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Community refrigerators in Southern California are a source of aid, activism and sometimes anxiety

The refrigerator in Carmen Perez’s garage has been collecting dust for the past four months. It was supposed to join a growing network of makeshift street pantries that have popped up across Southern California this year. But while Perez’s intentions were good, she has learned the refrigerators are not always well-received.

“When I saw fridges showing up throughout Los Angeles, I knew this was something that was needed here, too,” said Perez, who along with her friend, Kimberley Burnett, launched a Community Fridge program in Corona. “But right as we got started, came the ‘no’s.’ “

Since July, the 19-year-old organizers have been looking to connect with a local business or resident to host and provide a power source for their fridge. But every conversation with possible hosts, they say, has led to one frustrating question: “Will it bring homeless here?”

“That’s pretty much where every conversation went and not many were open to having a talk even after we told them that wouldn’t be the case,” Perez said. “It sucks because we’re just trying to help.”



Take what you need

Community fridges have sprouted up across Southern California as the coronavirus pandemic has squeezed local economies, increasing jobless claims and the number of those seeking food aid in many cities.

The standalone refrigerators, which are mostly volunteer-driven, have provided some relief, becoming part of a growing movement of COVID-19-era mutual aid. Stocked with contributions from stores, restaurants, food pantries and even people’s homes and gardens, items in the community fridges are free for all who need help — no questions asked.

Unlike more traditional forms of aid, those visiting a community fridge are not required to sign any paperwork and there’s no limit on what an individual can take. Most of the fridges are hosted by local businesses that sometimes agree to provide electricity for the project. They are also easy to spot; most are vividly painted with uplifting messages that read “Free food” and “Take what you need.”

From Hollywood to East Los Angeles, Long Beach to San Fernando and Corona to Colton, community fridges have been finding their way onto neighborhood sidewalks and storefronts. Behind many of these projects is the growing mutual aid network called Los Angeles Community Fridges, which started in July and quickly gained a following in Southern California through its popular Instagram page. The decentralized group of volunteers has helped set up numerous community fridges across L.A., while offering resources and hosting virtual volunteer orientations for those across the region wanting to help clean and keep fridges stocked.

“At one point we had close to 400 volunteers across L.A. County and it just took off from word-of-mouth after that,” said Michelle Krigsfeld, a creative designer who voluntarily designs the group’s social media posts. “We always get messages from people asking, ‘How can I start a fridge program in my neighborhood?’ and we give them that guide.”

The concept behind community fridges has been around for years in countries such as Brazil and Germany. In the U.S., community members in cities such as New York, New Orleans and Oakland started their own programs after being hit hard by the effects of the ongoing pandemic.

The first L.A. community fridge opened July 6 at Reach for the Top, a transitional housing nonprofit, followed by a second fridge outside Little Amsterdam Coffee. Within days, LACF’s Instagram blew up with messages from people wanting to donate refrigerators, offering to host and asking how they could get involved. Currently, there are 18 community fridges throughout L.A. County, stretching from the San Fernando Valley to the Eastside.

“People want to have a fridge everywhere and that just shows how incredible the need is for these food resources,” Krigsfeld said. “But there are also misconceptions about who these fridges are for. There is no set demographic here, it’s for everyone, including working class families, college students and even myself.”

Though this form of mutual aid has been well-received in many communities, that hasn’t been the case everywhere.

Fed-up residents, concerns about potential health violations and lack of support in some Southern California neighborhoods has resulted in community refrigerators having their plugs pulled before they could be installed.

Roadblocks to aid

Across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, the unemployment rate more than doubled in the past nine months. In November, the average unemployment rate was 9.2% compared to 4.1% in February before the pandemic hit.

Job losses mean more people are dealing with food insecurity, defined as a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food. Between April and July 2020 in L.A. County, for example, one in four households experienced food insecurity, according to a USC study. Food banks in the Inland Empire and Orange County, meanwhile, have reported seeing higher numbers of requests for aid.

Pomona is among the cities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. For months, Pomona’s number of reported coronavirus cases has been second only to the city of Los Angeles in L.A. County. With 12,935 coronavirus cases as of Friday, Dec. 18, Pomona has been dealing with the ripple effect in the local economy leading to higher unemployment and more people looking for food aid. When community fridges started showing up in the region, some Pomona residents wanted to bring the project east where needs are acute.

“When we saw them popping up in L.A., it was something that we knew the community here could really benefit from,” said Gabriella Gunawardane, one of a handful of volunteers trying to launch the Pomona Community Fridge since August. “There has been constant support but we are still looking for a host after all these months.”

After finding a host at a residential home and disclosing the address on Instagram, the group said, the city told organizers they weren’t likely to get a permit for operating there due to health concerns. The city suggested they find a local business to host to avoid liability issues.

