Fourth grade school teacher Jane Ellis, of Mount Airy, never had plans to become one of the coordinators of a mutual-aid initiative that quickly became a valued food assistance resource for the Germantown community. Joining several other newly established refrigerators throughout the city, the Germantown Community Fridge, has become a beacon of community aid and support with nearly 50 volunteers working to maintain the fridge and the well designed shed protecting it. Ellis spoke with Coalition Communications Coordinator, Antonio Boone about starting the fridge and the Germantown community that supports and values it.
Q: What inspired the Community Fridge?
I started in the summer after I saw someone else start one in New York. I live in Germantown, I work in Germantown and it's a neighborhood I felt like that area would benefit from it. With COVID there were more and more people who were battling food insecurity. I didn’t have any previous experience with community outreach, but this felt like something that could be done. My husband and I just bought a house in Mount Airy and it came with a fridge. We decided to upgrade that one and donated the fridge that came with our house. That’s the first Germantown community fridge. On instagram I reached out to people and the community has really shown up, it's been really beautiful. It’s for the community, it’s community run, it’s community led. It’s been really great.
Q: How did you coordinate the volunteers?
Honestly I reached out the old school way to people in the Germantown community members that I knew. I’m a fourth grade teacher at Greene Street Friends School, which is where the fridge is located outside of. I reached out to a few parents that I knew who were in the area and active in the Germantown community and asked them to spread the word about it. Germantown is a very tight knit community and the people who are interested in helping out and interested in mutual aid. They were like “I can help build the shed, I have carpentry trade experience”, other people told me “these are some grocery stores that might be interested in donating more regularly”. We have a sign up genius and someone checks on it every am and pm you can make donations through venmo and Cashapp. It’s been easier for me because people really believe in it and want to help out. It makes it a lot smoother in terms of operating.
Q:How did you decide on the fridge locations?
Even now we’re looking for second and third locations within Germantown. It's a pretty diverse area, there are alot of places that we think would be good for a fridge. I think in the beginning we're just looking for a place where the host location would be very accepting of having a community fridge there a lot of local business are little bit wary in the beginning just because the idea of community fridges is still very new it was really nice to be able to tie it in with the schools mission and Quaker values of helping out the community. For me in the beginning I was doing a lot of extra checking up on the fridge, right now it’s a lot more community run and led, so the fact that I was working everyday and it was a good fit for that and we were fortunate enough that our head of school signed off on it.
Q: What has been the community's response to the fridges?
It's been great. No one is watching the fridge all the time, it's been through word of mouth that a lot of us have heard different things. Volunteers have told us that they met this family or that family and they said they are so grateful that the fridge is here. It’s cute sometimes there are kids waiting when they know the bakery items are coming on a certain morning and they want some sweets. There was a lady who left a thank you note on the fridge. It's really great and humbling when we go, you see someone who's using the fridge and sometimes you see people who are swapping, they’ll bring something for the fridge and take something from the fridge. It's been a nice way to meet community members in that way too. The fridge is meant to battle food insecurity, but it's also meant to help battle food waste and food access. A lot of times with grocery stores and bakeries they can't sell certain things once it’s past a certain day, even if the food is still edible. So it’s been nice to work jointly with them to battle food excess and food waste and also simultaneously, battle food insecurity as well so it really feels like a win-win.
Q: What are the food sources for the fridge?
We have regular community members who are able to donate whenever they want, it's a 24-7, seven days a week fridge. We have a few simple rules, like if you bring raw meat it has to go in the freezer so it doesn’t contaminate other foods, but we also receive weekly donations from Merzbacher in Germantown, we have donations from Bredenbecks in Chestnut Hill they donate four times a week. On Saturdays Sharing Excess in West Philly will help with food boxes. Weavers Way did a giving Tuesday for us where people could donate two dollars at the cash register. With that money order produce boxes from them that come twice a week. We also have been working with Christa Barfiled, who is an urban farmer in Germantown, from Farmer Jawn, she also brings a large box of organic produce once a week and this is all fueld through community donations.
Q: Are you planning on opening future sites?
We are hoping pretty early in the new calendar year. We have a fridge that will work and we have permission from the place and so it's just about coordinating the logistics and using what we fridge to make sure that our second shed is sturdier and we think through all of the details before we launch it. We are hoping in January at some point.
Q: Was it difficult to gain support from local businesses?
I think it definitely takes a little more time. We have a lot of people who are eager to do the AMand PM shift but it took a little bit more time and care to find businesses in the area who could donate. Some of the hurdles with that are, you can only donate to non-profit organizations, because they want the tax write off, so that eliminated a few places we could get food from. I think Germantown is a very close knit community, so everyone is kind of there to look out and watch out for one another. From speaking with some of the other fridges I think some of them have had more difficulty finding organizations in their area that can donate more consistently, I feel like in Germantown we’ve had really good luck with that, maybe it's not luck at all, but a testament to the community and the types of people, business and organizations that are there.
Q:What should people know about hunger and food insecurity in Philadelphia?
I got some data from Feeding America that shows how the percentage of people, like 1 in 6 people, are suffering from food insecurity. There are certain areas that are food deserts that don't have the access to the types of food that people need. I don’t think that it’s just in Philly it’s in so many places. I think initiatives like this if it’s a community fridge whatever else it is during this time especially it's really important to be able to highlight how important mutual-aid work is and how important food is as a human right for everyone to have. I encourage people to get involved with things like community fridges. It’s been really beautiful to be able to see people have access to more and more different types of food. Whether it's organic produce or some sweet treats from the local bakery.