One of four fridges stocked with donated food by Detroit Community Fridge, outside Hats Galore & More. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph
If you drive down Gratiot near Harper in Detroit and glance toward Hats Galore & More, you might notice an addition to the surrounding landscape. A public refrigerator is installed on the side of the building. You can place your favorite food in it to share with people who need a meal, and you can take whatever you want out of it to eat. It’s one of four Detroit Community Fridges installed since August 2020, when Wayne State University students Alyssa Rogers and Emily Eicher decided to replicate a mutual aid project that took root in other cities during the pandemic to respond to increased food insecurity.
“We saw how many community fridges were popping up all over the country; New York has like 60 of them, New Orleans has six or seven and Chicago has about 10,” said Detroit Community Fridge co-founder Emily Eicher. “And, we were both familiar with how hard it is to get access to food in the city—like, affordable fresh and healthy food.”
A shared passion for mutual aid
Eicher had an extra fridge in her garage, and she and Rogers put out a call on their personal Instagram accounts to see if anyone wanted to help out. The response was overwhelming.
Within a month, Rogers and Eicher had secured their first local partner in Rocky Coronado, owner of the vegan taco and coffee truck Rocky’s Road Brew on West Vernor in Southwest Detroit. Rogers, Eicher and a handful of volunteers set up the fridge next to Rocky’s food truck last August and were encouraged by the swift response of neighborhood donors to keep it filled.
By mid-fall, Rogers and Eicher began the search for a more permanent home and met Ryan Yeargin, owner of Hats Galore & More, a 28-year-old hats and accessories shop on the city’s east side. The first fridge relocated there last December.
“He owns this family business and his dad had just passed away. But his dad had a huge passion for mutual aid, helping the community and giving back. … In his father’s memory, [Yeargin] decided to host the fridge,” Eicher said.
Bob O’Neal, Yeargin’s cousin and store manager for the last 15 years, said that agreeing to such a partnership was easy. “We’re community oriented,” he said.
As a Detroit Community Fridge partner, Hats Galore & More provides electricity and a clear, accessible space to the fridge on the outside of their store at all times. Next to the fridge, there are also donated items like clothes and cold weather gear. During business hours, they keep an eye on the space and direct donors who may enter the store to the proper spot when they arrive with things to give away.
“The partnership is a way to help people who are really in need,” O’Neal said. “People come to get food, a coat, a pair of pants. It doesn’t really help our store, but it’s important to do. And sometimes, people do peek in to ask about the fridge when they see it.”
O’Neal went on to say that as a part of the community, especially one that has changed so much in the last 30 years, he views their role as retailers as two-fold. They want to be a stabilizing force as a thriving business in the neighborhood, and also provide help to their neighbors who need it.
“Folks here know us. People who shop here now were kids who shopped here with their fathers and they want us to stay here. We could’ve moved but we’ve chosen to remain as a true part of this community.”
Keeping the fridges fully stocked
Detroit Community Fridge is entirely volunteer-run and is not a nonprofit.
“We wanted to build a project with mutual aid, with community care, without surveilling and making it as grassroots as possible,” Eicher said. “We’re a project by the people, for the people. We’re not attached to anything and we’ve been able to stick to our mission, I think, a lot better that way. It’s just in the spirit of seeing a need and filling it directly for your neighbors.”
Since December, the group has installed three more community fridges: two in Southwest at Santos Church and Bridging Communities, and the newest one added in October at Beaverland Farms in Brightmoor.
Eicher said that it’s hard to officially quantify how much food has been donated since the first fridge opened last year. But, quite a lot is moving. The fridges are partially or fully refilled by volunteers and individual community donors on a daily basis. In addition, Eastern Market donates up to 20 pounds of produce per week, Keep Growing Detroit makes a weekly donation during peak growing season and Planted Detroit delivers salads each week to the fridge next to Hats Galore & More.
The rules are straightforward and simple. 1) Take what you need. 2) Leave what you don’t need. 3) Label anything you add to the fridge with the date it was prepared, the name of the dish and its ingredients—especially known allergens. And, that’s exactly what people do.
Eicher says that for more than one year now, those are the only rules that have been necessary. There haven’t been any reported issues from people who leave or take from the fridges, and when challenges at the sites come up, they’re quickly remedied.