But after initial conversations with a few business owners, organizers said the response was “no.” Business owners expressed concerns about a refrigerator out in the open attracting vagrants, vandalism and various liability issues.

“We were trying to build this sense of community here in Pomona but we were all rejected, that’s disheartening to hear over and over again,” Gunawardane said.

A similar scenario has played out across the region.

Corona Community Fridge needs a location to keep the appliance running in Corona on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Community fridges have popped up throughout Southern California. The fridges are community run and filled by volunteers willing to keep them stocked. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

In Whittier, city officials ordered the closure of a community fridge due to multiple complaints and said its use wasn’t legal. Lack of a valid food handling permit led to the closure of a Long Beach fridge just a week after it opened in July. And in Compton, community fridge organizers received two code violations from the city due to property maintenance and regulations dealing with electrical and extension cords being in public spaces.

“We’ve seen it all these past few months, angry neighbors, businesses upset with fridges, lack of permits and so on,” LACF’s Krigsfeld said about the shutdowns. “It’s tough to see but we keep fighting and looking for creative solutions.”

Updating the rules

Ernst Oehninger knows too well about the roadblocks. As the co-founder of Freedge, a global volunteer community fridge network, the UC Davis graduate has helped countless organizers navigate legal and community concerns.

In 2014, he set up a community fridge on his front lawn and successfully fought against Yolo County officials who said he was operating an “illegal food distribution.” Due to California’s gleaner legal guidelines, which say an individual may safely distribute produce but not home-cooked meals, the fridge was able to continue operating. Since then, Oehninger alone has helped set up more than 20 fridges across the country.

“This nonprofit is to help people avoid going through the hoops the same way I did,” Oehninger said. “We think people should not lose time dealing with liability and enforcement issues, community fridges should be the responsibility of the community.”

Some of the most common issues that community fridges face include lack of support from health inspectors, city code officers and concerned landlords who fear the attention the projects bring. While every city and state has different regulations, Oehninger said that many food codes were made with restaurants in mind, not communal aid.

“Most times, a health officer will only show up because of a complaint,” he added, “which shows this isn’t about food but rather angry neighbors or landlords.”

The closest thing to regulations for community fridges are California’s guidelines for charitable feeding operations, which Oehninger said still aren’t enough to give communities the green light to operate fridges freely. He hopes to see new laws that set a standard for allowing free-food fridges nationwide, especially as the pandemic puts mutual-aid projects at the forefront of many communities.

In L.A., conversations are underway between the city’s public health department and LACF “to ensure all parties are satisfied with the way the fridges are operated,” the group said in an email.

Krigsfeld said the group hopes the city sees it as a model to use moving forward.

“This need isn’t going away anytime soon,” she said.

‘We just want to help’

While a number of community fridges have faced obstacles, there are also many that have overcome initial setbacks and set a path for others to follow.

Jessica Espinoza and Josh Dunlap, two UC Riverside seniors, for example, started the IE Community Fridge program in October after hearing about the L.A. network. When launching their first fridge in Colton behind a residential alley, their host was contacted by local police and threatened with fines if it wasn’t removed.

“People saw the fridge and they had fears of homeless showing up,” Espinoza said. “We’re talking about feeding our community and people’s peace of mind was apparently more important. We just want to help.”

A week after the incident and multiple rejections later, the group found a permanent location at a local church in Colton. Dunlap said they have since familiarized themselves with health and food safety guidelines and have launched a community awareness campaign to better prepare themselves for any unforeseeable trouble.

“We’re looking to expand across the I.E., we know there’s a need here and we want to see these fridges embraced,” Dunlap said. “We hope we’re getting to a place where we can acknowledge that food insecurity affects us all.”

In the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of North Hills, Jeff Holmes and his partner, Monica Lloyd, started the SFV Community Fridges in August. They too saw the need for mutual aid in an area that is home to about 9,000 unhoused individuals, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority.

Before launching the fridge, Lloyd reached out to Los Angeles City Councilman John Lee, who was aware of the program and supported the local effort, ensuring they were compliant with health and safety codes. The fridge is mostly operational from dawn to dusk, which helps keep the area around the fridge safe, Lloyd said.

“We were proactive before this all got started and immediately let our councilman know that we were doing this,” Lloyd said. “This guaranteed that this was going to be safe and show that we had our community in the back of our minds.”

Yet with the cold winter months approaching and few signs federal stimulus aid will be arrive before the year’s end, community fridge supporters say they won’t stop trying to provide help to those in need. They hope that soon, more will find that help isn’t too far away. It may be as close as their neighborhood sidewalk.

“The community just loves it, we see engagement at the fridge, we see strangers become friends. This is the power of food,” Lloyd said. “The resources are right in front of us because we know that America has never had a food shortage, the problem has always been access and we’re trying to break this barrier, one fridge at a time.”

Source: Orange County Register

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