Walking neighborhood streets in the Triangle, you’re likely to come across a plethora of free goods: numerous household items with “free” sticky notes on curbs, Little Free Libraries chock-full of donated books, and various wooden structures containing dry goods and pantry items with signs reading “Free Food” or “Comida Gratis.”
Now, in the same spirit of giving back to the community—and not the landfill—Durham has its first community fridge. After eighteen months of planning, on October 29, the refrigerator was plugged in and officially “opened for business.”
Behind the Durham Community Fridge is a local mutual aid group that aims to mitigate food waste by providing open access to food. It’s not a charity organization: per the group’s definition, mutual aid involves communities coming together to help meet the needs of everyone in the community.
The refrigerator/freezer, painted lavender and stocked with donated food, is located at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham at 1902 West Main Street. Alongside the fridge is a cabinet filled with dry food goods and personal care products including essentials like toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, and condoms.
All kinds of provisions—produce, dairy products, prepared meals, beverages, and more—are regularly stocked, and beyond the contributions of individuals, the fridge also receives consistent weekly donations from local businesses and nonprofits, including Red’s Quality Acre, the Durham Co-op Market, Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel, Redstart Foods, Geer Street Learning Garden, and Happy Dirt.
On a recent Friday morning, for instance, the fridge was stocked with a drawer full of root vegetables, three quart containers of homemade curry-carrot soup, a tray of cornbread stuffing, two cartons of non-dairy milk, and much more, while the freezer held several bags of sliced bread. On its Instagram page, Durham Community Fridges posts regular photo and video updates sharing the current contents of the fridge.
The phenomenon of community fridges first cropped up in Europe in the 2010s and, in recent years, has made its way to the United States. The onset of the pandemic heightened food insecurity, isolation, and inflation, and as a result, grassroots efforts like community fridges have begun to emerge in more places. The online database Freedge lists more than 150 community fridges across the country.
Because the fridge is a mutual aid effort and is fully run by and serves the community, both regulations and barriers to access are minimal. Much of the donated food is cooked in individuals’ homes and in kitchens that are not certified or regulated. But unlike other food access programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which have eligibility requirements and application processes, accessing the community fridge does not require filling out forms or providing documentation. All are welcome to participate, no matter their need level or income.
“Social conditioning tells us that you can only engage with something like this in the taking side of things when you are in dire need,” Haleigh Paquette, a member of the mutual aid group, shares. “This is an exercise in the leveling of a playing field, getting capitalism out of the picture, and giving and taking when and if you are able without questions asked.”
The Durham Community Fridge mutual aid initiative was founded by nine individuals with a range of different backgrounds and skills who came together around a shared mission to feed their community. Before moving to Durham, one member of the group was involved in Miami’s community fridge network of 10 community fridges; another has spent time working in Durham restaurants and born witness to food waste; while a third member had purchased a new refrigerator for their home and wanted to donate their old fridge.
The group coalesced around that refrigerator with the objective of finding it a home base. One of the major initial challenges the group faced was finding a local space to host the fridge.
“Many businesses were interested, but it was difficult to give them concrete examples of how the fridge would function without having an example here in Durham,” the mutual aid group shared over email with the INDY. Other businesses that expressed support were limited because they rent their property and did not have the ability to build a structure for the fridge or to provide an electricity source.
The group finally connected with St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, and the two entities formed a harmonious partnership. The church designed and helped build a structure for the fridge, installed electricity on the exterior of the church building, and built the pantry that sits alongside the fridge.
“St. Joseph’s has a long-standing relationship with the unhoused population of West Durham, and the flagship of that is our three-times-a-week community breakfast that brings a whole bunch of people together to eat,” shared Lachlan Hassman, ministry associate for liturgy and administration at St. Joseph’s. “We have a beautiful location that we can’t utilize enough.” (St. Joseph’s community breakfasts are held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at eight a.m.)
When the fridge was first installed—and word spread that there was an outdoor electricity source—there was an initial issue with people unplugging the fridge in order to charge their phones and electronics. But the wrinkle was optimistically dealt with head-on: organizers simply built in additional power sources to accommodate people’s needs.
Just as anyone is welcome to take food from the fridge, all are welcome to donate food to it. Donations from individuals in the community are critical to keeping the fridge full throughout the week. If you cook an extra serving of soup or grow more tomatoes than you know what to do with, they can easily be dropped off at the fridge, so long as the donation is labeled with its ingredients and either the date it was made or an expiration date.
Since its inception, community fridge volunteers have noticed a demand for ready-to-eat prepared foods, and donations from home cooks go a long way toward meeting that demand.
The Durham Community Fridge does not currently accept monetary donations. The group raised funds to start the fridge on Kickstarter and has a small reserve for maintenance and other expenses that come up, but otherwise, their focus is on a different kind of giving.
“If you find yourself wanting to give and where your mind goes with that is to give money, it’s about this changing of mentality to instead make an extra loaf of banana bread and put it in the fridge,” Paquette says.
Volunteers play a key role in ensuring that the fridge is well-maintained. Members of the community fridge group visit every day to clean the unit and check the shelf life of the items stocked. “We’re monitoring—every day we have someone come and check on the fridge, and that might entail opening a container of something and giving it a sniff,” says Paquette. “There’s no precise formula, but just regular monitoring and using one’s better judgment.”
The fridge is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a schedule that acknowledges another aspect of people’s different food needs. Other food assistance programs, like food pantries, usually have specific pickup windows, which can make them difficult to access for people with busy work schedules.
It’s also still very new to the community, and the Durham Community Fridge is still developing and fine-tuning its system with the hope of providing a template for future community fridges in the Triangle.
“It’s an open-sourced food pantry on the street corner propelled by the care we provide for each other,” the group wrote over email.
“We want to remove the stigma that there is a specific need and specific people who deserve it,” Durham Community Fridge member Sharmin Aziz says. “Everybody deserves food.”