Community fridges face hurdles in Asheville

BOX OF PLENTY: The free fridge at Southside Community Farm offers fresh produce grown on-site, as well as goods donated by local producers such as OWL Bakery and Hickory Nut Gap Farm. Photo by Daniel Walton

Managing the Southside Community Farm keeps Chloe Moore plenty busy. On roughly half an acre behind the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, she plants, weeds, waters and harvests more than 50 different crops, coaxing over 1,300 pounds of food from the plot last year alone.

Those looking to take advantage of Moore’s output have a much easier time. Overlooking the farm is a pavilion that shelters a black refrigerator emblazoned with the inviting slogan “Free Fresh Food for All!” All it takes is undoing a childproof strap lock and opening the door.

On a recent May afternoon, the fridge was stuffed with greens and turnips that were available at no charge.

“We focus so much on having it be open to everyone and not putting rules up about who can use it,” says Moore. “Because the second we start putting rules up, we might be putting someone in a desperate situation and excluding someone.”

The Southside distribution point was Asheville’s initial entry into the community fridge movement. First popularized in Germany in 2014, the idea of free, no-questions-asked access to perishable food has since spread across the globe, particularly after the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 amplified existing hunger issues. Freedge, a popular online database of community fridges, lists over 350 entries in the U.S., up from 12 in March 2020. (The farm fridge, says Moore, was set up shortly before the pandemic began.)

In cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, community fridge projects powered by local mutual aid networks have become a valuable complement to nonprofit food banks and other resources. But despite ever-increasing food insecurity in Western North Carolina, the local movement is proceeding more slowly: There’s only one other such facility in Asheville, the South French Free Fridge, which was established in July 2022.

That’s not for lack of interest, says Gina Smith. As coordinator of the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, she works closely with several groups that are eager to install fridges as part of broader food security efforts. This fiscal year, her organization received a $5,000 grant from Buncombe County to help bring more community fridges online.

But the council’s work on this front has stalled, says Smith, due to city government’s ambivalent approach to such facilities. The city, she points out, has no explicit rules concerning community fridges, and that lack of clarity has led neighborhood organizers to abandon proposed projects.

“Nobody with the city knows what to do with fridges,” Smith explains. “But they don’t feel 100% OK about them either.”

Stopped cold

The Buncombe County funding was meant to further “neighborhood emergency food preparedness,” according to the grant proposal. Smith says both the Shiloh and Oakley communities wanted to add community fridges to round out their food security efforts.

With cold storage in place, she explains, those neighborhoods could offer perishable meat and dairy alongside the nonperishable goods offered by their existing outdoor food pantries. It could also be a way to redirect leftover food from community dinners and other events that might otherwise be wasted.

Both neighborhoods had identified their respective community centers, which are owned by the city and managed by the Parks and Recreation department, as possible locations. But after city officials expressed concerns about liability, waste management and other issues, Smith says it became clear that neither Shiloh nor Oakley could expect to install a fridge on city property in the immediate future.

When first contacted by Xpress, city spokesperson Kim Miller claimed that Asheville had “not received a specific request or proposal to evaluate the viability of [community fridge] projects on city property.” After being provided with further information about the Shiloh and Oakley situations, however, she acknowledged that city staff had “worked to guide and inform project development” and had asked the Food Policy Council to provide more detailed proposals.

Miller noted that community fridges are not specifically mentioned in Asheville’s Food Policy Action Plan, which guides the city’s efforts to increase food security. But the document, last updated in 2017, does call for “infrastructural support for community gardens and edible plantings on public lands,” as well as “incentives to encourage access initiatives such as pop-up and mobile markets to bring fresh food to food deserts.” Smith believes community fridges could help address both goals.

To that end, her organization has pivoted its work under the Buncombe County grant to help Asheville develop a community fridge policy. Smith hopes to provide clear guidelines on permitting, ownership and management that will apply to all such facilities, not just those on city property.

Pulling the plug

But while city government hasn’t prevented either of Asheville’s community fridges from operating, both have experienced their own problems. In February, as first reported by The Asheville Blade, Moore found the Southside Community Farm fridge unplugged without warning — while still full of food — and moved to a spot near a dumpster.

Moore believes the Asheville Housing Authority, the farm’s landlord, took action after neighborhood children had vandalized the area using eggs and other donations from the fridge. “It’s a situation that we could have resolved in multiple ways if we had only been contacted,” she notes.

Instead, Moore found herself scrambling to salvage food while the fridge went without a home. With the help of community donations, she was eventually able to move the appliance to a newly built shelter underneath the farm pavilion.

David Nash, the authority’s executive director, says one of his custodians independently made the call to remove the fridge after witnessing the aftermath of the food fight. He says the new location has helped avoid similar problems while enabling the farm to continue distributing produce effectively.

“We have been happy to host the Southside Community Farm on our property at the Edington Center and will continue to do so at least during my tenure here, so long as the farm managers reach out to and encourage participation by Asheville Housing residents, and the food distribution does not cause damage or disruption at the center,” Nash told Xpress.

The Southside and South French Broad fridges are also grappling with unrelenting demand. Moore supplements the farm’s produce with community donations from OWL Bakery, Hickory Nut Gap Farm and Southside Kitchen. She says she buys roughly $500 worth of food each week — mostly supported by crowdfunding — from local vendors including the River Arts District Farmers Market, Tierra Fértil and Wadadli Dessert Oasis. “And it’s not nearly enough — it’s getting very quickly cleaned out,” Moore reports.

Cat Hebson says a similar pattern holds true for the South French Broad fridge, which she established with her partner, Tucker Richardson. Within 24 hours, she says, a fridge full of donated food will invariably be bare again.

“I think some people go by the fridge, see that it’s empty and think that the supply isn’t very strong,” says Hebson. “But we have a ton of food coming in every week. It just all gets eaten.”

Hungry hearts

Hebson stresses that the need for food spans a broad swath of Asheville’s population. In conversations with those using the fridge, she’s met homeless people as well as housed folks who’ve fallen on hard times, South French Broad neighbors and others from elsewhere in the city. Moore says regular users of the farm fridge include Southside residents, parents of children at a nearby preschool and Housing Authority maintenance workers.

Meanwhile, demand for such facilities is likely to grow, especially since the pandemic-era expansion of government food assistance ended in March.

MANNA FoodBank, an Asheville-based nonprofit that works to feed the hungry, says it served 10,000 more WNC residents in the first quarter of 2023 than it had in the last quarter of 2022.

“We are now serving over 133,000 people on average each month,” MANNA CEO Claire Neal noted in a May press release. “These troubling trends underscore even further what we continue to hear from thousands of families every month: Even working full time, their income isn’t meeting their most basic needs.”

According to Smith of the Food Policy Council, community fridges’ low barriers to access mean they can play a role in addressing such shortfalls. As more residents on the margins fall into insecurity, she suggests, an open fridge provides a flexible, discreet way for someone to bridge a food gap.

“That’s the beauty of it: Anybody can use it. You don’t have to fill out any paperwork,” she points out. “You don’t have to be a person who’s constantly in need, either; maybe you’re just having a rough week.”


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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One thought on “Community fridges face hurdles in Asheville

  1. Hendo Hendo

    Thank god for places like Southside Community Farm, the South French Free Fridge, MANNA, Food Connection, 12 Baskets, Beloved Street Pantries, and all the other people helping feed this community. People should not have to choose between rent and food or medicine and food! The cost of living in this town is killing us.

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