For instance, at the end of August, an unknown donor dumped a large amount of produce at the east side site and just left it there, unsorted, disorganized and for the community to rifle through. Within a few hours, a volunteer had noticed the issue and notified Detroit Community Fridge organizers, who posted on social media about the food safety hazards that leaving such a large donation out could bring about, put out a call for help and had the issue cleaned up and fully resolved.
The project that Eicher and Rogers started just last summer has grown to include a group of more than 50 regular volunteers. They’re organized into shifts and groups, all managed via a Slack channel, to ensure that every fridge site is inspected and tended to for cleaning and upkeep every single day. The business owners at each fridge site check in on the fridge throughout the day as well.
Food is acquired for the fridge in a variety of ways. Supporters can donate to Detroit Community Fridge, and volunteers use that money to grocery shop and stock the fridges with fresh food and beverages. People also cook meals in their homes that they bring to the fridges for people to take. In addition, some schools have organized dry goods drives to stock fridge sites with shelf staples. And Rogers, who works at the Eastern Market, is often able to bring excess produce to sites at the end of market days.
A vast majority of the food available at each fridge is plant-based. That’s intentional as the idea is to give people access to the freshest, most nutritious food possible at no cost. But meals that contain meat are still welcome.
Since the fridges are outside all day and all night, and sometimes donations like beans or rice are left out in the open, the question about rodents, rabbits and other animals checking out the fridge for snacks of their own comes up. Eicher said that hasn’t been a problem. “Stuff moves so quickly that we don’t have a problem with that. That’s not to say that some neighborhoods don’t have a lot of rats; we know some neighborhoods have rats. But food moves really, really quickly off of the shelves and out of the fridges, and we have bins and organizers to keep things covered.” Eicher added that people who use the fridges often take a bin or organizer full of food, so that what they take with them continues to be covered and protected.
One of the best things about the fridges is that they’re available 24/7, so people can show up whenever they need to take whatever they like, no questions asked. Based on their anecdotal observations, many different kinds of people make use of the fridges. Lots of students stop at the fridges on their walks to and from school in Southwest, so efforts are made to have sandwiches and things that are easy to eat on the go available at those locations.
How to get involved
The primary role of Detroit Community Fridge volunteers is to verify that the contents of each fridge are fresh, labeled and easily identifiable. They’re also responsible for cleaning fridges, organizing food and redistributing any excess donations to other fridges running low. Sometimes volunteers will make vegan sandwiches or meals created from excess produce left over from food donations.
Lunch bag meals are often prepared for the locations in Southwest, and each fridge site offers prepared meals like overnight oats, veggie rice bowls and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
As more and more volunteers become involved in the project, they’re also taking on leadership roles that allow Eicher and Rogers to step back from being so hand-on each day. It’s important to the project’s longevity that new volunteers who can and are willing to take on management of the fridges join in.
“Alyssa and I are less hands-on than we were in the beginning,” said Eicher. “We’re more involved in organizing and planning with other people. But we see others stepping up to take initiative and I hope that continues because there will come a day when Alyssa or I might not be [as available] anymore.”
Eicher is in her final year of a master’s program in counseling and art therapy, while Rogers is an undergraduate in the Wayne-Med Direct program. The two are looking ahead to when they’ll be preparing for full-time jobs and the rigors of medical school.
Donating to the fridges is as easy as getting or preparing food, picking a location and dropping the food off with the required labeling. You can donate money to the project on Venmo to the handle @detroit-communityfridge.
Becoming a volunteer takes just a couple of additional steps: send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to their Slack channel and follow the project on Instagram.
“I’ve grown a lot in understanding just how important it is for us to take care of each other because there’s not always ready support or access to the government or a broader organization or structure,” Eicher said. “I’d been feeling hopeless about a lot of things before and the fridge really helped me to ground myself to the people around me. If what we’re doing with the fridge is just feeding someone for one day, that’s success for the project—we’re bridging a gap for an individual at that moment.
“We would both just love to see less food insecurity in the city as time goes on, and this is just our way of trying to facilitate the alleviation of even a little bit of that insecurity.”