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Free fridges are fighting food insecurity, but not without controversy

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Free fridges are fighting food insecurity, but not without controversy

Marty sits beside the Free99Fridge location at Hodgepodge Coffeehouse at 720 Moreland Avenue on July 29, 2022. Marty said he had been using the fridge there for two years. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor 

Greater Decatur, GA —  In the Medlock Park neighborhood, a few yards from the mega intersection at Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road, sits a bright yellow shelter housing a refrigerator and dry goods pantry.

On any given day, the refrigerator could be full to the brim with homemade, labeled meals in neat packages. Or it could be bare bones, with a few lonesome fruits and veggies. Such is the life of a Free99Fridge.

Free99Fridge is a community resource powered by a local business or church, accessible 24 hours a day. Anyone can give to it, and anyone can take from it. Volunteers visit daily to deliver food, clean, straighten shelves and throw away expired goods.

The idea behind Free99Fridge is to feed people in need without bureaucracy. No waiting in line and no proof of hunger is required.

Shera Browner uses the Free99Fridge at North Decatur Presbyterian Church on Medlock Road in greater Decatur on July 29, 2022. Browner said she has been using the fridge for around six months. Photo by Dean Hesse.

In pre-pandemic Georgia, data shows about 1 in 6 children as food insecure. The statistics are reflective of the national averages, according to Atlanta Community Food Bank. Food insecurity is a measurement by the USDA of access to nutritionally adequate food.

In 2020, what started as a community project fueled by social justice with six locations has dwindled. A fridge at HodgePodge coffee shop in East Atlanta closed in early August. Visitors were devastated, telling Decaturish how much they appreciated the help.

Currently, there are two fridges left: at Refuge Coffee in Clarkston and North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Medlock Park.

The Free99Fridge at Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston. Photo by Dean Hesse.

The fridge is filled and emptied all day long, a bustling place at times. It’s a free food resource comes with complications. Food rots. Volunteers go out of town. Summer thunderstorms take out the electricity.

At one location, a visitor was emptying the refrigerator, throwing food into the street. While volunteers felt compelled to address the person’s mental health needs and clean up the mess, neighbors became discouraged and fearful, suggesting the refrigerator to be monitored by video or removed.

“Autonomy is critical to us remaining a lean, agile, action-oriented mutual aid initiative,” Springer wrote on the Free Fridge website. Cameras are not in the plan.

Decatur resident Shannon Yarbrough has been volunteering with Free99 Fridge for about 9 months.

“After being involved in this initiative for a while, I have been amazed to see firsthand how many people both need the food and find ways to access it. To hear people you don’t know at all thank you personally is a weird, beautiful and heartbreaking feeling,” Yarbrough said.

Latisha Springer has declined to be interviewed by the media. She relies heavily on Slack, a private communication network, and other social media by posting videos and photos, asking for donations and thanking vendors.

According to the website, Free99Fridge is a “solution-oriented collective aiming to build up community and end food disparities…one fridge at a time.”

Springer started Free99Fridge in 2020, on the heels of a summer of violent and deadly acts against Black people. Back then, six fridges were located in East Atlanta, Sweet Auburn, West End, East Lake, Adair Park and Buford Highway.

Each location is named in memory of a Black person killed by a police officer or someone who died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody, including Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and George Floyd.

Springer has engaged restaurants, coffee shops and other local partners to donate leftover food, drinks and other goods. She also accepts cash, but donations are not tax-deductible because Free99Fridge is not a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. On Instagram, Springer wrote that she considered applying for a 501(c)3 because it seemed like the natural path for community activism.

“But what kinda activist am I if my organization is dependent on gov’t funding + incentives for survival? … My ‘why’ for starting this project is rooted in my lifetime of oppression by this system. I can’t be convinced that this same system is going to help me or the people,” Springer wrote.

She continued, “This system created and upholds the policies + practices that fuel the problems my organization is fighting against. This system thrives and profits off of the suffering of its people. It will not make things better. And, if ppl need a tax write-off or other incentive to participate in real change, they are not as progressive as they think and are part of the problem. #sorryNOTsorry.”

Free99Fridge is a mutual aid initiative, Springer has said, not a charity.

Feeding America statistics show 84,000 people in DeKalb County are food insecure. That’s 11% of DeKalb’s population.

Brian Goebel is the managing director at Emory University’s Business and Society Institute, a research center in the Goizueta Business School that focuses on complex issues, research and purposeful action. His job is to tackle multifaceted issues like housing and hunger.

Goebel noted that the benefit of a mutual aid model, like Free99Fridge, is the ability to start up quickly. Civic or volunteer-led efforts have often started as a project by an individual or small group. The model “allows people to be innovative to gather quickly and get started to do something and meet needs,” he said.

“This is a public good,” said Goebel. “The Free99Fridge is a great example of looking at this issue from a ‘yes and’ perspective. Food banks and food pantries and various services out there to serve food insecure families are important, but they saw a tremendous opportunity in creating a mutual aid model that is accessible and that creates a lot of dignity.”

Other mutual aid models include free pantries, a concept that sprouted from Little Free Library boxes. A Little Free Pantry outside of Tucker Recreation Center has a notepad and pen inside so that users can leave specific requests.

A recent note read: “More bread and milk pls. I’m prego. God bless and thank u.”

Within minutes of posting a photo of the note on social media, three people volunteered to deliver shelf-stable milk and bread.

With a mutual aid model, Goebel said, “you’re not asked about your income level. You’re not asked if you’re needy enough to get the food. Everyone can donate, everyone can access and benefit. So, it creates a uniform, dignified, equitable approach to serving one another.”

Food insecurity is a complicated, fragmented area being addressed from all angles. So many good actors are involved in the act of feeding people, said Goebel.

In a year-over-year comparison of food costs from July 2021 to July 2022, the USDA reports that food costs have risen 13.1%. Serving poultry at home costs 16.6% more this year than last, and the price of eggs has gone up 38%.

DeKalb County has distributed 80,000 boxes of food since May 2020 using American Rescue Plan funds.

“Food insecurity is related to the broader issues that we face around inequity as a whole. Our housing, education, access to childcare – all these things are connected,” said Goebel.

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