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Evanston's community fridges feed folks, create connection: need food? Take it. Got food? Give it.

“Hunger is not a problem. It is an obscenity. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” -- Anne Frank

Last July, ETHS grad Maia Robinson, a founding member of the student-led Evanston Fight for Black Lives and Evanston resident Maggie Quinn, who has a background in community organizing, began to brainstorm ways to help get food on folks' tables.

It was four months into the pandemic, and, in addition to the far-too-many (ONE is too many) people who already experience homelessness and/or food insecurity, more and more Evanstonians were finding themselves unable to work and struggling to afford even a small bag of groceries for their families.

Both Maia and Maggie knew about The Love Fridge, a mutual-aid initiative in Chicago that has placed community refrigerators outdoors all over Chicago neighborhoods with a simple mission: when people have extra food they donate it; when they're in need, they help themselves.

After consulting with the Love Fridges folks, Maia and Maggie began to organize, finding a business that would host a fridge, someone to donate it, and volunteers to manage it.

"We decided that [the project] should be for Evanston, by Evanston to ensure it was a community driven and supported idea," Maia told me.

On March 20 this year, just days before Childcare Network of Evanston, 1335 Dodge, was slated to open Evanston's first community fridge, it was destroyed when a car accidentally crashed into it. Without skipping a beat, the organizers were back at it, raising funds and working to reinstall it.

Today, Evanston has three fridges, with a fourth coming soon to Kombucha Brava, 717 Custer, and the hope is to place fridges in many more locations (read till the end to find out how you can help).

-- The original fridge, dubbed OG FRIDGE, stands at Childcare Network of Evanston, 1335 Dodge.

-- Soul & Smoke hosts the SOUL FRIDGE at 1601 Payne # C.

-- FREEDOM FRIDGE stands at Peckish Pig's

Palmhouse, 619 Howard Street .

"It's spreading community love through free food," Maggie says. "Each fridge is open 24/7. The fridges truly belong to the community. Anyone can use them to leave or take food."

And while the fridges are intended for Evanstonians by Evanstonians, there are no income or residency prerequisites for using them.

To date, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse has donated the fridges, and Maytag donated the one at Soul & Smoke.

Heather Bublick, co-owner of Soul & Smoke with her husband, Chef D'Andre Carter, had already been providing free meals to the community during the pandemic, told me they chose to host a fridge because it was a natural extension of their community meal program.

"We had many families that were receiving free meals from us every day, picking them up at our location. Hosting a fridge has made our meal program seamless," she said. "We put the meals in the fridge so now people can access them whenever works best for them. Before, they only could pick up meals during our open hours."

Heather said that the community fridges give our community members dignity.

"It’s no questions asked, you can pick what works for you, and come at the hours that work for you," she said. "And also amazing to see the community so engaged. The fridge is on our patio, and almost every time I’m out there, there’s either someone dropping off or picking up food."

I asked Maia, Maggie, and Isaiah Tolbert, a Northwestern University student who manages one of the fridges, more about the project.

DE: How can Evanston residents help keep them filled? What’s the process?

CF: Once we've organized the fridge and shelter install, and we've posted the Giving Guidelines and placed thermometers inside the fridge and freezer, the community is able to start using the fridge.

We use a sign-up for fridge-management, volunteers to keep the fridges clean, check that they remain at the correct temperature, and that there is nothing expired or against giving guidelines in them. Volunteers report back to us if there's an issue with a fridge.

Otherwise, folks are free to give and take whatever they’d like.

DE: What kinds of food items do you accept?

CF: We accept sealed packaged foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, pastries, table sauces, bread, unopened milk and yogurt, unopened fruit juice, fresh eggs, and cured meat with sell-by date. We accept most food if it's not spoiled, opened, or half-eaten/leftovers. The main No-gos are raw meat and alcohol. We encourage culturally affirming and fresh, nutritious foods. Essentially, people should put foods in the fridge that they would feed to their own family.

DE: How do people who need food from the fridges find out about them?

CF: Mostly through word of mouth, posters around Evanston, and outreach through Instagram.

DE: Do you need more volunteers? If so, for what tasks?

CF: We work with the community to manage and care for our fridges. Anyone can sign up to be a fridge manager as many times as they want.

Fridge managers check the fridge temperature, food expiration dates, clean up any spills, and remove food that goes against our donation guidelines. If there are maintenance issues, or if a fridge needs more of something, we typically put a call out on social media and the community always steps up.

To sign up to volunteer to clean or fill a fridge, check our linktree and sign up for the fridge you’re interested in.

DE: How can people who want to donate sign up or keep current with what’s needed at the fridges?

CF: Join the Facebook group Support of Community Fridges that's run by Give and Take Bins (Cajas de Intercambio) and follow @evanstoncommunityfridges on Instagram to keep up with what is needed in each fridge.

DE: Has the project been successful?

CF: We know the fridges are working when we see the refill-and-take cycles as frequent. We see our fridges needing to be refilled almost weekly. Also, more people are becoming aware of the fridges and more businesses in Evanston are volunteering to host a fridge.

And we've received notes of appreciation and even some food requests by folks who use the fridges, which we love!

DE: Are you looking to expand?

CF: We’re still looking for new partners to serve as many local Evanston communities as possible. We look for new fridge locations by contacting local businesses who may be interested in signing up to be a host, but we don't have storage so we can't take more fridges than we are actively using. So once we've confirmed a new host, that's when we reach out to the community for a fridge donation.

Eventually I believe we'd like to expand to every ward and anywhere the community would like to take care of each other. We hope this mutual aid movement spreads everywhere.

DE: How do the fridges create a stronger community in Evanston?

CF: Mutual aid creates a deeper sense of responsibility, connection, and care among neighbors. Solidarity rather than charity. When you know part of your plate is coming from your neighbors - or when you go out of your way to care for your community - it creates a shared sense of compassion that is essential to a strong community.

DE: Thank you so much, Maia, Maggie, and Isaiah for sharing this great information!


Get involved!

-- To donate food: pick a fridge, stick to the guidelines, and ... just do it!

-- Sign up as a host

-- To donate funds

Thanks to these folks who manage the fridges and keep the work alive:

Anna Grant-Bolton, Adelle Kelly, Charlotte Kovacs, Rachel Krumholz, Vicki Levenson, Morgan Malatesta, Makena Meyer, Noa Polish, Maggie Quinn, Core Organizer, Maia Robinson, Isaiah Tolbert.

About EFBL: Evanston Fight for Black Lives is a youth, abolitionist organization that is dedicated to achieving justice for Black and Brown people within the Evanston community.


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