On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ziona Brownlow showed volunteers the ins and outs of the new community fridge in Mountain View, a north Anchorage neighborhood that’s one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country. It’s also an area that’s been targeted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having high levels of food insecurity.
Brownlow said about 10% of Anchorage residents, upward of 30,000 people, suffer from food insecurity.
“So one in every 10 people that we know doesn’t know where they’re going to get their food from,” she said. “They might have to decide if they’re going to pay for their prescription or pay for gas or if they’re going to pay for food.”
Brownlow hopes the new community fridge helps combat hunger in the city, where food insecurity soared during the pandemic and where inflation continues to drive up food prices. “Bring what you can, take what you need, and help us #FeedAnchorage,” said the invitation for Saturday’s grand opening.
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Brownlow started thinking about the concept of a community fridge during the pandemic. She’d been working in food activism since 2018, when she founded Food for Thought Alaska. It started as a blog and she wrote about the ways local businesses were helping keep people fed. Then COVID-19 hit.
“My sort of ‘shop small, eat local’ mission got drowned in this wave of ‘Save Anchorage’ and ‘keep the restaurants open,'” she said. “And so I stepped away from that and food blogging and just looked at the very obvious need of employees being laid off and the increase of homelessness services and the increase of need at the Food Bank.”
She saw community fridges pop up across the country in cities like Miami, Atlanta and Chicago. And she decided to try to open one in Anchorage. She began organizing with other community groups.
While it’s been a chronic problem for years, food insecurity ballooned during the pandemic as people lost their jobs, said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the level of need shoot up about 75%, which of course is just unprecedented,” Durr said. “Every day we were talking to people who lost all their household income, are turning to programs like SNAP and our food pantries. And it has remained elevated ever since.”
Durr said issues like inflation are keeping food insecurity above pre-pandemic levels.
“So we’re seeing those levels creep up really close to what we saw at the height of the pandemic, which is pretty scary,” she said.
The Food Bank works with federal grants and programs to distribute food across Alaska, so it’s limited in which organizations it can partner with, said Durr.
“We can’t partner with something like a free fridge project just because there isn’t the level of monitoring for food safety and regulation that we are held to” she said. “But just because we’re not partnering doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea or something needed by the community.”
Durr said that’s also not to suggest the food at the community fridge isn’t safe to eat, and Brownlow said that volunteers follow national food safety precautions when handling food.
Brownlow said she thinks the community fridge is more personal than the traditional food bank model.
“We’re coming as close as we can to mirroring what food distribution looks like in a nonprofit industrial complex, but decentralizing — making it more accessible at a grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor level,” she said.
Brownlow wants the community fridge to complement the work the Food Bank is already doing.
The new community fridge is tucked right off Mountain View Drive. It’s about the size of a small shed, with a couple double-door fridges inside, like the kind you might see in a grocery store. There are stands for fruit and metal shelves drilled into the wall for canned goods. Cup Noodles boxes and granola bars were stacked in a corner. The outside is weatherized, and Brownlow said it was bear-proofed as well. Volunteers check on the fridge throughout the day.
For Alaskans looking to get something to eat, it’s as easy as walking up and taking food.
Brownlow said donations can be dropped off at the fridge doors. And they’re not just accepting food. On a table near the volunteer sign-up on Saturday were rapid COVID tests.
Brownlow said other non-perishable, non-food items like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are accepted as well.
“Diapers, baby formula, hygiene products, you need to share them,” Brownlow said. “I’m looking in here and I’m seeing pads and there’s juice… there’s Similac in here. It just makes my heart so happy.”
Brownlow said she looks forward to seeing other harm-reduction items like bandages, contraception and fentanyl test strips in the fridge.
While the fridge isn’t limited to just food, Brownlow said it is limited to what kinds of food and goods it can accept at this point.
“So we don’t have a freezer, and it’s easier for us to avoid any mishandling of food if we don’t have any raw meats, any frozen meats, any frozen food that might need to remain frozen,” she said. “So we don’t want anything like that there. We don’t want any medication, alcohol, furniture, clothing.”
Brownlow said in addition to Mountain View, the neighborhoods of Muldoon, Spenard, Government Hill and Midtown have been targeted by the USDA as areas with high rates of food insecurity. She hopes to see fridges in those communities in the future.
The Mountain View community fridge is now open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.