A new solution to hunger? Refrigerators full of free food pop up around the Bay Area

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With millions of Californians out of work and struggling to feed
their families, getting help during the coronavirus pandemic can
mean waiting in a
miles-long line of cars
outside a food bank.

Or, in some Bay Area neighborhoods, it can mean opening an
unassuming refrigerator sitting on the side of the road.

That’s the goal of the community fridge movement — an
alternative solution to hunger
popularized in New York City
and now sweeping California. So
far, local organizers have installed refrigerators in Oakland, San
Francisco and Los Angeles, and an effort is underway to set one up
in San Jose.

“It’s just starting to become kind of a phenomenon,” said
25-year-old Sara Crispin, who hosts a community fridge with her
housemates outside their West Oakland duplex.

Volunteers stock the refrigerators with produce, milk, prepared
meals and other items, which are then free for the taking by anyone
who could use them whether they’re from the homeless encampment
down the street or the apartment next door. Fridge locations are
publicized on Instagram and through
word of mouth and fliers.

They’ve come at a time when a massive, coronavirus-fueled
unemployment surge has led to
skyrocketing demand for food assistance
— and the threat of
the virus can make the grocery store a scary option.

But the fridges also have prompted concerns about permitting and
food safety.

“They’re well-intentioned, but quite frankly, the health and
safety aspect really scares me on those things. Because anybody can
put anything in there,” said Bill Lee, executive director of
Martha’s Kitchen, a San Jose-based soup kitchen that distributes
meals throughout Santa Clara County.

In Oakland, city staffers are still trying to figure out the
best way to address the fridge phenomenon and to make sure
refrigerators don’t block sidewalks or present a health hazard,
according to city spokesman Sean Maher. In the meantime, he
encouraged people to donate to established food banks.

“We recognize and applaud the altruism of our community —
it’s part of what makes Oakland the amazing City that it is,
there is no shortage of neighbors giving to neighbors,” Maher
wrote in an email. “We must also consider the health, safety, and
well-being of all of our community members.”

On Linden Street in West Oakland, a tall, white refrigerator
sits in a make-shift shelter at the end of a residential driveway.
A large cardboard sign taped to the door proclaims, “Free food.
Comida gratis. Take what you need. Leave what you don’t.” On a
recent visit, the fridge was filled with bags of greens, potatoes,
squash, apples, bottles of water and a jar of pickles. A box of
Narcan — a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses — sat
next to a container of homemade cilantro-lime rice. Shelves next to
the fridge held dry goods.

The grassroots group Town Fridge has set up
at least seven refrigerators throughout Oakland and is continually
expanding. Organizers scan Craigslist for refrigerators and other
supplies, seek donations and ask neighbors to “host”
refrigerators on their property. The group connects them to power
inside the home via an extension cord and pays for the extra charge
on the host’s electric bill.

“It’s a beautiful idea,” Crispin said. “And it’s a
very simple idea.”

In San Jose, an
effort to launch a similar program
has raised $210 of its
$1,200 goal on GoFundMe.

In San Francisco, SF Community
Fridge
and Mission Meals Coalition opened the city’s first
fridge last week on the sidewalk in front of Adobe Books in the
Mission District.

On a recent weekday, a man on a bicycle stopped to pick up a jar
of salsa and a bag of sunflower seeds. Before the pandemic, he
worked bussing tables and serving food in restaurants. He’s been
without a job for four months now.

“I have no money for food,” he said.

That’s become frighteningly common. At Martha’s Kitchen,
demand has doubled during the coronavirus crisis, Lee said.

Martha’s Kitchen received $250,000 in emergency state funds,
allocated by the city of San Jose, when the pandemic began. But
that ran out in May. With its reserves dwindling, the organization
may have to start putting desperate people on a wait list if more
funding doesn’t come through, Lee said.

Despite the dire situation, Lee doesn’t think community
fridges are the answer. Nonprofits like his get permits from the
county health department, and their staff members, who receive food
safety training, are vigilant about throwing away food that’s
been at room temperature too long. Lee worries well-meaning
neighbors won’t take the same care.

The fridges do come with rules. In Oakland, for example, donors
must label and date their contributions, and raw meat is not
allowed.

“We take care of each other. So we don’t have any concerns
with poisoning anybody or anyone playing with the food inside,”
said Natalia Mount, who hosts a fridge at her gallery, Pro Arts, at
Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland.

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But her fridge faces another problem. Days after it opened, the
city told her she didn’t have the proper permit.

Now, city officials are working with Pro Arts on a solution to
help the gallery continue with this “worthwhile project,”
according to Harry Hamilton, marketing coordinator for the city’s
Economic & Workforce Development Department.

Until then, Mount has moved the fridge inside her gallery,
which, she says, defeats the purpose. The gallery is closed due to
the pandemic, so patrons can access the fridge only if Mount or
another worker happen to be there.

“Everything is on hold,” Mount said, “until we get
permission from the city to house the fridge at the plaza.”

Get involved

To find out more, host a community fridge or donate, visit the
following websites:

Oakland: linktr.ee/townfridge

San Francisco: linktr.ee/SFCommunityFridge

San Jose: gofundme.com/f/22qjufds00

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Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
A new solution to hunger? Refrigerators full of free food
pop up around the Bay Area