One of the refrigerators set by the Town Fridge Collective. Credit: Pete Rosos

Over the past month, a group calling itself “Town Fridge” has set up four refrigerators in publicly accessible spaces around Oakland. Anyone can open up a fridge anytime and pull out free food and drinks, from eggs to water bottles to fresh produce. The project, fueled by volunteers and donations, has one simple goal: try and provide sustenance for anyone who needs it. The group plans to set up five more fridges around town soon. And then more.

The Oaklandside spoke to two of Town Fridge‘s core organizers. Both asked to remain anonymous, saying they don’t want to draw attention to themselves as individuals, and that they want readers to focus instead on how Oaklanders can help each other get access to basic needs. “This isn’t our job. We are not getting paid to do this. We are just concerned citizens wanting to help,” one of the organizers told us.

The project is driven in part by local and national statistics related to hunger. In Alameda County, 9% of the population is food insecure, lacking access to enough nutritious and affordable food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 30 to 40% of the country’s food supply is wasted. “Scarcity is a myth,” said one organizer. “That’s just capitalism trying to convince people that there is some kind of scarcity. There is so much food waste.” 

The people behind Town Fridge took inspiration, in part, from a similar project on the East Coast. The “Free Food” fridge project in New York has spread notably far without pushback from city officials. “I was like, ‘Oh, these people are doing this in New York, who would want to do this here?’” another member of the Town Fridge collective told The Oaklandside. 

So far in Oakland, the Town Fridge organizers have bumped into one significant bureaucratic roadblock related to one of their most popular fridges, located in downtown Oakland. The business hosting that fridge is now working it out with the city, and in the meantime, more fridges are in the works.

Getting going

Oakland’s Town Fridge collective currently consists of seven local organizers with deep ties to Oakland’s nonprofit sector, food industry, and creative scenes. They started out by holding “meetings” via a group chat on Signal, a secure messaging app popular with activists. That “quickly became complete chaos and pandemonium,” one of the organizers told The Oaklandside, but a workable system emerged nonetheless.

One person created an online form to set up smaller groups and divide the tasks at hand: find free refrigerators, organize the food donations, find hosts who would allow them to install the refrigerators outside their homes or businesses, research potential liabilities, create flyers, and make sure information about the free food gets translated into languages other than English.

Their Instagram account launched on June 29 and already has over 6,000 followers. The first fridge was installed that day, a simple white model stocked with eggs, fresh vegetables, bottled water, and more. “First Town Fridge up and fully stocked on Linden and 30th St. in West Oakland! FREE FOOD 4 THE PEOPLE! Take what you need, leave what you don’t,” read the caption.

Currently, Town Fridge has around 100 volunteers. The collective is constantly talking with residents, restaurants, and business owners to try and pinpoint possible locations for future fridges. So far, Town Fridge collective has placed two fridges in West Oakland, one in North Oakland, and one downtown. They plan to set up at least five more refrigerators in the next few weeks in East Oakland and other neighborhoods in need of food.

The collective doesn’t reveal the exact addresses where the fridges are located. Instead, they share the intersections of each location. They want people to take what they need, no questions asked, without asking for anything in return. While everyone is welcome to access the fridges, they emphasize that Black, brown, indigenous, and houseless residents should be given priority.

Some people interested in using the fridges have been a bit confused at first, expecting that the food is for sale or trade.

“We’ve had a lot of people who are houseless or are food insecure that have been reaching out and being like, ‘What can I trade to access this food, how can I help you?” one organizer told us. “I’m having to respond with, ‘No, this is free.’”

Critiques and concerns

Every fridge has instructions posted in front or on the side telling people what sort of food to donate and how to properly label food so that people can know when it’s no longer fresh. Credit: Pete Rosos

Despite its popularity, Town Fridge has received some critical feedback. For instance, an online commenter complained about the number of plastic water bottles up for grabs. Plastic, the person pointed out, contributes to pollution.

