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Efforts to make free groceries widely available through self-serve refrigerators in Denver are catching on. One of the leading groups, Denver Community Fridge, unveiled their fourth outdoor refrigerator on January 10th at Amethyst Coffee, 4999 West 44th Avenue. Several other organizations, including the Little Free Pantry and Little Big Fridge, are also part of the movement.
“When you give people the opportunity to care for one another,” says Eli Zain, who helped create Denver Community Fridges last summer with a team from the University of Colorado Women’s and Gender Center in Denver.
Community refrigerators are mutually beneficial: those who have the resources to stock up on groceries and toiletries and those who suffer from food or financial insecurity take what they need. The grassroots exchanges allow people to take care of their neighbors and has had particular resonance during the pandemic.
“The people who donate take pride in the fact that they can give food directly to others,” said Jim Norris, owner of Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. The Mutiny Cafe refrigerator opened on December 5th. Since then, the refrigerators outside of the Huckleberry Roasters, 4301 Pecos Street, and Base Coat, 2700 Walnut Street, have opened, in addition to the newest in amethyst.
Denver Community Fridge’s goal of installing a refrigerator in every neighborhood within six months is on the right track thanks to community support and excitement, says Zain. Jacob McWilliams and Florence Blackwell of the Women and Gender Center – now along with Zoya Sarow and Francesca Pezzali – are running the project with Zain, but the volunteers are gaining momentum.
Not only are people constantly filling and using the fridges, but many also offer to donate and host fridges. According to Zain, community refrigerators go beyond traditional grocery banks and pantries because they offer fresh produce and ready-made meals and give individuals freedom of choice about what to eat.
Communal refrigerators can be filled with fresh produce and newly prepared meals (including ingredients).
“Our refrigerators have to be filled every day,” says Zain. “People can bring anything that can be eaten right away. Many of our volunteers work in the food industry and bring pastries after their shift. The next morning they are all gone. “In addition to fresh produce and ready-made meals, refrigerators also offer drinks such as bottled water, kombucha and individual milk containers, as well as other packaged foods and personal health items. The only food that is not accepted is raw meat.
Some see the refrigerator project as a way to address societal issues that have worsened during the COVID-19 era. “I and the company experienced atrocities last year serving coffee in the middle of a pandemic,” said Breezy Sanchez, co-owner of Amethyst Coffee. “The working class fights every day at the grace of a government that does not care about the working class. There is no relief. ‘Evictions’ have become a normalized word and people need help. “
Sanchez’s assessment is borne out by Norris, who wanted to host a fridge at Mutiny to aid other community outreach programs like Help on Every Street, an anti-racist, anti-capitalist group that focuses on helping homeless-paid initiatives, among other things . He said he had begun to focus more energy on helping nonprofits after the pandemic took away many aspects of his business. And since installing the refrigerator, he has seen a difference in the faces of people who are homeless in the neighborhood.
The fact that communal refrigerators are intended to serve the unoccupied population does not always go down well with the landlords of the host companies. Sanchez says Amethyst has not placed a refrigerator at the Golden Triangle (1111 Broadway) location due to objections from the landlord. The homeless are often asked to leave the property unless Amethyst employees are working, which is part of a larger struggle with landlords who believe they will cause problems, she explains.
Part of the Community Fridge Initiative is to humanize those who are in vulnerable situations. The group plans to deliver directly to the warehouse shortly. Zain hopes the deliveries will not only share groceries and supplies right now, but also help promote locations and offerings.
In the dry goods storage area next to the communal refrigerators, there are packaged food and personal care products.
People with roofs over their heads also use the communal refrigerators, stresses Norris. A diverse population is coming, however – many of them are having to choose between shelter and starvation because of the pandemic. “This is the beginning of how we take care of our own community,” he says.
Denver Community Fridge is one of several mutual aid networks in the city that seek to support one another without government support. The organization works with Kaizen Food Rescue and Denver Food Rescue to keep the refrigerators in stock. The team often communicates with other groups to brainstorm and see how they can all work together. “Since we started, every mutual help group in Denver has shown a lot of love, support, and support,” says Zain.
The refrigerators are a small part of the larger community aid. “We know this is a patch for what is happening, but it’s still important that people feel seen and supported in this collective grief and struggle for survival,” says Sanchez. “[The refrigerators] are lively and lovingly decorated because the need for free food shouldn’t be shameful, and it so often does. Everyone who uses this refrigerator should feel loved and seen by their community. “
“It’s hard to ignore the fact that food security is an issue with those big, beautiful fridges on the sidewalk,” Zain added. “You bring out the word.”
Visit the Denver Community Fridge Instagram page (website and other social media links are in the works) to learn more about the organization’s mission. While food and personal care products are major donations, financial contributions to @denvercommunityfridge can also be made through Venmo.
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Claire Duncombe is a journalist, photographer, multimedia storyteller and musician. As an intern at Westword, she is a graduate of CU Denver and a proud Philadelphia native.