Denver Community Fridge puts free food on Denver streets

Jim Norris is loving the Denver Community Fridge program — despite having reservations at the start.

“Any trepidation I had about (negative) neighborhood reactions or people abusing it are gone,” he said on Tuesday, the one-month anniversary of the fridge’s debut outside his store at Ellsworth Street and South Broadway. “In fact, I’m surprised at how it’s taken off.”

When 24-year-old Eli Zain, founder of Denver Community Fridge, emailed Norris months ago about hosting the fridge, Norris immediately said “yes.” The idea of stocking fresh, donated food for food-insecure residents and unhoused people was something he was already working on thanks to Mar Williams’ Squash the System, a donation cart offering free, fresh vegetables. (Now, in the winter months, it’s a canned-food program.)

But Norris remained skeptical of the honor system that all community fridge projects depend on. Anyone can add or take food under the rules laid out at (the biggest? No raw meat!), and residents and volunteers are expected to keep it well-stocked and tidy.

All of those things have happened, said Norris. The program is helping to feed longtime, unhoused residents on South Broadway, but also people who swing by in cars and on bikes. He was mostly concerned about jerks vandalizing it.

“I’ve cleaned up maybe one broken bottle of spaghetti sauce,” Norris said. “It’s been so popular we’ve had to add an extra shelf for dry goods right next to it. Every day it’s full, and every night it’s drained.”

The fridge outside Norris’ book store and coffee shop is one of three that launched last month in central Denver neighborhoods through Denver Community Fridge. Two more have been providing free food since Dec. 5 outside Base Coat Nail Salon (27th and Walnut streets in Five Points) and Huckleberry Roasters (North Pecos and 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside).

A fourth Denver Community Fridge will debut on Jan. 10, at Amethyst Coffee Company, 4999 W. 44th Ave. near Lakeside Amusement Park, Zain said, with more planned for Capitol Hill and East Colfax Avenue.

Zain doesn’t monitor them, but volunteers and business owners have reported heavy traffic. Negative stigma around accepting free food may be strong, but so is the need for assistance amid record unemployment and paltry federal assistance, Zain said.

“Most of the (metro-area food) pantries are reporting numbers up anywhere from 200 (percent) to 300 percent from what they’ve experienced in the past” prior to COVID-19, said Jane Barnes, executive director of Benefits In Action, a partner of Lakewood’s Coalition to End Hunger, in a Denver Post article on Nov. 30.

The pandemic may cause as many as 54 million Americans to struggle with food insecurity, a 40% increase since the pandemic’s start, according to Feed America.

“We were inspired by community fridges like Friendly Fridge in New York and the Harlem Community Fridge,” Zain said. “But also by ones popping up in Portland (Ore.), Los Angeles, Austin (Texas) and Chicago. We thought, ‘Denver could really benefit from something like this.’ ”

After working over the summer to secure donated refrigerators — and find businesses to host them and artists to paint them — Denver Community Fridge launched its three locations last month. Artists who Zain commissioned, such as Cya Davis-Thomas, Zachary Vulato, Ruth Rivera Ojeda and Jenn Guelich, were all paid for their work — part of the ongoing plan for the program (apply on Instagram).

A partner/spin-off, Boulder Community Fridge, hopes to roll out its own fridges in the coming months. Zain also has shared fundraising ideas and resources with potential programs in Lakewood and Englewood.

The anonymous, contactless system is a model now shared by roughly 200 grassroots locations across the United States, according to an NBC “Today” story that featured Denver’s efforts. The challenge is finding businesses to host the fridges, which are necessarily located outside and stay open 24/7.

“The last thing we wanted was for someone to have to go into a store and be shamed, or be asked to leave and have police called on them,” Zain said. “Having it outside avoids a lot of those problems. And it’s been really incredible seeing people come out in droves to cook and donate prepared food.”

That’s a significant benefit, Norris said. Food pantries sometimes offer only canned and dried goods, whereas Denver Community Fridges have for weeks hosted free, prepared meals (with ingredient lists) alongside fresh fruits, vegetables and other items.

“I know 15 people around this neighborhood who weren’t eating proper and now have regular, healthy food,” Norris said. “I’ve even seen people pull up in a Lexus. … That’s made other people mad, but you don’t know what anyone’s situation is. If someone’s taking free food, you don’t get to decide why.”

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