A Hot Pink Fridge Is Helping Feed a Community
In the heart of Union Hill sits a bright, pink fridge in the middle of the sidewalk with the words “FREE FOOD” painted across the door. It’s one of two ‘community fridges’ placed around the city in response to the pandemic, stocked full of essentials and snacks for Richmonders.
On a recent afternoon, an older man approaches the fridge on a bike and dismounts before removing a plastic bag from a makeshift container attached to the side. Amongst the snacks and treats, he carefully chooses one half gallon of milk.
“I’m going to be honest. This is a blessing from God. I only take what I need,” he says.
He says his wife has diabetes and drinks milk because she’s concerned about bone strength. Although he can afford most of his shopping list, he picks up extra items at the fridge about twice a week.
Andy Waller, who founded The Safe Space Market, a farmers market that seeks to “support, celebrate and promote” people in marginalized communities, says that’s how RVA Community Fridges work.
“They set up community fridges, and the food is free for anybody who needs it,” Waller says. “There's no gatekeeping. It's truly just a community resource for anyone who wants to seek it out and truly needs it.”
Waller hosted a table for the project at the market throughout March, to let Taylor Scott promote RVA Community Fridges and solicit donations for her volunteer-based organization.
Scott founded the organization to collect and decorate fridges around Richmond. They’re stocked with donated groceries, water and personal care products. She was inspired to start the project by an abundant harvest from her home garden.
“When I had my first yield of crops from it, I had thought about just asking my friends if they wanted some,” Scott says. “Then I had a friend in California, who I saw was dropping things off at a community fridge that she volunteers for, and I was just like, ‘I've never seen a community fridge in Virginia!’”
Scott started an Instagram account, rvacommunityfridges, and messaged some friends to meet and plan a local effort. By the end of the initial meeting, they had their first fridge and an artist to paint it.
“We needed to figure out the rules we were going to need from the health department and city hall,” Scott recalls. “We were trying to figure out who was going to talk to businesses, who was going to help search for places, and everyone was offering so much assistance for the amount of people we had.”
After a rocky few months of searching for a fridge location, the group connected with the husband-wife duo who own Union Hill cafe slash market Pomona.
"We've been here for almost three years, and we were always aware that Pomona is essentially sitting on a line between affluent and those with next to nothing, and we've always tried to walk that line,” says Melissa Micou, who owns the business with her husband, Frayser.
Pomona is named after the Roman goddess of orchards and gardens. For the Micous, the name represents the combination of a cafe space with plants and gardening supplies and reflects their devotion to being low impact.
“What we're really here to do is provide a connection to nature through the store and through the cafe, and that's a simple thing you can do in many ways,” Frayser says.
Some of the ways they try to serve their community include keeping prices low -- batch coffee runs $1 a cup -- and sourcing produce locally. Hosting Richmond’s first community fridge aligned with their overall vision for the space, they say.
“We welcome everyone from the neighborhood, and it is an interesting neighborhood in that it houses extreme ends of financial wealth, and we've done our best that we could to [do that and] be a business,” Melissa says. “With the fridge, there's a 24-hour solution.”
It took local artist Hotpinkhotel two days to paint the fridge, and three days later, it was up and running on Venable Street. Less than a month later, Intergalactic Tacos offered to host a second fridge in Manchester. Now, there are plans for two more fridges, one near Virginia Union University and the other near Virginia State University, hosted by New Kingdom Church and CcMe Naturals. Virginia Commonwealth University and The Safe Space Market have also expressed interest in hosting.
“If I set my mind to something, I'll do it, and I was like, ‘I can 100% put up a fridge, just one,’” Scott says. “I would have never thought that I would get this much support, that people would even want to see more fridges around, or even want assistance in putting up other fridges throughout Virginia.”
So far, Scott has helped a group of students in Hampton Roads put up their own fridge, and organizers from Georgia and Maryland reached out for assistance. Though the spread of her project was unexpected, Scott understands the power of community. She was six years old when her family evacuated New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina swept through the city. While staying in rural hotels, she remembers people offering meals, toiletries and childcare to her parents.
“That's mutual aid,” Scott says. “It wasn't really until I had gotten older and realized that's what the community is supposed to do when things like this happen. We're supposed to bond together and assist each other.”
Like Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted preexisting social inequalities. Many Richmonders have lost their homes and experienced economic hardships. Through RVA Community Fridges, Scott hopes to alleviate some of the burden. Her mission spoke to Waller, and she’s reached shoppers at Safe Space, too.
“The fact that they have volunteers, or Taylor herself, coming to the market to run a table and talk with people about the work that they do has been incredible,” Waller says. In addition to the market, Scott has attended community events, like a recent hygiene kit distribution event turned kids’ softball game. In addition to hundreds of meals, Scott raised nearly $12,000 for the project, mostly online. Although she’s happy with the reach of RVA Community Fridges, Scott has bigger dreams, too. She incorporated the organization as an LLC and connects with other groups within the Richmond mutual aid network. She hopes to put up 12 fridges, one for each month, by the end of 2021.
“I'm still shocked that this is really here,” Scott says. “I wake up every morning like, ‘I gotta go see the fridge, make sure I'm not dreaming!’”
It’s definitely not a dream. The hot pink fridge is well-loved by the visitors removing and restocking its contents; its hosts beam brightly from inside their shop.
“We look out the window, and we see this good thing that's happening,” Melissa says. “And sure, maybe if another business was here, they would have hosted Taylor too, but it was just like this little ray of sunshine, right when we needed it, to see that someone's looking out for the people in this neighborhood and that it’s working.”