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Philly’s community fridge scene is booming

Since July 2020, roughly 25 fridges and pantries have opened up throughout the city. More are on the way.

From left are community organizers of the Coral Street Fridge: Matt Stebbins, Kaelee Shepherd, and Anthony Perez. The refrigerators are located outside the Kensington Community Food Co-op at corner of Lehigh Avenue and Coral St.
From left are community organizers of the Coral Street Fridge: Matt Stebbins, Kaelee Shepherd, and Anthony Perez. The refrigerators are located outside the Kensington Community Food Co-op at corner of Lehigh Avenue and Coral St.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a woman went shopping at the People’s Fridge on 52nd Street, housed in a whitewashed shed opposite Mina’s World, a cafe and community hub. That day’s inventory boasted tubs of whole-milk yogurt, cartons of eggs, organic milk; loaves of soft, sesame-seeded bread and whole-wheat focaccia; and bins almost overflowing with fresh produce: lettuce, kale, radishes, parsnips, kohlrabi, and apples.

That same afternoon, snacks and pantry staples spilled onto tables next to the Mama-Tee Fridge inside Spot Burger in Brewerytown. Shopping bags held instant ramen, hamburger buns, and Idahoan instant mashed potatoes. Apple sauce, SpaghettiOs, and canned beans lined shelves next to the fridge. Inside its doors were bottles of PediaSure, potatoes and onions and apples, gallons of milk, and canisters of ready-to-bake biscuit dough. Hunks of cooked dark-meat chicken sat in the freezer above.

Since July 2020, Philadelphia’s number of community fridges has swelled from one to roughly 25. They’re stationed across the city, from Cedar Park to Lawndale, East Germantown to Southwark offering free food to neighbors. The fridges are organized, stocked, and cleaned by networks of volunteers guided by a simple principle: Take what you need, give what you can.

In Point Breeze, outside Community bar at 21st and Federal Streets, a colorfully painted fridge contained bagged sandwiches, matzo, heads of cabbage and cauliflower, carrots, and a slew of prepared meals from Rowhouse Grocery. Cartons of blueberries chilled in the freezer. A passerby spied the contents inside and stopped to take a tray of spaghetti squash-and-vegetable stew for dinner.

“A constant thing that I’ve seen throughout all the fridges in Philly is every fridge has its own personality,” says Matt Stebbins, who, along with Kaelee Shepherd and Anthony Perez, launched the city’s newest fridge — Coral Street Fridge outside the Kensington Community Food Co-op — just last month. Shepherd and Perez both work at Prevention Point, and Stebbins runs the mutual aid organization Double Trellis; the three connected after they separately reached out to South Philadelphia Community Fridge about starting a fridge in Kensington.

They began discussing logistics last November. First, they had to find a location that would provide electricity and “housing” for the fridge, then they had to acquire a refrigerator. Since powering up the fridge (and its attendant Instagram page) in mid-March, the three organizers have been raising funds and loosely recruiting volunteers to help run the fridge: keeping it supplied and clean, surveying the community to see what they want to see inside, and running its social media accounts.

They check on the fridge — actually a fridge and an unplugged freezer for pantry items — once or twice daily, but hope others will chip in maintenance with time. Already, they say, plenty of people are leaving food in the fridge for the surrounding community, which started using it on day one. “Every time we fill it, I feel like within a few hours it’s mostly utilized,” Shepherd says.

The concept of a community fridge is a global movement that’s nearly a decade old, but it became more prominent last year in light of the acute food insecurity felt around the country. Unlike food pantries and soup kitchens, most community fridges are open 24/7. And part of the ethos behind them is to “prioritize the community’s [ability] to deem their own needs, not making those decisions for them,” says People’s Fridge volunteer Kai Yohman. That means you might find sweets and snacks (and menstrual products) alongside healthier fare like produce and yogurt.

Yohman saw the signs of food insecurity — and attempts to address it — in her own West Philly neighborhood last summer. Lines formed at food giveaways in nearby Malcolm X Park, and she saw neighbors leave groceries on others’ front porches. She signed up for regular volunteer shifts not long after the People’s Fridge opened last September.

Since then, the meticulously kept fridge has become even more organized. A group of designated shoppers and community liaisons now manage it via Slack. It’s stocked up to three times a day and relies on a mix of food purchased specifically for the fridge and donations (prepared meals, CSA shares, food from West Philly Bunny Hop).

Slack also helps Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project organize its burgeoning network of sun-yellow fridges — there are over 15 in Philadelphia, as well as a mobile pop-up grocery store opening soon at 17th and Montrose Streets in Graduate Hospital. (The store will have a wider selection of items — all free — and will be staffed and open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.) Each Mama-Tee fridge has a Slack channel with seven to 10 volunteers making regular check-ins, taking before-and-after photos, and tracking what food gets taken and what doesn’t. It’s important information to Mama-Tee’s overall efforts, says founder Michelle Nelson.

“What do people like in this neighborhood vs. what they like in that neighborhood,” she says. “Metrics matter. We need to know that we’re making a difference.” The data helps Nelson communicate Mama-Tee’s needs to community partners and large donors like Whole Foods. Including the mobile store, which will house four fridges, Mama-Tee has plans to install fridges in senior housing and elsewhere in the city. “We’re looking at maybe 40 fridges,” Nelson says.

Mama-Tee performs careful analysis before establishing a new fridge. Nelson’s team, which includes a licensed architect and a general contractor, evaluates prospective sites and the neighborhoods to ensure not only that they’re in compliance with city regulations, but also that the fridge will have community buy-in. “You got to be boots on the ground, you got to know the neighbors,” Nelson says.

Not all of Philly’s community fridges are so painstakingly plotted. “I’m surprised by how fast it came to fruition,” says Jane Ellis, who launched Germantown Community Fridge outside Greene Street Friends School, where she’s a teacher. Last summer she got the idea to start a fridge from Instagram. She hoped to incorporate it into a plan for a school garden, which would supply the fridge with produce.

The garden is taking some time, but a fridge and pantry opened at 20 W. Armat St. in September. Ellis worked through what many fridge founders consider: “getting the community together, building a shed, figuring out where are we going to place the fridge, how is the electricity going to work, where are we going to get the food, is anyone even going to use it, how do you get donations.”

It all came together. And her fear of the fridge going unused proved unfounded: “When the fridge is stocked up, by the next day I would say it’s probably 90% empty,” Ellis says. “It could be within a couple of hours, too.” A second Germantown fridge opened at 19 E. High St., in front of First United Methodist Church, in January. A third is potentially in the works for this summer.

“It’s free food,” Ellis chuckles in retrospect. “The need is high, so now it’s more of an issue of how can we keep it stocked.” The fridges are supplied by community members, designated shoppers, and local organizations, including Merzbacher’s and Bredenbeck’s bakeries. Grocery stores like Weavers Way and Mom’s Organic Market have also contributed excess product and funds for future food purchases.

Ellis is happy she can help battle food waste and food-access issues, but she doesn’t keep close tabs on the fridge’s data. “It’d be cool if I could say how much [food we save and distribute] and how many volunteers have contributed, but I’m just happy as long as people in the community are donating and eating.”