Taylor Scott had a problem. The 2019 Virginia Commonwealth University graduate had begun growing vegetables in her apartment and she had a surplus.
“I [needed] to get rid of these tomatoes, and I [didn’t] know where to put them,” Scott said.
She was sharing this problem with a friend back in her hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. Her friend asked why Scott didn’t put the extra vegetables in local community fridges, speaking of a project that has grown from grassroots efforts in many cities across the country, New Orleans included.
Since no community fridges were established in Richmond over the three years Scott had been living in the city, she couldn’t. But the question stuck in her mind and she wondered, if she took the plunge and started a community fridge project, would anyone else take it with her?
A small group chat of Scott’s personal friends revealed the resounding answer of “yes!” And thus, the RVA Community Fridges project was born as a response to the problem of food insecurity in Richmond.
A Need In Richmond
“The majority of people that food banks serve do have jobs or income, it’s just not enough,” said Eddie Oliver.
Oliver is the executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, a state association working with the Commonwealth’s food banks. The Federation supports Feed More, a nonprofit that provides perishable and pantry foods to people in the Richmond area.
Feed More reports that 11% of the central Virginian population is food insecure. This equates to 165,000 people, or one in nine individuals. Feed More also reports that 70% of the food insecure people they serve are having to make tough choices every day between food and fixed costs like housing, utilities, and transportation expenses.
Apollo Montogomery [not their real name], a local to Richmond who prefers to remain anonymous as a result of recent online harassment and who works as a camera operator for events, makes these tough choices every month. “The rising cost of food, in general, has really hurt my wallet,” Montgomery, whose recent job change has left them living paycheck to paycheck, said. “Every month I’m having to choose between food or bills.”
To make sure they have enough food each month, Montgomery uses the RVA Community Fridges.
“Sometimes it’s a crapshoot, sometimes items are past their sell-by date,” they said.
Still, Montgomery finds the fridges to be a helpful resource. “With the rising cost of food, more people ought to shed the ‘I don’t need help’ thing and utilize the resources that exist,” they said.
How it Works
The RVA Community Fridges are household or industrial refrigerators set up outside of a host business. Host businesses, which commonly include restaurants, non-profit organizations, and churches, are needed to run electricity to the fridges. There are 10 fridges in Richmond and Petersburg.
Host businesses can be nominated by someone in the community or can nominate themselves. The RVA Community Fridge administration team might also contact a business directly.
Once a location is set, a fridge needs to be acquired. People from the community have both donated fridges and purchased new fridges.
Once the new fridge is set up, it’s time to paint it. The idea to paint the fridges came from the original meeting when Scott and her small group of friends decided to launch the project. Artist Hotpinkhotel was on the first call and asked if they could paint the first fridge, lovingly known as Hot Pink Hoteliana. The action just stuck. Now, either the host business can provide its own artists, or RVA Community Fridges will provide an artist who has submitted an application with an original design.
When the fridge is installed and painted, it’s ready to go.
When Scott and her team began installing fridges around the city, “[the] extension cords were being stolen,” she said. Scott suspects it was for the copper wire, which can be sold for money, but this limitation didn’t derail RVA Community Fridge’s efforts. Now all fridges are equipped with an extension cord cover.
Anyone can swing by a fridge and take whatever they need, or leave whatever they can. To fill the fridges, a diverse group of community members donates purchased or cooked food. Local businesses and organizations have also partnered with RVA Community Fridges to help stock the fridges.
Many Hands Make Mutual Aid
Like the RVA Community Fridges, many of the organizations that partner with the fridges are mutual aid organizations. Their take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can approach is a community-based way to take care of one another.
One of these organizations is Fonticello Food Forest, which runs out of Carter Jones Park. The community garden hosts a free farm stand every Wednesday. In addition to what Fonticello can donate from its own crops, food is donated to the stand from Good Samaritan Ministries, Seasonal Roots, and Feed More.
“Pretty much all the leftovers are going to the fridges,” said Chloe Tremper, a volunteer for Fonticello.
After the farmstand ends on Wednesdays, volunteers from the RVA Community Fridges pick up the leftover food and allocate it to the 10 fridges. Tremper has helped in that effort, too. “One time we had too much guacamole, and I drove around to all the fridges,” she said.
Another partner of the fridges is Happily Natural, a local non-profit that hosts the annual Happily Natural Festival and serves as a steward for many of the urban agriculture greenspaces in Richmond.
“Happily Natural is a non-profit that serves the community through education and partnering with other organizations to feed people and keep people happily natural. Because food is natural. Hunger is natural. But starvation isn’t,” said Tiffany Bryce, a volunteer with Happily Natural, who helps with Panera pick-ups.
Bryce picks up two full bags of goods from Panera once a week that are then allocated into the fridges on Dill Avenue, Venable Street, and Mechanicsville Turnpike.
“What we’re able to put into the fridges varies, because it also depends on what’s in the fridge,” said Bryce. “We may have one day where we’re filling up the entire top shelf, and then another day when we’re kind of modest. There’s a lot of restaurants now getting involved, so if we show up and it’s pretty packed, we leave what we can.”
One of the restaurants that partners with the RVA Community Fridges is Intergalactic Tacos. They sell a mutual aid box for $6 that will go directly into the fridge that they host on Hull Street.
Brian Graff, the owner of Intergalactic Tacos, wishes that they would sell more of these meals. “In April we sold two mutual aid boxes,” he said.
The sales of the food may be low, but Graff and his team donate whatever they can at the end of their workday. They make fresh beans and rice every day, and whatever is left over is packaged into a bowl and put into the Hull Street fridge.
“We donate about 45 to 50 bowls a week,” Graff said. “Thirty-five on a slow week.”
The folks who are participating in this mutual aid say it’s rewarding. “It’s been a beautiful thing to be immersed in the opportunity to give back, because the needs are so great,” Bryce said. “If you are looking for somewhere to serve, and be directly in it,” Bryce said, working with local food security organizations is worth it.
‘I would measure a win’
“I spoke to four people today that I’ve never met in my life,” Scott marveled. She met them all by visiting the different fridge sites.
Even with over 100 volunteers in the RVA Community Fridges group chat, and many more who go uncounted because they aren’t on the social media platform that hosts the chat, Scott finds herself filling up her car and delivering goods to the fridge locations daily.
“People have literally [told us that] ‘without the fridges over the pandemic we would have really been very hungry.’” This, Scott said, is what leads her to believe the project is working.
“Seeing the fact that people understand the need for the fridges and want to see more go up, that’s what I think I would measure a win,” she said.
Top Photo: Bags of carrots and onions, and packages of cucumbers and veggie mix spread out on a picnic table at the Fonticello Food Farm free farm stand. These are goods that people will take home, for free. Photo courtesy of R.M. Carkhuff.