Every other day, Gary Wade walks a few blocks from his home in West Oakland to City Slickers Farms. He says hello to everyone, and hangs out with the chickens. Then he goes to their “town fridge” to grab some fresh greens. If he’s lucky, he’ll also find a home-cooked meal from Community Kitchens’ Home Chef Volunteer Program. The meatloaf is his favorite. 

For Wade, 72, the meals are a tastier alternative to the ones he receives from a senior center. Wade also has Alzheimer’s, and the farm is the only place he can walk to without getting lost on his own. Since the meals started appearing weekly in the fridge six months ago, his caretaker Kelsi Dunkelbarger says she’s noticed a shift in mood – he’s a little less irritable, and a lot more proud.

“It’s liberating for Gary. He actually gets to go and choose what he wants. Because if I take him to a store, it’s too overwhelming or looks too expensive,” she said. “It gives him that sense of, ‘Oh, I went and did this myself.’ ”

Town fridges popped up all over Oakland during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A decentralized global mutual aid movement, more than half of the fridges are still plugged in nearly three years later with varying levels of upkeep. Now, CK Home Chef volunteers are donating home-cooked meals to five of the nine fridges in food insecure areas. The meals provide ease, variety, and for some, emotional comfort.

CK Home Chef volunteer Audrey Rieben with containers of ‘Steve’s Casserole,’ a shepherd’s pie in honor of her dad, who passed away last year. Credit: Celeste Hamilton Dennis

“Our goal is to provide a warm and delicious meal that nourishes not only the body, but the soul,” said Community Kitchens co-founder Maria Alderete. “So many of our residents are living through hardships. If we can bring a little bit of love, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Alderete, co-owner of now-closed Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, started Community Kitchens in March 2020, one week after shelter-in-place began. A response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the food justice organization quickly became known for its free and accessible meal program, now partially funded through its Dining For Justice effort, in which participating local restaurants add a 1% surcharge to each guest’s check, and the funds provide “meals with dignity” distributed in partnership with People’s Programs, Homies Empowerment, The East Oakland Collective, and other organizations.

CK Home Chef launched this July as a way to tap into a community of people who like cooking and wanted to help, but didn’t know how. Alderete brought on Meal Program Manager Mollye Chudacoff, and they identified high-trafficked fridges near encampments and schools.

The need for meals is high, especially in low-income areas in West and East Oakland, due to systemic inequities and rising food prices. The Alameda County Community Food Bank distributed 58 million pounds of food in 2021 – a 71% increase from 2019. Corner stores often fill in the gap, but they come with a price: a gallon of milk, for example, can cost $1 to $2 more than at a chain supermarket.

CK Home Chef volunteer Mana Contractor cooking hyderabadi chicken dum biryani with her husband Colin Scott and dog Chutney. Credit: Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Once CK Home Chef volunteers sign up, they’re invited to join a Slack channel and participate in an online orientation that includes food safety measures. The organization then reimburses volunteers for a food handler’s license, provides packaging and labels to list ingredients and shares a recipe book for inspiration. 

In turn, volunteers commit to making 25 meals on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and deliver them to the fridges. So far, nearly 20 volunteers have made over 3,000 meals. They range from pearl barley salad with autumn vegetables to Filipino mung bean stew to Cajun chicken and rice. In November and December, the group is also piloting a winter soup program in partnership with Mandela Produce Distribution, with ingredients from its network of BIPOC farmers.  

While formally gathering feedback from meal recipients has been difficult, most meals are gone within 24 hours. Town fridge hosts also say they’ve been beneficial for older adults who don’t have enough energy to cook, unhoused folks who don’t have kitchens and families who don’t have a lot of time. 

Sabrina Martinez goes to the fridge at Homies Empowerment once a week. A mom of four and former health nutrition educator, she appreciates the meals because it gives her family the opportunity to vary their diets. She also tries to contribute by keeping the area organized. On a recent Thursday, she found cans of tomatoes on a shelf in disarray.

Homies Empowerment staff member in front of their town fridge. Credit: Celeste Hamilton Dennis

“If I see something like this going on, then I try to make it look better for people to want to grab food,” she said, lining the cans up in neat rows. “Everybody in the community knows that when you’re in a time of need, it’s here.”

Usually, volunteers who make food for the fridges purchase their own ingredients, but the hope is to eventually partner with grocery stores for food recovery, as well as improve access by posting a schedule of when the meals will be in the fridges. It is also in the process of securing a central retail food hub where volunteers will be able to cook together. 

Mana Contractor was one of the first CK Home Chef volunteers. A singer who immigrated to California from India, cooking has become a way for her to connect with home. Her mother gives her cooking advice over WhatsApp, and she’ll often invite a large group of friends to share in the experience. She’s made about 10 meals to date – including her mother’s legendary chicken biryani – and estimates it costs her $65 per batch.

The Homies Empowerment fridge is less than a mile from Contractor’s house, and she feels making the meals is a way to make a direct impact on her community.

“Everyone deserves a well-cooked meal,” she said. “And if we’re going to do it, I feel like it needs to be done with a certain amount of respect and care.”

This story was co-published with Oakland North.

Featured image: Restaurants, organizations and individuals donate fresh food and canned goods to ‘town fridges’ across Oakland. This one is at the intersection of Bartlett and Deering in East Oakland. Credit: Celeste Hamilton Dennis