Anchorage is joining a national grassroots movement to combat food insecurity through a neighborhood refrigerator filled with fresh food that community members can take as needed, free of charge.
The Mountain View neighborhood will be the home of Anchorage’s first foray into what’s known as the community fridge concept.
The idea, which emphasizes simplicity and requires no paperwork or identification, hinges on grassroots activists to run the fridge operation and local donors to contribute food and other supplies.
Anchorage’s first community fridge officially opened to the public Saturday. It is located on the Umoja CoWorking patio at 4119 Mountain View Drive and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. A 6-by-8-foot weatherproof structure houses two small coolers — donated by the Dimond Boulevard Fred Meyer — and three wire shelving units.
On Saturday, during a launch party, volunteers and community members stocked the empty fridge and barren shelves with stuffed peppers, canned drinks, meat, dairy products and nonperishables.
Kristi Wood attended the party and helped transfer donated items into the structure, including extra eggs from her backyard chickens.
Wood works with Anchor Gardens, a local nonprofit created during the pandemic to connect neighbors through gardening resources and expertise. She plans to guide gardeners with excess food to the Mountain View fridge to help keep it stocked and minimize food waste.
Wood believes the fridge can open an opportunity for community members to come together.
“I think this will be a natural fit,” she said. “It’s a place you can just come and get food. It’s not a big deal. There’s no stigma here.”
‘A woman on a mission’
Social worker and Anchorage resident Ziona Brownlow is organizing the community fridge project through her mutual aid cooperative, Food for Thought Alaska.
Brownlow, 25, has worked to get the fridge project off the ground for the past year and opted for the Mountain View neighborhood because of community connections and interest in the project.
Brownlow saw other communities around the country “just literally putting a fridge outside and filling it up with food” and was inspired to do the same, she said.
Part of her motivation came from struggling with food insecurity herself as a child when she and her mother received aid through different food redistribution outlets.
“Food is this really simple but also complex way of sharing your identity with somebody,” Brownlow said. “When I look back on the times where my family was facing food insecurity, or that was something that I was struggling with myself, it was also really hard to show up as a whole person.”
On Saturday, her mother watched as her daughter introduced the project to the community. Tears welled in Joey Inman’s eyes.
“She’s been doing this since she was little,” Inman said of Brownlow’s activism. “This is just the beginning. That’s a woman on a mission.”
Food insecurity on the rise
The pandemic increased the number of people around the country, including in Anchorage, who are experiencing food insecurity.
In 2019, about 10.9% of Anchorage residents experienced food insecurity, defined by Feeding America as the lack of access to sufficient food because of limited financial resources.
Preliminary data for 2021 showed a 1% increase, according to the hunger relief and food recovery organization. Food insecurity rates among Anchorage’s children increased from 14.7% in 2019 to an estimated 16.1% in 2021.
Food pantries and food banks around Alaska say they are seeing demand rise for food right now, likely due to a mix of lapsing pandemic benefits coupled with soaring grocery and gas prices.
The community fridge concept differs from the food pantries already serving Anchorage because of the grassroots, volunteer-led nature of the projects that spring up neighborhood by neighborhood, supporters say.
Food pantry requirements vary from partner to partner, said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska. Some require identification to verify information and most partners recommend bringing an ID as an easy avenue to get basic contact information, she said, adding that no one is turned away for their lack of identification.
The new community fridge in Mountain View will not be staffed and does not require people to bring an identification card, Brownlow said.
Advice from a neighbor
Brownlow, bringing a new idea to town, looked to an existing project for inspiration and design support.
In March, she received structure blueprints from the town of Innisfil –– a small community in Ontario –– which started operating its first fridge in June 2020.
Innisfil used a repurposed fridge housed within a structure built by a local high school construction technology class. They have since added two more fridges funded by their city council.
About 10 other communities, including Anchorage, have contacted the Ontario community for advice and blueprints, according to Sara Corcoran, a health associate with the town of Innisfil who is focused on food literacy and security.
Using the Canadian community’s blueprints, Brownlow was able to save money on the design phase to create the sturdy and insulated shed-type structure she knew would work for the Mountain View fridge given the challenges of Anchorage wildlife and months of frigid weather.
The Mountain View fridge will be partially stocked with donated food from local businesses, like Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese shop, which has been contributing leftover bread.
Donations from friends, family and community members, along with collaborations with local artists, helped fund the project entirely, Brownlow said, including $3,000 that went toward building the structure. Labor for the project was donated by the local carpenter’s union, totaling “well over $5,000,″ said Mika Daniel, a volunteer with the project who also helped install the weatherproof siding.
About 35 volunteers have agreed to help monitor the fridge, prepare meals and clean up, Brownlow said. Donations of plastic cutlery, condiments and single-ingredient items like produce or nonperishables are needed, but she also encourages people to donate home-cooked meals that are labeled with ingredients and a use-by date. Frozen food or any home goods such as furniture and clothing are not accepted.
She hopes to install four more outdoor fridges in different corridors of the city highlighted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “opportunity zones,” including Fairview, Muldoon, Spenard and Ship Creek.
Her goal is sharing not just food, but identity.
“We’re sharing our culture with each other. We’re sharing history with each other,” Brownlow said.
-- Reporter Morgan Krakow contributed to this story.