As with many issues complicated by COVID-19, hunger is a growing problem. Community fridges, though, could be part of the solution.
The nation’s third largest charity, Feeding America, estimates that the pandemic may cause as many as 54 million Americans to struggle with food insecurity—a 40% increase since the pandemic’s start. In Colorado, the numbers aren’t much better. 30% of Coloradans lack reliable access to nutritious food, and People of Color and those with disabilities encounter even higher rates of food insecurity. It is clear that more needs to be done, and one CU Denver student is doing everything they can to help.
Meet Eli Zain
Eli Zain (they/them), a graduate student pursuing dual masters in humanities and social science at CU Denver, recently founded the Denver Community Fridges project to reduce hunger in the city. With fresh food stored in a network of accessible, artist-decorated refrigerators located in public spaces, the project provides free—and judgment-free—meals to anyone who needs them. Think of a community fridge as a convenient expansion of the support that food pantries typically provide.
Similar initiatives have been springing up around the world, but the pandemic accelerated their spread in the U.S. According to a recent Today story that Zain also took part in, there are nearly 200 community fridges around the country. It’s a burgeoning movement born of necessity, but with ambitions of accomplishing even more than feeding the millions of Americans who need nutritional support.
By creating spaces for people to give back directly to one another through food sharing, the benefits of collaborative kindness can extend throughout a community. A broader goal of Zain’s own project is to foster that genuine sense of community among people in Denver compassionate enough to address a systemic issue and brave enough to try new, cooperative solutions.
“That’s what ‘CU in the City’ means to me,” Zain said.
There’s an implicit message conveyed by the presence of these fridges around the city, too. In addition to providing a vital service to anyone in need, they remind everyone of the need for more adequate funding to assist all members of society. Zain, who reasonably questions why municipal resources are not distributed with greater concern for the potential for positive impact, believes “Taking care of one another doesn’t have to be a radical act.”
To get the project off the ground, Zain enlisted the guidance of Jacob McWilliams, PhD, the director of the Women & Gender Center at CU Denver, with whom Zain works as a graduate assistant alongside Florence Blackwell, a student assistant. As part of his work, McWilliams advocates on behalf of the campus’ most vulnerable student populations and was quick to endorse the project for its benefit to Denver’s most vulnerable residents.
Mindful of hunger’s disproportionate impact on marginalized groups, McWilliams noted that “The challenges we’re facing now are not new—they’re just newly visible to us.”
With McWilliams’ support, Zain received initial donations of three refrigerators, and four artists were soon commissioned to paint them. Both Zain and McWilliams welcomed that creative part of the project as an opportunity to improve visibility for new perspectives while fairly compensating artists who are not always paid for their contributions. In fact, some of the artists were pleasantly surprised to realize their work for the project would actually be paid.
Partnering with Local Businesses
As Zain would note, a community fridge should be freely accessible to the community it serves, and local businesses are excellent venues for hosting fridges as part of the Denver Community Fridge project. With on-site personnel during business hours who can help ensure cleanliness and safety, businesses provide well-trafficked locations that are comfortable for meal donors and recipients to visit.
To date, Zain has secured two businesses to host the refrigerators. Koan Goedman of Huckleberry Roasters and Jim Norris of Mutiny Cafe were the first to donate spaces, and Norris detailed his hopes for the project and the community self-reliance it could inspire:
“Mutiny is proud to be part this project. With our community fridge we can get healthier foods directly to people in our neighborhood. We hope that it creates a stronger link between those in need and those who want to help. Now more than ever we need this feeling of community. The government and the rich aren’t going to help us, [so] we need to work on helping each other.”
Goedman, too, shared his thoughts about the project:
“Huckleberry Roasters is excited to be a part of the Denver Community Fridge project to help combat hunger and inequality of food access in our Northside Denver community of Sunnyside. Food should not be a privilege—not during a global pandemic, not during a cultural awakening, not during protests against police brutality, not during an economic crisis—not ever.
“2020 has been a horrible year, but the overwhelming tumult and weight of the year has hit some of our neighbors harder than others. Rather than just take up space in our neighborhood, we are excited to make this little (but mighty and crowd-sourced) food pantry available on a take-what-you-need, no-questions-asked, 24/7 basis.”
Get Involved with Denver Community Fridges
Ultimately, Zain’s vision for the Denver Community Fridge project is that more people will follow Norris and Goedman’s examples and start to engage with the project, helping it to continue long after Zain graduates. If you are interested in supporting the Denver Community Fridge project, you can contact Eli Zain via Instagram, or you can reduce your own food waste by donating leftovers at one of the locations below. Restaurants and businesses are encouraged to donate their near-expiration or surplus food items, too. The only instruction is that prepared meals include a list of ingredients so that those with allergies or intolerances can safely avoid foods containing items such as peanuts or gluten.
- Mutiny Cafe, located at 2 S. Broadway in Denver, open daily 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.
- Huckleberry Roasters, located at 4301 N. Pecos St., open daily 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Hours above are normal business hours; the Denver Community Fridges located at these businesses are open to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To ensure the refrigerators are more easily discoverable by those in need of food, they will be included on websites like freedge.org, which provides a map of locations where unhoused people or others with unmet nutrition needs can access community fridges.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, all are encouraged to take what they need and to give what they can.