Free refrigerators help neighbors during pandemic | Family
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Several months ago, a nondescript white refrigerator made its home in block 8400 on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg. A sign on the side of the refrigerator, facing the street, spells out its philosophy.
âFree food,â he says. âTake what you need, leave what you can! “
While self-help efforts are not new, free refrigerators have proliferated during the pandemic. NBC News reported in November that most of the more than 400 free refrigerators in the United States have appeared in the past 20 months, as rates of food insecurity rise and people seek ways to help their neighbors by times of crisis.
Tampa Bay has at least two such refrigerators: the St. Petersburg Community Refrigerator and one inside a Tampa Martial Arts Center. The organizers behind the refrigerators plan to have them running in 2022 – and, in the case of the St. Pete refrigerator, hope to expand the project.
The St. Petersburg refrigerator started outside of Bandit Coffee Co. before moving to its location near the Barcley Estates and Winston Park neighborhoods. Lorrie McMurrian now describes herself as her steward – posting on Instagram and bringing together volunteers – but said the fridge is a community project with no real leader.
âIt actually fosters a sense of community,â she said. âDue to the fact that it depends so much on personal responsibility, I think it really empowers everyone involved – the people who use the refrigerator, the people who clean it, the people who store it, the people who tell people about it. It is not something that someone else does; it’s something you do, something we do together.
A sign on the front of the refrigerator, located outside the Sustainable Family Services building, sets some rules for those who leave items, food safety oriented: no raw meat, no homemade items, nothing stale .
But eggs, oils, milk, water, fruits, and vegetables are all listed with a big orange “YES” in all caps. McMurrian said the electricity to run the refrigerator costs around $ 25 a month, which she pays with donations.
McMurrian, 39, grew up in a family that often volunteered with the American Legion. In the early 2010s, she started running a local Facebook group as part of the Buy Nothing Project, which encouraged people to share goods with each other rather than buying new ones whenever possible.
Like refrigerators, community sharing groups across the country have increased during the pandemic – as have relief funds and other projects that could be part of mutual aid, in which people help their neighbors. and other community members directly, rather than through non-profit or commercial organizations. means.
In a context of growing food insecurity fueled by the pandemic, refrigerators, located in public spaces, have become visible manifestations of self-help efforts.
âI think there is a movement, and I choose to believe that it is a movement towards love and kindness,â said Jany Coyle, one of the organizers of the Tampa Free Fridge.
University of South Florida graduate student Cassidy Boe began hearing about free refrigerators during the pandemic. She ended up connecting with Coyle, a longtime volunteer with Food Not Bombs, a network of food distribution collectives.
In 2020, another group of volunteers installed a free refrigerator in Ybor City, but it was closed after the city raised security concerns over its outdoor location, Creative Loafing reported. This refrigerator was then moved to an elementary school, where it serves a school community. To avoid the same fate, in 2021 Boe and Coyle found a place for the refrigerator inside the Yung Ho Martial Arts Center, in the Sulfur Springs neighborhood where Coyle grew up.
âThis region is a food desert and has so little access to nutritious food available to people right off the bat,â Coyle said.
Fridges in St. Petersburg and Tampa are soliciting donations so volunteers can shop to supplement food left by individual contributors. Organizers in Tampa have estimated that about two dozen families have regular access to Yung Ho’s refrigerator. McMurrian said she was not sure how many people were using the St. Pete’s refrigerator, but “things don’t hold up. not standing â.
The old St. Pete refrigerator location near downtown was better served for homeless people, McMurrian said, but had to move amid renovations to Bandit earlier this year. She tried to find another place for a fridge or pantry downtown, although she struggled to find a willing business or owner. She suspects that the stigma attached to the type of people needing free food is playing a role.
The new refrigerator location, while serving fewer homeless residents, attracts foot traffic from nearby bus stops and neighborhood residents.
âWe want to serve all kinds of communities, and I think it’s dangerous to think that only passing people are the ones who need food,â she said. âThese are the families who can pay their rent but they cannot do the grocery shopping, but they still earn too much money to qualify for government assistance.
While the number of people served may be far lower than the five or six figure numbers cited by major food banks, organizers said the barrier-free philosophy behind the projects makes them as accessible as possible.
âWe emphasize that people know what they need,â Boe said. âThey take as much as they need. We have confidence in it.