Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Community & Society
Published on July 29, 2020
San Francisco's first 'Community Fridge' brings free food to under-resourced Mission residentsThe community fridge, purchased with funds raised by supporters, has been in place for just over a week. | Photos: Nikki Collister/Hoodline

On July 19, San Francisco's first community fridge made its debut outside Adobe Books (3130 24th St.) in the Mission District.

With food banks at capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, the unconventional new food pantry aims to provide relief to one of the city's most COVID-impacted neighborhoods.

Ashley Rahimi Syed, a founding member of SF Community Fridge, said the program was inspired by Oakland’s Town Fridge and other free fridges that have proliferated across the country.

Most of those fridges are largely run by volunteers, outside of a traditional food-bank or food-pantry structure. Some people even operate them individually in front of their houses.

But Syed said the SF group wanted to take a different tack, partnering with existing Black- and Brown-led food equity organizations already established in local communities. In the Mission, they've teamed up with Mission Meals Coalition, which aims to bring meals to under-resourced individuals and families in the Bay Area.

“Our vision has always been to make food and water, two basic human rights, as accessible as possible,” Gabriela Alemán, Mission Meals Coalition's co-founder, told Hoodline. “This fridge, which is free and open to everyone, further highlights that mission.”

Food and pantry items change each day, but prioritized items include produce, canned goods, and pet food.

With help from Adobe Books, the two groups have raised money to purchase the refrigerator and build a parklet in front of the bookstore to house it. 

Open from noon to 7 p.m. each day, the fridge is kept stocked by a growing network of volunteers.

A curated shopping list shared with supporters ensures that the fridge meets the neighborhood’s needs, prioritizing staples like masa, beans, rice, milk, and eggs. Most are snapped up within 15 minutes of restocking.

“For our low-income seniors, this allows them the self-determination to essentially source the food they want," Alemán said. "When you go to a [traditional] food pantry, you don’t really get those choices.”

Unlike many other community fridges, homemade or pre-opened items are not accepted at the Mission District location. All food is checked for quality before it’s made available to the public. 

The organizers say COVID-19 safety has been paramount in their plans for the fridge. Supporters have several options for contactless donation drop-off, and volunteers are on hand at all times to sanitize surfaces and ensure social distancing.

Privacy is another priority for Alemán, as some people using the fridge are undocumented. No photos or videos of the fridge are allowed when it's in use.

“For a lot of folks, they’re in their most vulnerable state [when seeking food]," she said, noting that many food pantries require proof of residency status. "We want to honor that with security and consent.”

To get the word out about the fridge, Alemán and her team focused on the local unhoused community, common meeting places like laundromats, and “community aunties": matriarch figures who are well-known in the neighborhood.

Alemán has also involved neighborhood youth in the project. A group of Central American young adults painted murals on the fridge last week, elevating a Craigslist purchase into a public art installation.

Alemán said the community has been receptive to the fridge so far. Her family has received phone calls of gratitude from elders in the community, and donations have been steady — though there's always need for more.

With San Francisco's high levels of wealth inequality, "the resources are obviously here,” said fridge volunteer Stephen Gonzalez. “We just need to do the community work of gathering the resources and redistributing them.”

The Mission District fridge is the first of what Rahimi Syed hopes will become a wider network in San Francisco. Her group is already working to partner with local food equity organizations in high-need neighborhoods; the Bayview District is next on the list.

Even after the pandemic, Alemán said, the need for resources like the fridge won’t go away.  

“When COVID is over, our community will still be healing,” she explained, citing neighbors who have fallen into debt, or found themselves having to choose between paying rent or buying groceries. “Food insecurity and lack of access to water existed before COVID. [The pandemic] has only further exacerbated it.”

Looking to help? Follow @SFCommunityFridge on Instagram for links to a shopping list and drop-off instructions, or donate to its GoFundMe fundraiser. The group is also seeking volunteers to stock and monitor the fridge.

Help the Mission Meals Coalition by making a donation or becoming a member.