Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer
A vibrant pink fridge on the sidewalk of Venable Street reads “free food” in painted letters. Inside the brightly colored appliance are mountains of grocery essentials, such as fresh produce and loaves of bread.
Richmond’s free community fridge made its debut on Jan. 30 at Pomona, a plant and coffee shop located in Union Hill. The fridge is open to the public at all hours, offering goods and accepting donations. It is the first of many free fridges that its organizers plan to set up around the city.
“I definitely want to make sure people have access to free food, free healthy food at that, and if we can do that, I think that would be amazing,” said Taylor Scott, the project’s founder.
Scott, a 2019 VCU alumna, started the RVA Community Fridges project in October. She posted information about the project on Instagram and Facebook to garner the public’s interest in contributing.
Scott said the project has become a large community effort run by a team of volunteer organizers.
“I’ve received so much support in making this dream a reality,” Scott said.
A group of 45 volunteer organizers work to monitor the fridge daily to ensure it is kept clean and well stocked. Items for the fridge are provided by the volunteer team, public donations and community collaborators, such as Ruby Scoops and Virginia Free Farm.
The group posts donation guidelines and requests on the fridge and its social media pages. Encouraged contributions include fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy products, bread and bottled water. The group discourages raw meats, open containers, alcohol and items with sugar, like soda.
“Part of this is to promote green, healthy eating in the community,” said Kristina Wilborn, a member of the volunteer team.
The project offers pantry items, including canned goods, hygiene products such as toothpaste and menstrual products, face masks and first aid kits. These items are kept in clear plastic bins next to the fridge.
“We don’t want to just supply food,” Wilborn said. “We want to supply essential items that you may need on a daily basis as well.”
Wilborn provided the fridge located at Pomona. She was inspired to help after witnessing a man steal meat from a store. She said this made her realize the difficulties faced by the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What really inspired me to be on top of it and donate my fridge was seeing that older gentleman take food because he needed it,” Wilborn said. “People out here are in need. We may not see it on the news every day or you may not even walk down your neighborhood and see it, but you never know.”
Food insecurity, or the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, is a significant issue in Richmond, especially in the East End, where grocery stores are few and far between. Richmond had a food insecurity rate of 15.8% in 2018, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit that aims to provide food to people in need.
“It’s a real important challenge to overcome to get food to the 24% of people in Richmond City who live below the poverty line,” said Joseph Cates, an assistant professor in VCU’s department of focused inquiry. “In the United States, we don’t experience food insecurity because there’s any lack of food — it’s a distribution problem.”
Cates teaches Food for Thought, an online asynchronous course about food justice and insecurity in the Richmond area that will run during VCU’s five-week February “minimester.”
The expense of dining out when grocery stores are unavailable compounds the issue of food insecurity, Cates said. Cooking at home with ingredients, such as those provided by the free community fridges, provides a more affordable alternative.
“You want to make sure that you have enough affordable local options that are healthy and meet the cultural needs of the people that they’re meant to serve,” Cates said.
In addition to providing food, the fridges will serve as an artistic space for the community.
Each fridge will be painted by a different artist to showcase multiple local talents. The first was painted by Richmond artist Ayana Love and depicts a fictional plant species called “The Give.”
“It’s supposed to be this little plant that sprouts up in places of generosity,” Love said.
Love said painting the fridges gives them a level of visual appeal and makes them seem more exciting and inviting.
“In charity work, I think we get so caught up in providing the need that we forget that people in need also want a little beauty and a little joy,” Love said. “It’s just something extra to put a smile on somebody’s face instead of walking up to a dingy, old, dirty, white fridge.”
Love also designed a flyer for the group’s social media pages with a similar image of the plant. She got connected with the project by Deena Ramadan, her colleague and a member of the fridge’s volunteer team.
According to Wilborn, the volunteers hope to build a shed and start community pantries in addition to the fridges they will be placing around Richmond.
The second fridge will be located on Hull Street, outside of The Bearded Kitchen. This location is part of Richmond’s Southside, in contrast to the first fridge being positioned in the East End. Wilborn said the group aims to cater to all areas of the city.
“We want to protect those in our community and provide,” Wilborn said. “We want to provide something for the community that doesn’t cost money, that there aren’t any big rules.”
The first community fridge is located at 2025 Venable St.