BY LILLIAN KALISH
Originally published on August 26, 2020
On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Day Hernández places cans of vegetables and beans, bags of chips, protein bars and other dry goods on a wooden shelf. This wouldn’t be remarkable except for one thing. The shelf sits on a Lincoln Heights sidewalk, next to a refrigerator where anyone can stop and grab something to eat — for free. As she tapes guidelines to the side of the fridge (“Clean items before entering into fridge,” “Respect the space”) a mother and her son pause to admire the mural on the front. Set against blooming flowers, a blue sky and pink clouds, a message reads, “Everybody eats.”
“Are you hungry?” Hernández asks in Spanish. “Take what you need. Everything is free here.”
The boy grabs a Rice Krispie treat and smiles at his mom. Welcome to the Lincoln Heights Community Fridge. It’s one of more than a dozen such fridges that have sprung up around Los Angeles since July, part of Southern California’s homegrown response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hernández, who grew up in Boyle Heights, spent the first few months of quarantine buying groceries for her neighbors. Then, her friend Ismael Salazar showed her the nascent Los Angeles fridge network on Instagram. They teamed up, found a free refrigerator on Facebook Marketplace and set it up in Boyle Heights, outside Mexican restaurant Milpa Grille. Now, she spends enough time maintaining both fridges, it’s almost a part-time job.
“It makes the community feel united,” she says. “All I want is to make sure that families in Boyle Heights don’t have to worry about eating.”
This scene plays out again and again as people who walk along North Broadway notice the fridge outside eclectic arts venue HM157, housed in a historic Victorian mansion. Each time passersby stop to peek inside, Hernandez assures them the food is free and available at any time to anyone who is hungry.
These community fridges aren’t operated by local officials. They’re organized and overseen by residents who clean, stock and benefit from them. But this alternative ecosystem of community aid exists in a legal gray area, one where citations and health codes have sometimes hindered community nourishment.
BRINGING FOOD ACCESS TO THE STREETS — LITERALLY
As communities fight food insecurity and try to reduce waste during the coronavirus pandemic, neighborhood fridges have become a symbol of resistance. Started in February by New York City-based anarchist collective A New World in Our Hearts, networks of community fridges have popped up around the United States in Oakland, Houston, Nashville and Milwaukee, among other cities.
The premise is simple. Find a used or donated fridge and connect with a local business or residence to provide a power source. Then, allow anyone to donate food — from farmers’ markets, grocery stores, their kitchens, their gardens — or take what they want.
In July, Los Angeles Community Fridges, which describes itself as “a non-hierarchical group of people involved in mutual aid and food justice,” began setting up fridges around greater L.A. Today, Los Angeles County has 14 community fridges, stretching from Arlington Heights to Leimert Park. The now 100-member strong group is looking to expand into the San Fernando Valley and the Inland Empire.
“We’re slowing down a bit now,” says Becca Chairin, who has been making graphics for the group since July. “We want to make sure that the fridges we do have aren’t abandoned. We want them to be sustainable and really part of the community.”
Today’s community fridges draw inspiration from Black-led initiatives such as the Black Panther breakfast programs of the 1960s. While fridges, free pantries and community vending machines won’t solve systemic food insecurity, they offer no-strings-attached access to fresh food. It’s a radical departure from traditional food assistance. This is community aid governed by the people and the streets.
Marina Vergara, who has worked in food distribution for more than a decade, knew the coronavirus pandemic had caused food insecurity to skyrocket, so she decided to broaden food access by taking it streetside.
“There’s food insecurity everywhere and it’s largely unseen. It plagues everyone, the housed and unhoused. Documented and undocumented,” Vergara says.
Days after she heard about L.A. Community Fridges, she helped establish the first such fridge in Los Angeles. It is located in Mid-City, outside Reach For The Top LA, a nonprofit transitional housing and addiction treatment center, where she volunteers.
Vergara partnered with farmers’ markets, restaurants and bakeries to rescue food she says would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.
After that, she connected with Joshua Mock, who owns Little Amsterdam Coffee, to set up a second Mid-City fridge. Organizers at L.A. Community Fridge soon began fielding dozens of messages from people who wanted to set up fridges outside their businesses — florists, clothing boutiques, smoke shops, grocery stores.
So far, the fridges have been a hit. They’re overflowing with bushels of fresh greens and boxes of to-go meals donated by community members and companies such as Everytable. People have also donated extra supplies such as face masks, diapers and hand sanitizer.
In Boyle Heights, the fridge outside Milpa Grille, on Cesar Chavez Avenue, has become a community project. Most mornings, Hernández comes by to discard food that has gone bad. She says she often sees older residents tending to the fridge or restocking it with vegetables and fruit from the nearby urban farm on Mott Street. Moments like these make Hernández swell with pride, seeing her neighbors take ownership of the project.
“We thought somebody was going to be upset when we put the fridges up,” Hernandez says. She had worried that people might not embrace the fridge or, worse, that their actions would lead law enforcement to drop the hammer. “It’s so instilled in us to be afraid of trying it out.”
While residents in this section of Boyle Heights have welcomed the experiment, community fridges in other neighborhoods have sparked concerns about safety and hygiene.
