Meeting at North Decatur Presbyterian Church draws 100 supporters, users of Free99FridgeShera 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.
This story has been updated.
By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor
Greater Decatur, GA — As David Lewicki kicked off the Sept. 29 meeting about Free99 Fridge, more and more people poured into the fellowship hall at North Decatur Presbyterian Church. At one count, attendance of both contributors and users of the fridge was well over 100.
The bright yellow pantry, refrigerator, and charging station on Medlock Road is the only remaining Free99Fridge after the location closed at Refuge Coffee in Clarkston in mid-September. Refuge Coffee did not respond for comment.
The idea behind Free99Fridge is to feed people in need without bureaucracy. No waiting in line and no proof of hunger are required. The model is called mutual aid.
Lewicki, co-pastor of NDPC with his wife Beth Waltemath, said the Free99Fridge meets immediate, emergency needs that are hard for established organizations to meet. It also meets a need for those of us who donate to it, said Lewicki.
“We are here tonight not because everything has gone smoothly. If it had gone perfectly smoothly, we would be at home watching Thursday night football or Netflix,” he said.
A list of issues surrounding the fridge was made: Mental health, urban camping, bodily functions, litter, and safety.
Before Lewicki could open the floor for discussion, a neighbor expressed concern for children who visit the site. Another said he was worried about people from the fridge entering the church building.
“I understand the kind of vandalism that’s been experienced at the fridge was a result of some mental illness issues. But when you’re facing someone who’s flinging grocery items or canned goods into the road, we’ve been fortunate that those canned goods didn’t happen to hit somebody’s window of their car and cause glass to shatter into their face and injure someone,” the speaker said.
He was referring to an incident in July when a person experiencing a mental health crisis emptied the fridge by throwing food and other items into Medlock Road.
“Guess what? The people you see shopping aren’t coming here from other places. These are your neighbors that are already here. The only thing the fridge does is it makes them visible,” said a woman in the audience.
Lewicki said the church is taking steps to address issues by getting to know visitors of the fridge, directing them to what few services DeKalb County offers in mental health and housing. A team of volunteers walks the church’s property early every morning to ask campers to move on, and every evening to pick up litter. Areas of the property are roped off.
Lewicki said if a person is outside the clearly marked, designated space, they’re invited to move.
“If they refuse to move, we consider them to be trespassing, and we have the discretion to call the police to ask them to move. We’re trying to be really clear with all of our fridge patrons that to keep the fridge open, they need to respect the boundaries of this property,” Lewicki said.
By and large, people have abided by the boundaries.
Put to rest were rumors about the fridge closing, after an audience member said, “The word on the street is that the congregation at the church no longer wants the fridge.”
“Hands up north Decatur Presbyterian church members who are here tonight. And raise your hand if you want to keep the fridge open,” asked Lewicki, finding the number was the same each time.
A woman who visits the Free99Fridge rather than using food stamps because “it’s a step-up” said, “Your safety issues and the church’s responsibility to the community? All that is a part of our day-to-day life. You understand, our children are not safe and we are not safe. We are stressed out in America, but that fridge brings us together. And we have very few things these days that are bringing us together after COVID.”
The room erupted with applause.
Others recalled stories of visiting the Free99Fridge, connecting with the people whom they’d been feeding.
The Free99Fridge at Medlock is a community resource powered by North Decatur Presbyterian Church, accessible 24 hours a day. Anyone can give to it, and anyone can take from it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for one of the speakers. This story has been updated to remove this information.
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