas to get you started. Some fridges also stock homemade food—so the next time you make a casserole that yields an extra pan, like our Make Once, Eat Twice Lasagna, consider donating the second pan.

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