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If you live in Philadelphia, there’s probably a community fridge in your neighborhood. After an explosion in mutual aid efforts during the pandemic, there are almost 30 of these mini mutual aid centers in operation around the city.
But things have changed since last year for these outdoor refrigerators that anyone can donate to or take from. Organizers say the rate of donations has started to slow down.
“It definitely was more in the beginning,” said Shanon Sims, a volunteer with the Germantown Fridge. “I feel like it was in that honeymoon phase … It’s like this new fresh thing. We still get monetary donations, but it’s not as much as before.”
Volunteers helping maintain the various free food sources who spoke with Billy Penn all confirmed a similar situation.
Sarah Komins of the East Falls Fridge believes donations are down right now mainly because people are doing other things, whether vacation or school or something else. But there are ways to work around the problem.
“Almost all of our food is just community donations,” Komins said, “but if there are times where the fridge is completely empty, we can send volunteers to do some shopping, and we can reimburse them because we do get monetary donations, which is great.”
She noted that food scarcity is nothing new — over 16% of Philadelphia’s population regularly experiences hunger or food security, including more than 1 in 5 children — but said the pandemic made it more obvious to more people.
“First of all, more people were experiencing it because there was a lot of job loss,” Komins said. “But also I think people maybe began to realize that maybe the people in power weren’t doing anything about it, they didn’t feel taken care of, and they didn’t feel like their neighbors were taken care of.”
The physical fridges are often donated by community members, who then source electricity and space from a local organization or businesses. Jane Ellis, a teacher at the Greene Street Friends School, was trying to think of uses for her old refrigerator after moving into a new home. Inspired by mutual aid efforts she saw popping up all over the country, she offered it to the Germantown community.
After a fridge is installed, volunteers clean them daily and help arrange and maintain stock. The most common items found in the fridges are fresh produce and dairy. Occasionally people will deliver homemade meals (ingredients must be clearly listed).
When people drop off grocery items, it may be that they bought too much of something. But often it’s because they bought extras intentionally.
Kenny Chiu, an organizer for Fridges and Family, attributes the lower donations they’re seeing to people “moving on.”
“I feel like COVID is more normalized now,” Chiu said. “In the beginning of the pandemic, it was a lot of people coming together. You know, everyone trying to lend a hand. But now it’s just like every man for themselves. Now I feel like we’re back to pre-pandemic days.”
All the fridges listed below are still looking for food and monetary donations, as well as new volunteers. It’s a rewarding effort that fills a need, said Sims, the Germantown Fridge organizer.
“They’re different from food banks, because you don’t have to sign up for anything, you don’t need to qualify,” Sims said. “It’s all solidarity. It’s not charity.”
Rose Franzen, an organizer from the Poweltown Fridge, said the groups that run the fridges are different from traditional nonprofits or food banks, “We just really care about each other and about our community, and we want to do something that’s not focused on building hierarchy or an organization, but just focused on immediate impact.”
Going forward, several fridges in Philadelphia have plans to expand, while others just hope to sustain the mutual aid efforts they began when COVID hit.
Victoria Martin-Nelson, a volunteer for the South Philly Community Fridge, said people should try to remember hunger is an ongoing problem in the city.
“This is still an issue, it’s going to be an issue,” Martin-Nelson said. “[We want to] reassure or confirm for our neighbors that the fridge is still going to be here, whether there’s a pandemic or not.”
Where to find community fridges around Philadelphia
- 20 W. Armat St.
- 19 E. High St.
- Ambassador: 635 W. Girard Ave. (Ludlow )
- Franny Lou’s Porch: 2400 Carol St. (Kensington)
- Triple Bottom Brewing: 915 Spring Garden St. (West Poplar)
- Stinger Square Park: 3200 Dickinson St. (Grays Ferry)
- Castellion’s Italian Market: 1255 E. Palmer St. (Fishtown)
- Alchemy Hair Lab: 2401 E. Letterly St. (Kensington)
- 308 N. 39th St. (West Philly) NOTE: This fridge is relocating soon
- Caribe Towers: 3231 N. 2nd St. (Fairhill)
- Opportunity Towers I & II: 1717 W. Hunting Park Ave. (Nicetown)
- Opportunity Towers III: 5524 Haverford Ave. (West Philly)
- The Gables Cafe: 4600 Woodland Ave. (West Philly)
- Community Partnership School: 3033 W. Glenwood Ave. (Str. Mansion/Brewtown)
- 234 Winona St. (Germantown)
- Fairmount Bicycles: 2015 Fairmount Ave. (Fairmount)
- Porcos: 2204 Washington Ave. (Point Breeze)
- 511 S. 52nd St.
- 1149 S. 9th St.
- 7044 Woodland Ave.
- 1229 S. 6th St.
- 1901 S. 9th St.
- 1200 S. 21st St.
- 3507 Midvale Ave.
- 2670 Coral St.
- 3750 Lancaster Ave.
- 1924 Spring Garden St.