901 Community Fridges is feeding a need and looking to grow

One of the most profound crises in the pandemic isn’t medical—it’s the struggle to keep food on the table for people who’ve lost their jobs or seen major cuts to their hours and pay.

“We know right now that a lot of people are struggling financially to make ends meet,” said Lj Abraham. “A lot of kids are still doing at-home learning. Their parents aren't working as much, their hours are being cut, [especially] in the food service industry.”

In January, Abraham launched 901 Community Fridges to help bridge the food gap in Memphis. 

The idea is simple—fridges are placed in areas with few other options for fresh foods. If someone has pre-packaged or prepared food they don’t want to waste, they put it in the fridge. If someone needs food, they take it. People can also donate refrigerators, money, and their time. 

The first fridge was placed at First Congregational Church at 1000 S. Cooper Street in Cooper Young. It's on the back side of the building facing Blythe Street and includes a pantry space for donated dry good.

Plans are underway for expansion—the next fridge will be located in Binghampton at the Carpenter Art Garden. 

In a recent Facebook post, 901 Community Fridges issued a call for individuals, businesses, and community organizations to host fridges in Orange Mound, Raleigh, Whitehaven, Frayser, and any other Memphis neighborhood.

Abraham knew a few other cities had community programs with outdoor, 24/7-accessible refrigerators stocked with donated food. In January, she put out feelers on Facebook to see if any other Memphians would be willing and able to support a similar program.

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Abraham now has a team of six dedicated volunteers with different roles in the program. Some build the wooden shelters that house the refrigerators. Others cook, stock the fridge, or facilitate donations of food and equipment.

This list of acceptable donation and other information can be found on 901 Community Fridge's Facebook page and soon on its website, which is currently under construction. (901 Community Fridge)
Even though the program has been successful—in its first two weeks alone, the first fridge was filled and emptied at least 12 times—Abraham said they’ve hit a snag with the Shelby County Health Department.

“They’re not really questioning the validity of the fridge,” said Abraham of the health department. “More so small things like the things in the freezer not being dated and labeled. The unfortunate part is that the food in the freezer came primarily from Shelby County Schools. They were given to people without labels on them.”

When families pick up their free weekly SCS food assistance, there are inevitably items that their household won’t or can’t eat. Rather than waste the food, families have been donating it.

The health department has not instructed Abraham to halt operations or said that the fridge is unsafe, so the donors and 901 Community Fridges team are continuing to keep it stocked while they work to address the department’s concerns.

As a first step, they've added pens and blank labels so donors can clearly note the date and list allergens on prepared foods. 

Abraham said there were other items besides the SCS donations that didn't have labels, like the sandwiches she stocks in the morning, but there wasn't much need to date them for freshness' sake; they’re always gone by midday.

The Shelby County Health Department recently visited the first 901 Community Fridges. The 901 Community Fridges team is now asking that all donated items be labeled with dates and allergens. (Sarah Rushakoff)
Abraham sat down with High Ground News to talk more about 901 Community Fridges and where the team hopes it goes from here.

The Q & A
Are you working on creating partnerships with Memphis restaurants to get prepared food?
We're definitely in the process of trying to get with restaurants that dispose of their food at the end of the night, to see if maybe they'd be willing to package it up and donate it to the refrigerators. And then a lot of other times it'll be someone working in the kitchen who will decide to bring the food over, and we don't necessarily know who those people are. So a lot of people, even if they don't reach out and speak to us directly, still are aware the fridge is here and will just do it on their own.

What are your organizational goals for the program as you scale it up? Are you going to hire staff or keep it all-volunteer?
I would love for it to remain a community-based program. I had gone back and forth about maybe starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but I don't know if that would be beneficial to this program. We can still take donations without it. We have signup sheets for people who want to volunteer to host a refrigerator, maintain a refrigerator, help deliver the refrigerators, help build the shelters the refrigerators need. That way we're all working together and forming a stronger sense of community.

How did you choose the first fridge's location?
For the one we have placed at First Congregational Church in Cooper Young, they saw a story about the project before it kicked off. They let me know they would potentially have a lot of food to donate. I said, 'What do you think about putting a refrigerator out there? You guys already have the food at that location.' 

The second location we chose is Carpenter Art Garden at 295 Carpenter Street. They have four gardens in the neighborhood and they sometimes sell fresh produce. We asked them if we could place a refrigerator there for whatever leftover produce they didn't sell that day. So people in the Binghampton community can have access to fresh produce and other donated food.

How do you decide where fridges are most needed and the process for placing one?
A lot of the process is figuring out where people may have to travel long distances to get to grocery stores. Whether or not they have the transportation to get to the grocery stores. Food desert areas are what we call them. Places where people have to either catch a couple of buses to get to a grocery store, or there are no grocery stores within maybe a two-mile proximity of that neighborhood.

There's so many people here who can't afford a vehicle, and our public transportation system is not reliable. That means you have to walk to a bus stop, stand at the bus stop, wait on the bus. Switch buses three or four times. Go in the grocery store, do your shopping, haul all your groceries back on the buses, and then walk all the way back to your home. I saw a lady about three days ago with two very small kids, carrying big bags of groceries, trying to keep her kids together, trying to get food home.

What do you wish more people understood about this program?
I wish they could understand the old saying "it takes a village" applies in this situation. We need more people who are interested in caring for the community to step forward and participate in the program. I wish more people would also try to educate themselves as to why Memphis needs this. If more people had that understanding then we could start to bring change to the community so we no longer need these refrigerators. 
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Read more articles by Sarah Rushakoff.

Sarah Rushakoff was raised in Memphis and is a graduate of White Station High School and the University of Memphis. She is a longtime member of Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe and works professionally as a graphic designer, writer, and photographer.