Anchorage’s First ‘Community Fridge Project’ Underway in Mountain View

by John Aronno for Anchorage Press

It all started with a food blog, called “Food for Thought Alaska.” That’s where Ziona Brownlow, 24 years old and a lifelong Alaskan, wrote about local restaurants she felt exemplified her concept of community. She would promote Wild Scoops one day and Benji’s Bakery & Cafe the next, touting local staples which she felt “gave back.”

Then, the pandemic hit. In mid-March of last year, the Berkowitz administration introduced the “emergency hunker down order,” enacting COVID public safety measures. The blog would have to redefine itself. Ziona’s first “Food for Thought Alaska” post subsequent to the order offered readers a guide to restaurants who provided delivery or takeout options. But she knew that circumstances had nudged the entire thrust of the blog in a very different direction from the day before, when stores still had their doors open.

“I very quickly shifted my focus away from businesses and more towards the employees that were now facing income insecurities,” she told The Press last week. “I was seeing folks who didn’t really have a way to navigate the food distribution systems that were still learning how they were going provide access to food in the pandemic. There’s obviously a community need for food and access and I wanted to highlight that.”

In Anchorage, access to food has often been a challenge. It was before COVID-19, it will be after, and it definitely is right now, during the state’s worst stretch of the pandemic thus far.

According to data collected by Feeding America – a non-profit, food bank network that provide meals for more than 46 million people every year – just over 32,000 Anchorage residents experienced food insecurity in 2019. Roughly half of those affected fall beneath the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) threshold, meaning their incomes are equal to or below 130 percent of the poverty level. A disproportionate 17 percent of Alaska’s children are impacted. Five percent of Alaskans currently face “very low food security,” meaning they regularly experience food shortages and are sometimes forced to skip meals altogether.

Alaska has thus far avoided the photos of miles-long lines at food pantries adorning headlines in the Lower 48, but demand has surged. “Food Bank CEO Jim Baldwin said his organization estimates that demand has increased by roughly 75%,” Aubrey Wieber wrote for the Anchorage Daily News in April of 2020.

“The distribution system prior to the pandemic worked a lot like: you can go to one of the many food pantries that are available. You can wait in line, grab your number, and sometimes that wait is up to an hour; sometimes that requires you to have an ID; complete an intake. That was already a system that had a lot of barriers,” Ziona explained. With the emergency order, some of the prerequisites were abandoned in hopes of getting food where it needed to go. But it didn’t remove all the obstacles.

“Those measures essentially made it easier for people to get food if they had a way to get down to the food pantry and then get this very large, prepared box, which is often, like, 30 pounds-plus,” she said. “It was a little bit more flexible. But, all of the other elements required for you to be able to access a food pantry, like transportation – some of those folks really didn’t have a way to get food.”

When the emergency order was lifted in April, a lot of those barriers returned.

Ziona, a social worker currently working as a community resource coordinator at the Mountain View Library, was familiar with an idea increasingly gaining popularity in other states, called “community fridges,” which have taken off as communities struggle to find ways to combat food insecurity. The premise is relatively simple: Willing volunteers (i.e., business owners with outdoor space to offer) provide access to fridges stocked with fresh food for people who need it.

“The Fridge Project can be an active point for people to grab a meal,” Ziona clarified. “Maybe not an entire 30-pound meal kit, but folks can just grab something quickly. And for people who might be home-bound, might be on a limited income, and not have access to some of those supports, it can fill some of those gaps.”

Community fridges have popped up recently Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, to name a few. The hosts donating their outdoor space only commit to paying the cost of electricity. With older refrigerator units, that can cost $200-300 per year; newer, Energy Star-certified units run between $60 and $100. The community is in charge of keeping the fridge stocked through local businesses, local growers, and neighbors willing to stop by and add whatever they might have to give.

The model isn’t dissimilar to tiny libraries, which have blossomed throughout Anchorage; small mailbox-like fixtures complementing front yards, where people can take a book or leave one for someone else to enjoy. Replace the books with food, and you’ve got the idea. For Ziona, the prospect was like a light bulb going off in her head. She started putting feelers out over last winter to gauge what the interest level among potential hosts might be.

“A lot of the feedback that I got initially was very hesitant,” she conceded. “There was a lot of concern about liability and stigmatized views of the people who would be accessing this resource.”

Jasmin Smith, also a lifelong Alaskan and the creator of Baby Vends, reached out. Smith opened a co-working and business services space, called Umoja, in Mountain View last year. 

Mountain View makes a lot of sense as the setting for a community fridge project. Nearly 40 percent of households earn less than $25,000 – 19 percent of which fall below the poverty line. Mountain View also features the lowest percentage of car ownership in Anchorage, adding additional problems in regard to access to pantries. Smith’s only condition was that Ziona clean up the outdoor space that would host the fridge. Earlier this month, Ziona and a handful of volunteers masked up, gloved up, and cleared that hurdle.

There’s still a lot left to do before the project is up and running. Ziona admitted: “We don’t have a fridge quite yet.” She referenced Atlanta’s Free99Fridge project, where members of the community donated refrigerators. The Atlanta group hasn’t yet had to purchase a single fridge to cover their four operating locations. “That is my hope,” Ziona said. “That we can use our community relationships, do a lot of outreach letting people know we’re doing this and this is an opportunity for you if you wanted to donate your fridge or if you wanted to be a host.”

The experience has been an uphill battle. Most locales don’t have to worry much about weatherizing the space, let alone bear-proofing. Ziona says it’s been “no small feat,” but she’s up for the challenge. And once it’s going, she has plans for four other locations around town, alongside aspirations to set up a delivery network for those who don’t have the means to show up at the fridge location themselves.

“I think, for the most part, Anchorage is a small enough place where people are still connected and we know there’s a need. Sometimes we know it so much that it’s overwhelming and we just don’t know how we can help. This can be a vehicle for that,” she said through a smile. “People don’t realize it, but there are a lot of folks who are just out in the community doing feeds, or boxing up their leftovers and making sure they’re going to somebody who needs them. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’re making a huge difference, but if we can organize or, at least, shine light on the opportunities that you can take to do that, I think we have an opportunity to make a big ripple.”

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