Share Food, Reduce Waste

Community fridges are easy to access for those looking to donate fresh food; prepackaged items are especially welcome. Photographer: Emily Kestel.

Writer: Missy Keenan

When students at West Des Moines’ Valley High School have sports practice or play rehearsal after school but forget to bring a snack—or their cupboards at home are empty—they can grab a sandwich from the school’s activities fridge.

When local gardeners have an overabundance of cucumbers, squash or tomatoes, they can bring them to the Sweet Tooth Community Fridge outside Home Inc. in Des Moines’ River Bend neighborhood.

These are just two examples of at least 40 community fridges that have sprung up in the Des Moines area in the last few years. The publicly accessible refrigerators are stocked with free food, with the twin goals of getting food to people who need it and reducing food waste. Anyone can help themselves to food from the fridge, no questions asked, and anyone can donate to it.

Pandemic Start

Monika Owczarski started the Sweet Tooth Community Fridge in December 2020. At a time when many nonprofits were closed because of the pandemic, she wanted to help neighbors who relied on them for food. Owczarski had heard about community fridges in other cities and reached out to Aubrey Alvarez, executive director of Eat Greater Des Moines, for help.

Eat Greater Des Moines purchased the refrigerator, and the two women researched how to make it weatherproof and keep it maintained. The fridge was installed first in a residential area then moved to its current location outside Home Inc. Owczarski and other volunteers keep the fridge and accompanying pantry clean and well-maintained, and they use donated funds to buy food a few times a week.

Otherwise, community members donate food anytime, and anyone can take food 24/7. A monitoring device ensures the fridge is kept at the correct temperature, and volunteers get an alert if there’s a problem. The same device tracks how often the fridge is used, which has been up to 300 times per day.

“There’s rarely a day that an item sits for more than six hours,” Owczarski says. “Our fridge is completely cleaned out multiple times per day. It’s a constant flow of people giving what they can and taking what they need. We just keep taking care of each other.”

Community-Driven Effort

Since the success of the Sweet Tooth Fridge, Eat Greater Des Moines has created a Community Fridge Toolkit and has purchased about 40 refrigerators for schools, libraries and other organizations in Polk, Dallas, Warren and Marion counties. Eat Greater Des Moines doesn’t approach organizations asking if they’d like one; the fridges have all been community-driven.

Alvarez says there is plenty of food in the community. “But unfortunately, we don’t always have systems to make sure food is getting to the people who need it, and 30% to 40% of food gets thrown away,” she says. “Community fridges are a great complement to traditional food pantries and a great way to get quality food that might have gone to waste to people quickly and easily in places where they’re already going, like schools and libraries.”

When staff members at the Perry Public Library learned about local food recovery efforts to reduce food waste, they decided to start a community fridge to help with those efforts, says Misty Vonbehren, the library’s deputy director. Located in the library’s entry area, the fridge is stocked with food rescue items from local grocery stores, Eat Greater Des Moines, Hunger Free Dallas County, and the local farmers market. Community members donate extra garden produce during the growing season.

“Our community fridge is a great collaboration between many community partners,” Vonbehren says, noting the fridge is open seven days a week during regular library hours. “It’s food that would go to waste otherwise, so we’re glad we can provide this resource to our community in addition to our local food pantry. Our food always goes quickly. We have people who come at least once a week; one gal is often at our door at 10 a.m. as soon as we open.”

How You Can Help

To donate to a community fridge or learn how to start your own fridge, check out eatgreaterdesmoines.org to download the Community Fridge Toolkit, see a list of current fridge locations, and review guidelines for donating. All donations should be sealed, labeled and dated.

“People especially like donations of protein, dairy and fresh fruit,” says Monika Owczarski with Sweet Tooth Community Fridge. “Prepared food is also popular, especially for kids, or for those without a way to cook and store food well.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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