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Community fridges have served Philadelphians through the pandemic. Here’s how they’re faring in 2024.

Community fridges fill in food insecurity gaps while offering an anonymous 24/7 at-leisure experience, similar to grocery shopping.

Michelle Nelson from the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project stocks the refrigerator at the opening of the Mama-Tee Community Fridge at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
Michelle Nelson from the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project stocks the refrigerator at the opening of the Mama-Tee Community Fridge at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

If it takes a village to feed a child, how much effort does it take to feed the village? That’s what organizers of the city’s community fridges figure out every day as they provide food for hundreds of families.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of food insecurity increased significantly in the United States as access to fresh, unprocessed food sharply declined, a 2022 study in the National Library of Medicine found. In response, community organizers across the country initiated the setup of independent, neighborhood-managed refrigerators filled with fresh food, operating entirely on volunteer labor.

At the height from 2020 to 2022, there were more than 30 throughout Philadelphia, but the exact number can be hard to track as many don’t have a digital footprint and operate among neighbors.

Though not a complete solution to food insecurity, these community fridges offer fresh food to those who might not have regular access to (or cannot afford) traditional grocers. The fridges also allow people to remain anonymous and access food at their leisure (like shopping at a store) vs. filling out paperwork or needing to stand in line at food distribution sites, said Gavin Perez-Canto, the community food resource coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

“Most importantly you can choose whatever you want to eat,” Perez-Canto said, noting that fridges can remain open 24 / 7 without the need for a volunteer to be always on-site. “I think community fridges can fill in some of the gaps that food pantries aren’t able to.”

There are dozens of organizations distributing fresh food to families in need, including giants like Philabundance and Share Food Program. However, community fridges extend beyond merely providing food; they also offer resource sharing; educational outreach on food, jobs, and housing; and, crucially, the strengthening of community bonds. The operation of these fridges relies heavily on the efforts of dozens of volunteers.

Running a community fridge is far from easy, a reality that many may not fully appreciate.

Michelle Nelson, a doctor of educational psychology and founder of the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project — the largest network of its kind in the city having served nearly 200,000 residents to date — notes the challenges faced by such initiatives. These obstacles can come in the form of a high cost of operation, where some spend upward of $20,000 per year to keep fridges stocked. Additionally, the initiatives depend heavily on the availability of volunteers to collect donations and stock the fridges during their spare time. Finally, and most importantly, sourcing enough fresh, quality food can prove difficult.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen some community fridge groups in Philly launch, but then you don’t see them again,” Nelson said. “There are really only a few organizations that can keep going and I think a lot of it has to do with the process. You need to really educate yourself on what type of practices work, you need to have great partnerships, and you need to constantly engage in opportunities to help spread the word so that the public knows that you exist and that you need help and support — our organization doesn’t take a break.”

Since the emergence of community fridges in Philadelphia, many have faced challenges, including the need to relocate or partner with other organizations for survival. Perez-Canto, who provides support and other resources to local community fridges, says many of these volunteer organizers had to get creative.

“During the peak of COVID-19, there was a lot of focus on food insecurity — a lot of money and resources were floating around,” Perez-Canto said. “A lot of that has dried up. Food pantries and refrigerators are having to find creative ways of building relationships with grocery stores, connecting with food rescue programs, and purchasing food, oftentimes out of their own pocket.”

That’s when volunteers like Victoria Jayne and Benji Aaron, who work with South Philadelphia Community Fridge, look toward external grant-funding or collaborating with restaurants like Chipotle, where 10% of each meal bought on a specific day benefits their fridge programs.

“We get food two different ways: we buy it or it’s donated. A Chipotle fundraiser is a fun, cute way to fundraise to buy fresh food for the fridges,” Jayne said. “We’ve also expanded to applying for grants, and have received funding from the Phillies and the Patricia Kind Family Foundation.”

Organizers of Germantown Community Fridge have developed an unwavering loyal and vast network of coffee shops like High Point Cafe, bakeries like Merzbacher’s and Crust Vegan Bakery, and nonprofits like Philly Food Rescue and Double Trellis, delivering and preparing food for the Germantown fridges every single week. But that’s barely scratching the surface. Without these community bonds, especially communication between volunteers, it’s unclear if a fridge can survive on volunteer help alone, said Susan Bloch, an organizer in Germantown.

“Our growth over the years manifests in a couple of ways, one is just an ever-increasing network of donors and the other is an ever-increasing network of volunteers. And that is exponential. It just seems like there are always new people who want to help,” she said. “Some fridges that get started can’t sustain because the upkeep is so intensive, it takes a village.”

Bloch, who is now retired, said that many members of Germantown’s Community Fridge are checking their emails and the group’s communication app, Geneva, constantly throughout the workday, fielding donation drop-offs and connecting with new partners around the clock to keep things moving.

Where to find community fridges in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, there are more than two dozen community fridges actively serving neighborhoods, but there can be many more independently run fridges without a digital presence out there that we couldn’t find. Know of any more community fridges? Email us at

Here’s a list of active community fridges in Philadelphia.

  1. Northern Liberties Neighbors Association: 700 N. Third St. (Northern Liberties)

  2. Martha Kensington: 2113 E. York St. (Kensington)

  3. Columbia North YMCA: 1400 N. Broad St. (North Philly)

  4. St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children: 160 E. Erie Ave. (North Philly)

  5. Castellino’s Italian Market: 1255 E. Palmer St. (Fishtown)

  6. Alchemy Hair Lab: 2401 E. Letterly St. (Kensington)

  7. Caribe Towers: 3231 N. Second St. (Fairhill)

  8. Opportunity Towers I & II: 1717 W. Hunting Park Ave. (Nicetown)

  9. Opportunity Towers III: 5524 Haverford Ave. (West Philly)

  10. Hue Boba Cafe: 4600 Woodland Ave. (West Philly)

  11. Community Partnership School: 3033 W. Glenwood Ave. (Strawberry Mansion & Brewerytown)

  12. 234 Winona St. (Germantown)

  13. Fairmount Bicycles: 2015 Fairmount Ave. (Fairmount)

  1. BOK Building: 1901 S. Ninth St.

  2. The People’s Kitchen: 1149 Ninth St.

  3. Mifflin Square Park: 516 Wolf St. (pantry only)

  4. DiSilvestro Playground: 1701 S. 15th St.

  5. Growing Together Garden: 2550 Reed St. (pantry only)

  6. Porco’s: 1100 S. 22nd St. (pantry only)

  7. Luhv Vegan Bistro: 1840 Ellsworth St.

  1. 1149 S. Ninth St. (South Philly)

  2. 1940 Liacouras Walk (Temple University)

  1. 20 W. Armat St.

  2. 19 E. High St.

  1. LAVA Space: 4134 Lancaster Ave.

  1. Vault + Vine: 3507 Midvale Ave.

  1. Blackwell Library: 125 S. 52nd St. (52nd and Sansom Streets)

  1. Unity Java: 5312 Ridge Ave. (Manayunk)

  1. 1651 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. (located on north side of building on Race Street between 16th and 17th Streets)