On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ziona Brownlow showed volunteers the entrances and exits of the new community refrigerator in Mountain View, a North Anchorage neighborhood that is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country. It is also an area targeted by the USDA as having high levels of food insecurity.
About 10% of Anchorage’s population, more than 30,000 people, are food insecure, Brownlow said.
“So one in 10 people we know doesn’t know where they’re going to get their food from,” she said. “They may have to decide whether to pay for their prescriptions or pay for gas, or whether to pay for food.”
Brownlow hopes the new Community Refrigerator will help fight hunger in the city, where food insecurity has risen during the pandemic and where inflation continues to drive up food prices. The Community Refrigerator opened on Saturday. “Bring what you can, take what you need, and help us #FeedAnchorage,” the invitation said.
Brownlow began thinking about the concept of a community refrigerator during the pandemic.
She’s been in the food business since 2018, when she founded Food for Thought Alaska. I started as a blogger and wrote about the ways local businesses help feed people. Then COVID-19 struck.
“My ‘My Little Shop, Eat Local’ mission has sunk into this wave of ‘save Anchorage’ and ‘keep restaurants open,’” she said. “So I walked away from that and food blogging and just looked at the very clear need for employees being laid off, and increased homelessness services. and the increasing need in the food bank.
I’ve seen community refrigerators pop up across the country in cities like Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago. I decided to try opening one in Anchorage. I started organizing with other community groups.
Although it’s been a chronic problem for years, food insecurity has ballooned during the pandemic as people have lost their jobs, said Kara Dorr, head of advocacy and public policy at the Alaska Food Bank.
“At the start of the pandemic, we saw the level of need go up by about 75%, which is of course unprecedented,” Al-Durr said. “We were talking every day to people who had lost all of their family income, turning to programs like SNAP and our food pantries. And it has remained high ever since.”
Even as the pandemic is over, Elder said issues like inflation keep food insecurity above pre-pandemic levels.
“So we’re seeing these levels really get close to what we saw at the height of the pandemic, which is pretty scary,” she said.
Dor said the food bank works with federal grants and programs to distribute food throughout Alaska, and is therefore limited in the organizations it can partner with.
“We can’t get involved in something like a free fridge project just because there’s no level of food safety oversight and regulation that we’re committed to,” she said. “But just because we’re not partners doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea or something the community needs.”
This also does not indicate that food in the community refrigerator is not safe to eat, Dor said, and Brownlow said volunteers follow national food safety precautions when handling food. Brownlow said she believes the community refrigerator is more personal than the traditional food bank model.
“We’re as close as possible to reversing the shape of food distribution in a not-for-profit industrial complex, but decentralization makes it more accessible at the grass-roots level, and from neighbor to neighbor,” she said.
Brownlow wants the community refrigerator to complement the work the food bank already does.
The new community refrigerator is positioned directly off Mountain View Drive. It’s the size of a small shed, with two two door refrigerators inside, like the kind you might see in a grocery store. There are fruit stands and metal shelves carved into the wall for canned goods. Cup noodle boxes and granola bars were stacked in the corner. The exterior was weathered, and Brownlow said it was bear-resistant, too. Volunteers check the refrigerator throughout the day.
For Alaskans looking to have something to eat, it’s as easy as walking and eating.
Brownlow said donations can be dropped at refrigerator doors. And they don’t just accept food. At a table near volunteer registration on Saturday were rapid COVID tests, and Brownlow said other non-perishable, non-food items such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer were also acceptable.
“Nappies, baby formula, and hygiene products need to be shared,” Brownlow said. “I’m looking here and I see sanitary pads and there’s juice… There’s Similac here. It makes my heart so happy.”
Brownlow said she’s looking forward to seeing other harm-reducing items like bandages, contraceptives and fentanyl test strips in the refrigerator.
While the refrigerator isn’t just about food, Brownlow said it’s limited to the types of foods and goods you can accept at this point.
“So we don’t have a refrigerator, and it’s easier for us to avoid any misuse of food if we don’t have any raw meat, any frozen meat, or any frozen food that might need to be kept frozen,” she said. “So we don’t want anything like that there. We don’t want any medicine, alcohol, furniture or clothes.”
In addition to Mountain View, Brownlow said, the USDA has targeted Muldoon, Spinard, Hill Government and Midtown neighborhoods as areas with high rates of food insecurity. She hopes to see refrigerators in those communities in the future.
Mountain View Community Fridge is now open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.