San Francisco’s First Free Community Fridge Joins Long Mutual Aid Legacy

Organizers focused on trust, cultural sensitivity and community-oriented efforts.

Right off the corner of 24th and Shotwell, situated in front of Adobe Books, is a glass-door refrigerator stocked with milk, eggs and bell peppers. “Comida gratis” (free food) are painted on the side in capitalized, brightly colored letters. Throughout the day, volunteers and organizers constantly replenish the fridge’s supplies, along with the surrounding tables stocked with disinfectant, water bottles and canned beans.

This may be San Francisco’s first community fridge. Born out of a collaboration between San Francisco residents and the Mission Meals Coalition, this community fridge is a mutual aid effort — one that anyone can contribute to by donating untampered food or supplies from the fridge’s grocery list, contributing money to a dedicated GoFundMe or by volunteering time. Contactless donation drop-offs are available and all supplies are screened for consumption safety. Anyone impacted by food inequity can take whatever they need from the community fridge.

“It can’t get more accessible than this,” Gabriela Alemán, a co-founder of the Mission Meals Coalition, says. When Ashley Rahimi Syed first came to Alemán with a dream for a community fridge, their goals aligned: They wanted sensitive, community-led support. Alemán emphasizes that food and water are human rights, but food pantries that require ID or proof of residency can be big deterrents for undocumented and unhoused people.

Photo courtesy of the Mission Meals Coalition

That’s why IDs are not required and photos aren’t allowed at this particular fridge. The hope is that vulnerable residents will feel a little bit safer when picking up food and supplies, which Alemán and Rahimi Syed wanted to make sure were culturally relevant.

“There’s a perception that anyone will take something that’s free,” Alemán says. But what’s free may not always be the most helpful. The community fridge has put out a call for specific foods, like Maseca, non-Goya brand goods (in solidarity with the ongoing boycott against Goya’s support of Trump) and fresh fruit including mangoes and limes.

“As much as we would appreciate any type of donation, we want to ensure that the stuff being provided would actually be used by the folks in our community, and for folks who would actually know how to use them,” Alemán says. “There’s a difference between getting something like quinoa versus something like rice that our community would consume and want, and is part of their regular diet and culture.”

While this is the first community fridge in San Francisco that Alemán and Rahimi Syed are aware of, it’s certainly not the first in the country — nor is it the first mutual aid effort in the city. Rahimi Syed learned from local organizations like Mother Brown’s Dining Room, Poder, the Coalition on Homelessness, and I.T. Bookman Community Center, as well as Oakland’s own Town Fridge group, when planning this initiative.

“There have been community fridges in Black and brown neighborhoods serviced by those people for generations,” Rahimi Syed says, pointing to New York’s Harlem as an example. “We are part of a larger legacy.”

The organizers are cautious about the fridge turning into a “tourist attraction” or fleeting performative activism. That’s why they’re focusing on constant community engagement and amplifying pre-existing efforts of food equity organizations. 

“I was born and raised here, and a lot of us at Mission Meals — this is our community and our neighborhood,” Alemán says. “Also, being faces and community members that have a longstanding reputation here — people trusted it. I think that’s why we’ve had such big engagement.” 

Photo courtesy of the Mission Meals Coalition

Hopefully, there will be more community fridges in the near future. There are already plans in the works to collaborate with even more food equity organizations across the city, and continue building the momentum. 

“I think recently we’ve seen a trend where people who have never been involved in community activism are doing the fridges for the first time. And that’s a beautiful thing,” Rahimi Syed says. 

These community fridges are especially needed during a global pandemic that’s drastically raised unemployment rates while government aid remains inadequate. Rahimi Syed and Alemán have seen a huge demand for these supplies, particularly from elderly and unhoused people. They’ve been restocking the fridge multiple times a day since its opening on July 19. 

“We need donations every day,” Rahimi Syed says. “We cannot keep these items on our shelf.” 

SF Community Fridge, 3130 24th St., Instagram

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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