Madison Community Fridges project combines fresh food and mutual aid

Starting with one fridge on East Johnson Street, the project is expanding its network.

Starting with one fridge on East Johnson Street, the project is expanding its network.

Madison’s newest hot spot for fresh foods is also a hub for mutual aid. 

Since late July, a fledgling grassroots group called Madison Community Fridges has been stocking a refrigerator on the lawn at 1005 East Johnson St., near the intersection with Brearly Street. Some of the residents at the address who work at Troy Farm fill the fridge with leftover produce. A small pantry for perishable goods also sits next to the fridge. Madison Community Fridges invites neighbors to add food and community members to help themselves. “Take what you need, leave what you can,” is their motto. 

“People are losing jobs [due to the pandemic]. How are they paying for food? It’s heartbreaking,” says Michele Scott, a pandemic-sidelined massage therapist and one of a trio of organizers behind Madison Community Fridges. (The others wish to remain anonymous.) “We want anyone to be able to use this. Anyone that needs food or anyone that has an abundance of food or something is going to go bad and you know you’re not going to be able to eat it. Food waste is a major part of why we are passionate about this.” 

When it’s stocked to the brim each Friday and when it’s running low, Madison Community Fridges posts snapshots of the fridge contents on Instagram. Recent photos show it stuffed with stacks of clear plastic clamshells of bright produce and prepared salads, cartons of milk and tubs of yogurt, brussels sprouts, piles of cilantro, and yellow onions. Local artist @finchcake painted the fridge green with a gaping mouth and big blue eyes, reminiscent of an anthropomorphic appliance you’d find in Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Community fridges are a means of mutual aid. They provide food and moral support to some and give others the opportunity to share and connect—all  while maintaining social distance during the worsening pandemic. The Madison fridge has hand sanitizer nearby for users. 

Madison Community Fridges was inspired by New York City’s In Our Hearts, an anarchist network of autonomous groups that, since the pandemic hit in February, have erected and stocked more than 60 community fridges throughout the five boroughs. In Milwaukee, a community fridge that opened this year has been shuttered for the season. 

But Madison Community Fridges is just getting warmed up. The project recently scored two wins: finding a location for a second fridge, and setting up new partnerships to expand its reach. 

“We are going to be looking at getting [fridges] in more neighborhoods that need this kind of community,” says Scott. The areas in most need are located where residents have neither access to food pantries nor public transportation to travel to them. Several organizations, including Second Harvest and Free For All, offer mobile and pop-up pantries, though these have a different impact than stationary sources of food.

The second fridge, donated by a community member, is scheduled to be installed in December outside of Neighborhood House, a community service organization on Mills Street. 

“One of the reasons working with them appeals to us is mutual support. People are accessing the fridge, and it’s led by the community stocking the fridge,” says Laura Gundlach, program director at Neighborhood House. Before the pandemic started, the organization’s food pantry shelf was accessible anytime the building was open. But now, access to the building is restricted for health reasons. 

“It’s another way to make access to fresh food more accessible to people,” Gundlach says. 

The community fridge will be an upgrade for Neighborhood House, which gets donations of fresh produce from groups like Community Action Coalition and Healthy for All. 

Fresh foods like vegetables and dairy are integral to a healthy diet, but can be a challenge for some food pantries because they require refrigeration and can spoil. Foods at pantries are often nearer to their sell-by date than those purchased at a grocery store. However, sell-by and expiration dates on foods are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and generally serve as manufacturer quality guarantees. Food pantries may have their own timelines for packaged perishable food freshness based on the sell-by dates of each product. 

“We’re realizing how much food there can be and working to prevent food waste. And how much people need access to free and healthy food. We’d like to put a ton of fresh stuff in there,” says Gundlach. 

Aside from sustenance, the community fridges extend dignity to families that prepare their meals with donated food, says Helen Osborn-Senatus, program manager at the North Side’s River Food Pantry. The organization recently partnered with Madison Community Fridges to donate fresh foods every Friday. 

“Sometimes there’s this false preconception that folks who come for food at a food pantry should just be happy with what they get,” says Osborn-Senatus. “It’s not just ‘Here’s a box of food, I hope you like it,’ it’s ‘What would you like? What would be most useful to you?’”

The Madison Community Fridge takes requests. There’s a white board and a comment box for user suggestions of what they’d like to bring home from the ridge.

With a traditional Wisconsin winter anticipated, protecting the fridges is a concern. 

“They’ll break outside if you leave them out in the elements. So we have to build something for them, and we’re hoping that it works,” Scott says.

The fridge on Johnson Street was recently enclosed in a snug wooden shack with a clear plastic door. It was built by Madison Community Fridges team with Wonka’s Harvest, a farm collective in Hollandale. Wonka’s Harvest donated and delivered the building, and has plans to construct another for fridge No. 2. Fridge host sites provide electricity.

“[Community fridges] could get big in Madison,” Scott says. “I’m hoping it will.”

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