“If you think of a better solution, feel free to let us know,” the second organizer we spoke to said. “People need water to survive. In the same way, because of Covid, where are they supposed to get fresh water without paying for it?”

The host of a fridge located at 59th and Marshall Street in northwest Oakland shared with the organizers some concerns regarding potential liability—say someone was to get hurt while accessing the food inside, or bumped into a fridge, or a child were to get trapped inside?

The organizers say safety is a priority, and that they find ways to make the fridges less accessible to small children, including simple wooden enclosures. “We always make sure that if the unit is in a residential area, it is recessed from the sidewalk,” said one of the organizers.

Every fridge has instructions posted in front or on the side telling people what sorts of food to donate and how to properly label food so that others can know when it’s no longer fresh. At each refrigerator, markers and tape are available for volunteers to use. 

The city versus Town Fridge

On July 7, Natalia Ivanova Mount, executive director of Pro Arts Gallery located in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, received an email from Anthony Reese of the city of Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department. In the email, Reese told Mount that while he appreciated the project’s intention, the Town Fridge she’d agreed to host just outside the front doors of the gallery was a “violation of the lease and Plaza rules and regulations” that Pro Arts has with the city, which owns the building and plaza. “Please remove the refrigerator,” Reese wrote.

The email made the rounds on social media. By July 10, Town Fridge organizers had moved the fridge inside the gallery. “This news is extremely disappointing since the OGP fridge has seen the most traffic thus far,” organizers wrote on Instagram, referring to the plaza as Oscar Grant Plaza. “It is easily accessible to people who either live in the plaza or are frequently in the area.”

According to Mount, neither the Town Fridge collective nor Pro Arts received prior communication about the fridge from city officials before that email instructing them to move it. “I think the city red-flagged it because if someone gets hurt, they will go after the city,” Mount said. 

Mount said she feels the city should have reached out to help her and the Town Fridge collective obtain a permit instead of just sending the email. Mount also noted that permits are harder to obtain right now, since City Hall is currently accessible only by special appointment due to the pandemic.

A few days after receiving the initial email, Mount received another email from Reese stating that the city would like to find a way to support the project. “We’re working with other City departments in an effort to identify a path forward for the Pro Arts Refrigerator Project,” he wrote.

The Oaklandside asked the city about the fridge fracas. Harry Hamilton, marketing coordinator of the Business Development Economic and Workforce Development Department, wrote in an email to the Oaklandside: “Per their lease, ProArts is responsible for securing necessary permits and permissions to use the public plaza for their projects, including letting the City know in advance, which didn’t happen for the Town Fridge project. But we are now actively working with them to help them realize this worthwhile project and to ensure any potential health and safety issues are addressed.”

Town Fridge organizers also feel the city initially acted too fast. “They didn’t give us a heads up, they didn’t give us a warning,” said one organizer. “They gave us no chance to address the situation, and that’s unfortunate.”

More ways to get involved

Learning from the experience at Pro Arts, the Town Fridge organizers hope to avoid further conflict with the city. “We are reaching out to other organizations to see how they manage with the city and see how we can support them,” one told us.

In the meantime, the collective hopes more community members will fill out their online form to volunteer or donate. While they appreciate emails and messages on social media, they say they don’t have the bandwidth to individually respond to every message that they receive. They are also in the process of putting together a wish list of items to make the fridges more secure and accessible. 

The collective will soon share information about a Venmo account. “We have had a lot of people asking to give cash donations, but we’ve just wanted to clarify that money will be going towards buying building supplies, potentially paying electricity, and paying Black and brown artists to paint the fridges,” one organizer told us.

Despite some early hurdles, the Town Fridge organizers say they feel hopeful about the project’s future. “It’s bringing back that feeling of, ‘I know my neighbors, I know my community,’” the other organizer told us. “We don’t have to know each other, but we’re still on the same vibe. That is the culture here. That’s been the culture.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.