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To Reduce Carbon Emissions, Set Out a Fridge

By Alison Stine. Originally published in Nonprofit Quarterly on December 8, 2023.

Fresh produce. Milk. Even leftover pizza.

These are just a few of the food items one might find in the most unusual of places: in a refrigerator placed out on the street.

In recent years, Little Free Libraries, small structures where community members can leave books for others and take books for free, have become common in many neighborhoods. Particularly since COVID, some of these mini-libraries—usually a cabinet on a post outside a house or out on the sidewalk—have been converted into cupboards, stocked with canned goods, nonperishable food, and toiletries, in addition to or instead of books.

As NPQ reported on the phenomenon of community cupboards in 2020, “Neighbors can take what nonperishable food items they need and donate what they have to spare…it’s also a great reminder of everyone lending a hand in times of crisis.”

In places with access to outdoor power, people have taken the community cupboard idea a step further—to community refrigerators. These can also offer fresh vegetables, dairy, meat, and other perishable food items. And the fridges come with a surprise bonus: they reduce emissions.

A Creative Response to an Urgent Need

Like community cupboards, community fridges started to take off during the beginning of the pandemic as a record number of Americans struggled with food insecurity. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food insecurity rose to 10 percent in June 2020, up from 8 percent in March 2020, when the pandemic began in the United States. 

As New York University’s School of Global Public Health noted in 2021, COVID “significantly changed our food landscape, with high unemployment producing long lines at food banks, interruptions in supply chains leaving shelves empty, and lockdowns prompting some consumers to stockpile shelf-stable groceries.” Additionally, NYU researchers went on, “school closures made it more difficult for the 30 million children who depend on the National School Lunch program to access low-cost or free meals.”

Enter the fridge. As Mother Jones reported, “When supply chains were crumbling, food prices were rising, and families across the country were struggling to find meals…the fridges were viewed as a creative response to an urgent need.” 

Community groups, nonprofits, families, even breweries or restaurants could set out a refrigerator connected to an outlet or extension cord and keep the appliances full of fresh vegetables, dairy, or leftover meals. Like community cupboards—and unlike food pantries, which often require paperwork before serving individuals—people could take what they needed without needing to prove income eligibility, fill out a form, or even identify themselves. At community fridges, people could anonymously and privately help themselves.

According to Mother Jones, “Today, nonprofits and mutual aid groups are overseeing hundreds of fridges that bolster access to food in cities from Miami to Anchorage, Alaska.”

Mounting Food Waste 

Community fridges can help fill the gaps when families are struggling, but they can also help the Earth. How can an appliance help lessen the impacts of climate change? The answer has to do with food waste.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the United States ends up being thrown away. In 2010, this amounted to over $161 billion worth of food. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, where food comprises the largest element of trash. 

While in the landfills, food decomposes and emits methane. According to Mother Jones, “Food waste accounts for as much as 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And more food is being thrown out than ever.” Bloomberg reported that the uneaten food in 2021 amounted to about $444 billion, nearly triple that of only a decade previous.

What’s behind the increase in food waste? A report from Recycle Track Systems found that “more than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels. Labels like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ ‘expires on,’ ‘best before,’ or ‘best by’ are confusing to people—and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll toss it in the garbage.”

Food in the United States is easier to obtain than in other places around the globe, according to the report. Such availability can lead to a “general sentiment of not appreciating or valuing it.” That feeling, combined with impulse buys, can contribute to Americans purchasing too much food or food that won’t actually be eaten by the members of their households.

Meanwhile, food pantries can’t accept many items, including any food with questionable expiration dates, food with damaged packaging, or, as Feeding America writes, “leftovers or anything made in personal kitchens because they aren’t individually sealed and the food bank can’t verify the ingredients or preparation process.” That includes baked goods.

Many food pantries don’t accept dairy, either—or really, anything perishable. “This is the big one,” according to Feeding America. “Food like produce, dairy, and meat can spoil easily and your local food bank may not have the refrigerator or freezer space needed to keep these items fresh.”

Community fridges can help cut down on methane-producing food waste by providing a place for those items that food banks can’t take or store, like sandwiches or milk.

Energy and Safety Concerns

Some nonprofits are ensuring their community fridges are even more climate-friendly by equipping them with solar panels and using updated, energy-efficient appliances. The Chicago-based Love Fridge utilizes only used appliances for their community fridges, which the group then retrofits with solar power. But even a traditional fridge uses less daily energy than a phone, according to Mother Jones.

It may be convenient to drop off that extra food in a community fridge or to pick up what you need from a fridge out on the street—but is it safe? “Properly storing foods is imperative to keeping it safe,” the Food Network wrote in a piece that stresses the importance of cleaning community fridges and maintaining them, including ensuring the fridges are kept at a proper temperature to prevent spoilage.

Such responsibilities may fall to community members or nonprofit workers, but individuals donating also have a responsibility to leave only safe, fresh food that is clearly labeled and packaged. “A good rule to follow if you are donating to a community refrigerator, donate food you want to eat yourself,” Clancy Cash Harrison, founder of Food Dignity, a Pennsylvania-based humanitarian organization, told the Food Network. That leftover pizza? It needs to be individually packaged in plastic wrap and labeled with the date if it’s to be donated to a community fridge. 

There are safeguards in place when it comes both to setting out a fridge and donating items to fill it. In 2022, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic put out a guide attempting to answer legal questions that might arise with community fridges, including if an organization or individual could be liable if someone experiences illness from community fridge food. But the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects donors and fridge operators as long as “the food has met all safety requirements and the donor and/or fridge believe the food to be safe,” according to the Harvard guide.

Fortunately, that’s usually not an issue when it comes to community fridges.“Most people bring good leftovers,” Ernst Bertone Oehninger, who started what is thought to be the first US community fridge in 2014, said to Mother Jones. And in doing so, they help their neighbors and help keep food waste out of the country’s landfills.

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