Austin just got its first community fridge program with the Austin Free Fridge Project (AFFP), whose first fridge can be found at East Austin restaurant Nixta Taqueria as of July 20. It appeared in the city amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, during which an unprecedented number of people are facing food insecurity and over 3.1 million Texas have filed for unemployment.
The fridge is available 24/7 for people who need food and items, as well as people looking to drop off donated goods. This means everything from vegetables, fruits, breads, frozen foods, prepared meals, restaurant foods, canned goods, baking and cooking supplies, hand sanitizer, and more.
“This initiative began because Austin is a very segregated city with many food deserts — mostly in minority neighborhoods,” explained AFFP founder and lead coordinator Kyandra Noble. “I wanted a way to help feed people who may not typically have access to healthier food options, but that didn’t feel intrusive or like charity.”
Noble was inspired to start AFFP after learning about a similar effort in New York by anarchist community collective A New World In Our Hearts in March. She reached out to find out more about its efforts, and the collective responded with documents and advice for starting one in Austin.
“We are an organization based on the principles of community mutual aid,” Noble explained, “so many of the people who have been involved are unnamed members of the community.” Some have donated, and others have backgrounds in nonprofits, food justice, and social justice. At first, it was just Noble and a few friends working on the project, but now the group has over 150 members in its dedicated Slack room (20 to 30 are active, Noble shared). The group is open to new volunteers.
Noble worked at an organization that planted gardens in Black and brown neighborhoods in East Austin, and she’s also handed out Urban Roots Farms’ produce donations to people in neighborhoods with food insecurity.
“The beauty of this concept is that it tackles food waste as well,” Noble says, “with many Austinites and restaurants able to donate food that they may not have used and would have ended up throwing out once it went bad. We are happy to provide a medium for the community to come together and for neighbors to help take care of each other.”
People who donate supplies are asked to date their food items and place newer items in the back of the fridge. Notably, though, raw meats aren’t accepted. For prepared meals, people are asked to list ingredients because people using the fridge may have allergies or dietary restrictions. There are COVID-19 preventative measures in place: People using the fridge are asked to wear masks, sanitize hands, and follow social-distancing guidelines.
“The fridges are community owned and maintained,” Noble says. Volunteers maintain the fridge, checking in several times a day to throw out expired food, make sure everything is clean, and ensure that it’s stocked. The fridge features artwork by local artist Enda M. Brennan.
Nixta co-owners Sara Mardanbigi and Edgar Rico reached out to Austin Free Fridge Project after multiple people forwarded the program to them. Within two weeks, the East 12th Street restaurant became the first community fridge host, using its power to keep the fridge on and stocking it with food. “They have been a very open and gracious first host,” Noble says, “and we are extremely grateful to them.”
“There’s always a steady stream of people dropping off and picking up,” says Mardanbigi. “It’s been really sweet to see the community engaging with one another.”
Nixta is currently participating in the Sustainable Food Center’s pop-up low-cost grocery market program. The restaurant is allowing people to purchase boxes of fresh produce or donate boxes to families in need. Leftover boxes are placed in the fridge.
Future fridges locations are being worked on. The next one will be found at art gallery Unit C at 1710 East Second Street soon, and will be painted by local artist Celeste Grace.
Austin Free Fridge Project is open to recurring donations from restaurants, farms, food cooperatives, and other mutual aid organizations. Interested parties should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Businesses interested in hosting a fridge can apply online, and the project is also accepting location and neighborhood suggestions. The organization is accepts donations through its Venmo at @atxfreefridge.