As hunger and uncertainty over where the next meal is coming from have expanded dramatically during the pandemic, so too has a grassroots, community response to the problem in Chicago: brightly colored community refrigerators that form part of the “Love Fridge” initiative.
One of the latest editions sits at the edge of the parking lot at the La Michoacana ice cream store in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
It’s right up against the sidewalk. Friendly neon flyers announce “free food” and “comida para el pueblo” for this “refri de amor.”
The fridge, which is plugged into one of the ice cream shop’s flood lights, was recently stocked with kale, apples, carrots, beets, hummus and hot dogs. Ground turkey could be found in the freezer. A little shelter has been built around it to keep the elements off; wooden shelves built adjacent to the fridge hold pantry items.
Like most of the other love fridges in Chicago, this one is just left out in the open, available for anyone to take the food inside, and equally available for anyone to contribute food for someone who needs it.
“We’re really happy to have it here,” said Amara Martin, an activist and educator who helped bring the love fridge to Pilsen. “It’s 24-7 access to free food, and it’s supported by neighbors in the community.”
Martin said the fridge represents solidarity, not charity.
“There’s no checking your ID, your immigration status,” she said. “People who just need a few things can take them without waiting in the long lines that have appeared outside many food banks. “It’s just there for whenever you need it, even if it’s in the middle of the night.”
The love fridges are brightly painted, a conscious effort to make them inviting, happy, and stigma-free. Artist Ari Franco is decorating Pilsen’s. She hopes to build off the color scheme of the neon pink ice cream shop hosting the fridge.
“I wanted to keep the paleteria colors, so we got this neon and a teal and oranges, “ she said.
She also hopes to make it possible for people to add photos of loved ones to the fridge, the way they would at home on their family fridge.
A Chicago artist is credited with sparking the love fridge movement in Chicago. He saw a similar idea in Brooklyn and challenged the city to step up. Chicago residents have answered the call. There are 22 love fridges all over the city — including the North Lawndale, South Shore, Englewood and West Lawn communities. Belmont Cragin added one this week.
Aracely Galvan hosts a love fridge on the city’s Far Southeast Side. It’s a little bit like having a food pantry in her front yard.
“I thought people would think it was weird because, at first, I thought it was weird,” Galvan said.
But since setting up the love fridge in September, she’s been blown away, by both the need and generosity of neighbors. Sometimes the fridge is filled up and emptied out multiple times a day, she said.
“I will go out there at any point during the day and … people will just like drop off boxes of items,” Galvan said. “The fridge was empty this morning, and it was full when I went to bed last night.”
In addition to food, on Christmas Eve, Galvan plans to stock the love fridge with gift bags containing toys, puzzles and warm socks to help parents who may be struggling this year to provide gifts for their kids.
The whole Love Fridge effort is 100% volunteer driven. There’s no staff and no formal organization leading the effort, really. Those involved describe themselves as a mutual aid group.
“We’re just all really committed to the idea that food is a human right,” said Risa Haynes, who’s been working as a Love Fridge Chicago volunteer coordinator and food distribution organizer since she’s unable to keep working as a massage therapist due to COVID-19. Haynes said grocery stores, wholesalers, restaurants, and even food pantries all make regular donations to the love fridges.
In addition, volunteers will sometimes “rescue” food that would otherwise be destined for the dumpster. Haynes has picked up everything from 75 dozen eggs — “eggs are gold, I would never say no to eggs,” she said — to pallets of airplane meals.
“They must have been the first-class airplane meals because they were super fancy,” she said.
Haynes and some 10 other volunteers drove around and packed fridges with the premade meals last week.
She said she thinks the love fridges have taken off in Chicago because “people want to be involved in their communities, and they want to be helpful.”
The fridges give people a way to do that — on their own time, contact-free.
But Haynes said the love fridges are about more than distributing food.
“It’s creating community connections and that I do not see going away,” Haynes said. “I think that’s something we’ve been absolutely starving for, as a city, for a really long time. And I just see that lasting far past the pandemic.”
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.