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Community Fridge confronts the tension between zoning and mutual aid

The East Johnson Street mainstay provides free fresh food, but complaints put its future in doubt.

The East Johnson Street mainstay provides free fresh food, but complaints put its future in doubt.

When Madison Community Fridges installed a refrigerator filled with free fresh food near the intersection of East Johnson and Brearly Streets last summer, their goal was to feed community members who’d taken an economic hit from the pandemic. But now the grassroots group is scrambling to find a new home after anonymous complaints prompted city citations that hold the mutual-aid upstart to the same standards as established organizations with property. 

The first Madison Community Fridge, a local branch of a national grassroots campaign to simultaneously reduce hunger and waste, received citations from the City of Madison’s Building Inspection division in late March. City officials charge that the wooden shelter around the refrigerator doesn’t meet building codes, and that distributing food in a residential area violates city zoning. The original notice from the zoning department allowed one week to move the fridge, but the city granted a 30-day extension on April 8.The citation was issued just days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate and emergency order, effectively cutting $50 million of monthly supplemental federal food aid beginning in May. However, Evers has since struck a deal that affords Wisconsin $70 million a month in aid. 

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The fridge sits near the sidewalk of a residence and is powered by an extension cord that runs from inside the house. Nearby, there’s a shelf with an overhang for non-perishable foods. When the fridge opened its doors in summer 2020, it was initially stocked with extra produce from Rooted’s Troy Farm. Workers at the farm live in the residence where the fridge sits. The current residents plan to move in August, so Madison Community Fridges was already seeking a new location before the citations came in. 

The fridge, one of two the group has crowdsourced and placed in the city, is stocked with nearly 500 pounds of fresh food weekly. Volunteers collect the food from River Food Pantry and local restaurants and grocery stores. It’s filled with vegetables, fruits, dairy, and fresh prepared meals. 

Madison Community Fridges chose the location for its accessibility—one of the very factors that runs afoul of the line zoning laws draw between where people can live and where food pantries can operate. The other fridge is located against the Neighborhood House building on Mills Street. It’s also enclosed in a small wooden shed.  

“To possibly see one of these end is so disheartening,” says Michele Scott, one of the founders of Madison Community Fridges. “This project has been able to fulfill a need in the community during a global pandemic emergency and it shows where the gaps are in the food system in Madison. Right now, we’re interested in working together with the city, as we believe that this project should be supported by them in the future.”

Like many mutual aid projects that have sprung up across the country during the pandemic, Madison Community Fridges offered a fast, resourceful response to a crisis. Zoning laws don’t really account for such things: they create long-term guardrails for how people use land and property in different parts of a city. Someone who wants an exception can ask the city to change its zoning laws or apply for a variance, but both of those are complicated processes that take time and resources. A business opening a new location or a developer proposing another high-rise can afford to take that on—hacking through complex rules and bureaucracies, sending lawyers to city meetings, adjusting long-term plans as needed. A small, scrappy organization that relies on monetary and food donations, and needs to feed hungry people in economic free-fall, doesn’t have the same luxury. 

If Madison Community Fridges broke the rules, it also stepped in during a time when the official channels for food assistance and economic relief have moved slowly, erratically, and altogether inadequately. Our food systems weren’t prepared for a pandemic and mutual aid has worked to fill the gaps.

Madison Community Fridges did not consult with city zoning officials before placing the fridge. That said, it’s hard to see how the project could have met immediate needs, and found a location accessible for neighborhood residents, while going through a complex zoning and permitting process. It’s not a conventional food pantry, exactly, it’s not a business, and it’s not quite a whole separate building, so where exactly does it fit, in the eyes of the law?  

Matt Tucker, zoning administrator at the City of Madison’s Division of Building Inspection, says the citations were a response to anonymous complaints. Rodents had gotten into some of the food and clothing donations left at the site were in disarray, he says, which city officials consider a public health matter. Madison Community Fridges asks that clothes not be left at the site. 

“When I went over and looked at [the shed], I was impressed. But that doesn’t mean it’s legal,” Tucker says. 

First, Tucker explains, outdoor appliances must be rated for outdoor use, like vending machines and gas station ice freezers. They should also be plugged in to external outlets. In addition, any shelter needs to be built according to code. The Madison Common Council can change zoning laws, but not building codes or equipment ratings. The codes regulate building components like footings, foundations, attachments and the flammability of materials. 

Tucker points to the Keys to Dignity Locker Program as evidence that outside-the-box projects can come into compliance with city rules. Friends of the State Street Family, a non-profit that advocates for homeless people in downtown Madison, launched the project to give homeless people places to keep their belongings. In 2016, the Madison Common Council approved zoning changes to allow for the placement of lockers at nearby businesses and in parking structures. However, Brad Schlag, a representative for the program, says there’s still government red tape to work through. Locker sites must be cleared in Madison parks and city garages, which has come to a halt during the pandemic. 

The Community Fridges movement was inspired by a New York City anarchist collective. Milwaukee’s Community Fridge plans to open in the summer after closing for the winter. The Milwaukee fridge is located in a commercial area, outside of a restaurant. Shari Sandler, a representative from the Milwaukee group, says that project has had no issues with zoning. The fridge is housed in a small frame to protect it from the elements, which makes it a moveable structure that’s exempt from needing a permit. The representative says they did check with public health officials to make sure they were compliant. 

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“[Madison Community Fridges is] serving a tremendous purpose and I’m hoping that there’s some way their services will be maintained,” says District 2 Alder Patrick Heck. “I plan to explore all options that could allow community fridges to continue offering their important services.”

In terms of zoning changes, Heck says city code is very specific to avoid unintended consequences and misinterpretations. 

“Much of it depends upon how they would be defined. What is a community fridge? What is a shelter? These may seem like simple matters, but they are not,” he says. Current zoning for food banks are indoors in commercial and mixed use zoning. Public Health Department and Building Inspection codes would also come into play.

In the meantime, Madison Community Fridges is raising awareness of their need for a new location via social media and asking the community to do the same. 

“We feel fortunate that people are rallying around us,” says Scott. “We would love to keep [the fridge] in the tiny neighborhood that loves that [it’s] there.” 

Scott says the Social Justice Center on Willy Street has offered to give the fridge a home, but Madison Community Fridges prefers to keep the fridge in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood if possible. 

The group plans to meet with Heck, and city zoning and public health officials on Friday to discuss prospects for the refrigerator.

“It’s looking good and we have hope!” she says.

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