ITHACA, N.Y. — In the driveway of 411 East Yates St. sits a lavender fridge. Spray painted in bright letters on the front of the fridge are the words “free food,” along with graffiti-like images of fruits and vegetables.

Marlena Doerr, an Ithaca resident, set up a new community fridge in her driveway to make perishable food items accessible to the community. In addition to the fridge, there are cabinets with clothes, school supplies and hygiene products. Doerr said the goods are available to anyone who needs them.

Although there is a vast network of food resources throughout Tompkins County, Doerr said she was inspired by community fridges that have emerged in larger cities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These fridges are typically placed in a public area, like on the street, and offer free food to individuals who are in need. 

“Obviously, a lot of the most essential foods, the most nutritious foods that people need, need to be refrigerated,” she said. “I love that those cabinets are set up, and so many people have been able to reach them across the county, even in pretty rural areas, but the need for fresh vegetables that have to be refrigerated is still incredibly important.”

Nationwide, many of these community fridges utilize bright paintings to draw attention to the resource. Hannah Teush, who helped Doerr paint the fridge, said they kept this in mind when designing the resource.

“We wanted something bold,” Teush said. “We wanted something that was legible from far away, so you knew what it was, something eye-catching. It was partially for advertising-sake, something that would catch people’s eye when they’re walking down the street or in a post on Instagram. We wanted to spread awareness about the space in an artistic means.”

In Tompkins County, there were approximately 10,720 people who were food insecure in 2018, according to Feeding America. This is a decrease from the previous two years, when there were approximately 13,980 food insecure individuals in the county in 2017 and 14,060 in 2016. The food insecurity rate in the county was 10.4% in 2018, compared to New York State’s insecurity rate of 11.1%.

In the county, there are 50 cabinets for non-perishable items, with 20 of them in Ithaca, according to Mutual Aid Tompkins. In addition to the fridge on Yates Street, there are five other coolers and one other fridge in the county where perishables can be retrieved. Additionally, some food pantries in the county offer produce. When Doerr went around to look at the other fridges Mutual Aid Tompkins listed, she found that many of them were mini-fridges or coolers.

“It wasn’t enough,” she said. “One fridge still isn’t enough, but it wasn’t enough for the people who are here.”

Elizabeth Jesch is an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America at Ithaca College, where she works to address food insecurity in Tompkins County. She volunteers with Mutual Aid Tompkins to coordinate the food cabinets in the county. She said that one of the benefits of the cabinets is that they reduce the stigma that comes along with accessing free food resources because there is no tracking required to access the cabinets.

“They address issues surrounding transportation issues that people have to reach other food resources,” she said. “They’re great right now in the time of the pandemic in terms of social distancing, which can take place really effectively since there’s usually only one person at the cabinet at a time.”

Doerr said that some logistical means had to be considered, including where to plug in the fridge, how to cover the fridge in case of inclement weather and how to keep the fridge clean. Jesch said one of the main challenges the fridges pose compared to the cabinets is that they require a power supply.

Jesch said that the fridges in the area are usually well-stocked because members of the community communicate their needs through the Mutual Aid Food Sharing Cabinets Facebook group. Volunteers will often take pictures of the fridge or cabinet to communicate if they need donations.

“The thing that’s been kind of astonishing to me is how much the community in Tompkins County has stepped up during the pandemic,” she said. “I think this mutual aid model has been successful in Tompkins County, which is really fantastic to see.”

Doerr said the community response to the fridge has been positive. After she set it up, she posted in the Facebook group asking for donations to fill the fridge, and within an hour there was a bag of produce that someone brought from their garden. She said the biggest challenge moving forward will be keeping everything stocked.

“It’s just hard to shop frequently enough if it’s just one person,” she said. “That’s where the community aspect becomes crucial.”

Some of the most needed items include bread, starches, milk, cheese, butter, frozen food, proteins, oils, vegetables and canned food, as well as school supplies and hygiene products.

“There’s been a really great community response, not only taking but also giving back to it and creating a sustainable community space,” Teush said.

Photos courtesy of Marlena Doerr.

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.