Fayetteville residents facing food insecurity now have a new option for accessing perishable grocery items after the outdoor food pantry at a Dickson Street church added the city’s first “Friendly Fridge” on Jan. 20.
Community refrigerators, nicknamed “Friendly Fridges,” started gaining popularity in February 2020, when New York City residents took the initiative to reduce food waste and fight food insecurity. When the pandemic hit in March, more citizens were inspired to help combat the economic challenges posed by COVID-19. In collaboration with an activist group called In Our Hearts, New Yorkers now maintain at least 14 community refrigerators in the city, according to a report from the New York Times.
Kaitlyn Rush, a chef at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, said she was inspired to install a “Friendly Fridge” in Fayetteville after reading about the success of similar projects in New York City. At the pantry outside of her church, she noticed donated items often were not enough to create complete, balanced meals. With the installation of the refrigerator, Fayetteville residents can now donate essential ingredients like butter, milk, cheese, ground beef and chicken.
The owners of several local restaurants including Hugo’s, Arsaga’s Mill District and The Farmer’s Table have teamed up with Rush to help stock the refrigerator and reduce food waste, Rush said.
“For people who don’t necessarily have the means to go out and have nice dinners or even go to the grocery store and buy the things that they want, there’s no reason why they should be denied that experience,” Rush said. “(The refrigerator) is a big way in my mind to share love and really give back to others.”
For Fayetteville resident Jennifer Hudson, 31, who lives off of disability benefits and visits food pantries regularly, free access to food is very valuable. She often picks up food items such as canned vegetables and Hamburger Helper meals, but produce items and other perishable goods are much more difficult to find at pantries, she said. Hudson thinks it is great that the pantry at St. Pauls can now provide these items for community members.
“If (pantries) have produce, including dairy items, that makes a huge difference for me,” Hudson said. “I try to go to the pantries that have those kinds of items over other pantries.”
Many mini food pantries have popped up around Fayetteville in recent years, including at spots along the Razorback Greenway, on the UA campus and outside of several area churches. At least one out of six Arkansans struggles with hunger, according to Feeding America.
Some Fayetteville residents have made a habit of stocking these small community pantries. Beth Coger, 70, co-founder of the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, created a Facebook page in March 2020 for her neighbors to organize bulk food donations. Neighbors post when they have food to give, and Coger picks up the items and delivers them to local food pantries every Friday morning, Coger said.
Coger said she and her neighbors are able to fully stock at least two pantries every week, including at St. Paul’s and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. They usually donate non-perishable items including spaghetti sauce, energy bars, fruit cups and peanut butter. Now that the St. Pauls’ pantry can accept perishable items, Coger said she and her neighbors donated ice cream Friday as a treat for those visiting the pantry.
“(Organizing these donations) has really been a delightful thing to do,” Coger said. “I feel like it’s a very small thing, but I know from the people I see (at the pantries) that it makes a difference.”
Coger and Rush said they are glad that Fayetteville residents struggling with food insecurity now have easy access to a wider variety of food items because of the “Friendly Fridge.”
Community refrigerators are just one component of a nationwide mutual aid movement for food security that is emerging during a time when many people have lost everything they have. Rush is currently working with representatives of the Fayetteville Housing Authority to establish more community refrigerators in the city.
The new “Friendly Fridge,” like pop-up food pantries in general, is all about community members leaning upon each other and helping their neighbor in small ways. The motto of the St. Paul’s pantry is “Take what you need, leave what you can,” which local artist Brandon Bullette will soon paint across the refrigerator door, Rush said.
“Some days you can leave something, and some days you may need to take something,” Rush said. “The basic need of being fed can be met when the community comes together to support each other.”