PULLING THE PLUG
In Compton, the city’s sole community fridge lasted less than two weeks.
Kani Webb, the founder of Peace of Mind, first rolled it onto the sidewalk in front of his community art space on Compton Boulevard on July 27. He had spent a week finding a fridge, painting it and coordinating with L.A. Community Fridges.
A day later, Webb says a family friend who works as an inspector for the Compton Fire Department told him the fridge was violating Compton city health codes. The following day, his aunt asked him to remove the fridge, citing these concerns, but Webb waited to hear from officials. He was eager to provide another healthy food option to his neighbors, particularly those experiencing homelessness.
Webb had not yet seen the letter, from Compton’s code enforcement division, sitting in his mailbox. It outlined two alleged violations of property maintenance and electrical codes. One declares abandoned equipment a nuisance. The other cites a city regulation that says all electrical and extension cords in public spaces where they could be “subject to physical damage” must be removed.
“It seems like the communities that need it most are the ones that are Black and brown — and they can’t have it,” Webb says.
On August 1, Luis Hernandez, the Battalion Chief and Arson Investigator for Compton’s Fire Department, contacted Webb and told him he could continue to operate the fridge as long as it had a safety latch. Webb thought it was an odd request but he went to a hardware store, bought a latch and installed it on the door of a fridge.
Unfortunately, using a latch conflicts with another regulation. California’s rarely invoked Penal Code 402b, which dates to 1970, declares it a misdemeanor to abandon a refrigerator without removing its doors or latching mechanisms. This code, along with the Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956, was passed after several incidents in which children died after accidentally locking themselves inside old refrigerators.
Compton Fire Department Chief Ronerick DeKeith Simpson tells LAist that their team handled the fridge as a “safety issue.” Simpson said the department had previously dealt with calls about children getting stuck in refrigerators and latches were necessary to stop that. LAist also reached out to the Compton City’s Manager office for comment but they did not respond.
The fridge was handled by three departments separately and it does not appear they communicated with one another. However, in early August, Compton Mayor Aja Brown commented on an Instagram post by Compton Rising, the organization that partnered with Peace of Mind, saying she was eager to keep the fridge operational. She wrote that according to a report from the city manager, the fridge was cited “because it was outside of the property’s gate and unattended.”
With a latch secured, the fridge was back in business — but only for three days. On August 4, Webb noticed someone had vandalized the doors and inner shelves of the fridge with spray paint, contaminating the food. Someone had also broken the safety latch and cut the extension cord.
Frustrated that his brief effort had caused so much turmoil, Webb says, “Me and my family have our suspicions that it was the city but obviously we have no proof.” He says neither his family nor his neighbors saw anything.
Webb says the fridge remains on the sidewalk, abandoned with a broken latch. It’s technically violating the city’s code but he hasn’t received any additional complaints from officials.
While other organizers are talking about establishing a second Compton fridge, Webb is wary. “That took a lot of my energy,” he says.
Instead, he’s working with four local pantries to turn Peace of Mind into a food distribution space. He hopes by the end of August, he’ll be able to supply enough food for 200 units in his neighborhood.
Compton is the third community fridge in Los Angeles County to be cited for health and safety. In Long Beach, the fridge outside clothing store PlayNice was closed a week after it opened in mid-July. It has since transitioned into a curbside pantry for dry goods. The Highland Park fridge was closed on August 24 after similar citations from the city. These incidents highlight the simmering tensions between food-based mutual aid efforts and city officials.
BREAKING THE CODE
Most local laws are designed to regulate property and businesses, which are registered with or, in some cases, owned by the city. Community fridges, which technically don’t belong to anyone, throw a wrench into the system.
Ernst Oehninger, who co-founded community fridge network Freedge at UC Davis, says part of the struggle with community-regulated food spaces is managing the concerns of authorities and residents.
“None of the food codes were made for food-sharing. They’re made for businesses and restaurants,” Oehninger says.
In 2014, he fought Yolo County authorities who wouldn’t allow the Davis community fridge to stock fresh produce. After a year of filing petitions and lobbying at city council meetings, he won. In the last five years, he and his two Freedge co-founders, along with dozens of volunteers, have helped establish 10 community fridges around the U.S.
Although Oehninger’s confrontation with officials strengthened his faith in mutual aid and community-based solutions, he acknowledges their limitations.
“We are trying to address food insecurity and food waste. Fridges don’t solve those problems. They reduce them a bit but they don’t address the root causes… The best thing, however, is that it brings people together to talk about those bigger issues. It’s a conversation starter,” Oehninger says.
Inspired by the sudden focus on community fridges, he has tracked the emergence of nearly 70 community fridges since February. He believes the combination of heightened food insecurity and racial justice uprisings have sparked a new interest in food activism.
“If you look at all the fridges coming up, almost all of them in New York and Los Angeles are run by Black and Latinx folks,” Oehninger says. “I wonder, how much does white supremacy stop fridges from happening?”
Community fridges offer food to anyone at any hour, so people like the Lincoln Heights grandmother can fill the pouch under her walker with canned goods for her family — and come back for seconds without question.
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.