The mutual aid network has two refrigerators open, with plans to open a third.

The mutual aid network has two refrigerators open, with plans to open a third.

Durham Community Refrigerator Locations | St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church at 1902 West Main Street | Part & Parcel at 1901 Chapel Hill Road

IIt’s an 86-degree summer day in late June. Open the painted door of the refrigerator next to the garden bed at Lakewood bulk food store Part & Parcel and you’ll see piles of rainbow chard, a few cantaloupes, two pints of blueberries and a drawer full of beets. Fresh produce is plentiful this season, but on any other day you might find the refrigerator filled with pre-made sandwiches, pots of soup, loaves of bread and more.

In October 2022, new local organization Durham Community Fridges (DCF) launched the first community fridge in the Triangle, located at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church at 1902 West Main Street. What started as a group of passionate individuals has since grown into a vast network of volunteers, partners, and coordinators with a shared belief in access to free food for all.

A second community fridge opened at Part & Parcel in July 2023, and a third Durham fridge is currently scheduled to open outside Omie’s Coffee Shop later this year. DCF hopes to expand to more neighborhoods in Durham to increase food access for the community; earlier this year, the network expanded to Chapel Hill with a fridge hosted by the Community Empowerment Fund.

Community fridges are often set up as refrigerators, freezers, and food storage units where anyone can drop off or pick up food. They also serve as a way to reduce waste, with restaurants, organizations, and households dropping off excess food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as nonprofits grapple with high rates of need and federal aid lags, mutual aid groups have stepped in to fill the gaps.

Community fridge database Freedge currently lists 375 community refrigerators in the United States, a growing number that reflects growing food insecurity issues. In 2023, 27% of adults in the United States experienced food insecurity, up from 24.9% in 2022.

In Durham, DCF volunteers regularly set up tables at community events, raise awareness about the organization, and distribute free food to local community members. Such events include the monthly Really Really Free Market and, more recently, rallies in support of Palestine.

Fruits, vegetables, juices, bread and more at the Durham Community Fridge at Part & Parcel. Photo by Angelica Edwards.

“We’ve been to different Palestine rallies, and that of course intersects with our work in a very important way—food apartheid there has the same roots as food apartheid here,” says Beau Borek, a member of the DCF team. “We see our work as very intertwined with the Palestinian struggle in that way.”

“To many people, protesting against genocide seems radical, but to me, it’s a humanitarian thing,” says Taylor Holenbeck, another DCF organizer. “And the same thing here: giving out free food may seem radical, but it’s really just a humanitarian thing. Because it’s just a right, just like life is a right, food is a right.”

Holenbeck works as a grower services coordinator at Happy Dirt, a produce distributor focused on organic produce and creating more sustainable food systems, and Borek teaches at Lakewood Montessori Middle School. Both Holenbeck and Borek have dedicated significant time and resources to DCF since its founding (Holenbeck even donated her old refrigerator, which became the first Durham community refrigerator).

The nonprofit CANDOR operates Part & Parcel, home to DCF’s second community refrigerator location. An environmentally conscious, package-free grocery store, Part & Parcel’s business is modeled after the disability, economic, environmental and food justice movements, making it an ideal partner for DCF.

Even before hosting the fridge, Part & Parcel became a partner in the biweekly West End Free Market in Lyon Park, which distributes fresh produce from local farms and dry goods from Part & Parcel to 85 households free of charge.

“Every single access point that’s trying to increase people’s food security, there are parameters around that,” explains CANDOR founder T Land. “And as much as we’re trying to remove those barriers—for example, when you shop with us, you don’t have to prove your needs (at the market) and there are no borders—but you have to be there at two o’clock on a Thursday.”

“With the community fridge,” Land continues, “there aren’t all those other barriers, but the community fridge is open 24/7. No matter what your schedule is, you can get there. If you can get there, you can get food.”

DCF is a mutual aid effort, not a nonprofit organization, which determines its structure and activities.

“We have no fiscal sponsors or financial support,” Holenbeck explains. “Our biggest resource is our own time and the community contributing and donating food to the refrigerators.”

Durham Community Refrigerator at 1901 West Main Street. | Credit: Brett Villeneuve

Keeping the Doors Open

The mutual aid model has many benefits. There are also realistic challenges.

“The nonprofit relies on the existing capitalist structure. They have more resources, they have more agility,” Borek explains. “We are more interconnected and we rely on the community; it moves maybe slower, but I think it is more abundant and more powerful.”

Not relying on donations or grant funding means DCF doesn’t align its goals and values ​​with funders’ demands or grant requirements. While resources are more limited, they are also more consistent and reliable, organizers say.

Still, other local for-profits and nonprofits contribute as well: Food donations are received regularly from Baggingit4kids, Root Causes, Feed Durham, Whole Foods and other sources.

“We’ve seen a lot of food rescue organizations use refrigerators instead of taking the food they’re saving to specific pantries,” Holenbeck says. “It’s a much more accessible and immediate place to take food that’s usually picked up the same day.”

There are few hard and fast guidelines when it comes to community fridges; it’s an intentional ethos, according to organisers: close supervision can create additional barriers for those in need. But the open nature comes with its own challenges.

For example, some community members and fridge visitors have expressed concern that people may abuse the fridge system and take more than their fair share, leaving nothing for the next person.

A few months ago, I made a drop-off at the first DCF location at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, and after I unloaded, an Uber driver who was parked on the street and waiting to schedule a ride called me to his car. He started by thanking me for bringing the extra food and then mentioned that he regularly sees people visiting his refrigerator and nearly emptying its contents. Several volunteers and refrigerator visitors also expressed concern that some people might be reselling the food.

However, Holenbeck argues: “You can honestly have as much as you want. It’s not our job to manage or monitor it.”

One way DCF is responding to this challenge is by creating refrigerator status updates on its website. Fridge visitors can submit a form reporting how full their fridge is, what’s inside, and provide feedback on things they’d like to see more of.

“There’s probably a lot of things that people think are going to be a problem, and that’s an imaginary deterrent that prevents someone from building something like this in their space,” Land says. “And we’ve never had any challenges that outweighed the benefits.”

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