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Food is more than what’s on the plate. This is Equal Portions, a series by editor-at-large Shane Mitchell, investigating bigger issues and activism in the food world, and how a few good eggs are working to make it better for everyone. ​​  

“Until the weather cools down, we’re focusing on water bottles, and food like apples and potatoes that are more shelf-safe,” said Kyandra Noble, founder of Austin’s ATX Free Fridge Project. “We don’t want things that can be quickly spoiled in 100 degrees.” A graduate of University of Texas, Noble works as a costumer in the film industry, but when production slowed down during the pandemic, she found herself with time on her hands and began looking around for tangible ways to improve her hometown. She discovered In Our Hearts NYC, a mutual aid project with a network of fridges housing free donated food across the Tri-State area. They advised her on how to set up fridges and connected her with people doing the same in other cities. “Then I posted on Instagram, ‘Hey, anyone want to help me here in Austin?’”

Two summers ago, the first free fridge opened outside Nixta Taqueria in East Austin. Since then, three more food donation sites have opened in other neighborhoods.

Right now, the challenge of feeding people in the Texas capital is further complicated by climate change. The heat soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a record-breaking streak this summer (July was the hottest on record). More than 50 migrants died of heat exhaustion when trapped in a sweltering tractor-trailer abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio, about 80 miles south of Austin. Electronic signs on Interstate 35 warn motorists not to leave children or pets unattended in cars. Even walking a few blocks to pick up groceries can be hazardous. “There are some parts of the year where water is the most important thing people need,” said Noble. “So when it’s hard to keep the fridges cool enough for certain types of food, we buy bottled water at H-E-B and it goes at a fast pace.”

Free Fridges in Austin
Photography by Shane Mitchell

Unlike food banks and free pantries, which typically focus on dry items and canned goods, fridges are often stocked with dairy and fresh fruits and vegetables. They are also accessible any time of the day or night. Urban gardeners donate. So do food stylists, barbecue pitmasters, meal delivery services, and homeowners about to go on vacation. The idea is to provide an anonymous resource for those facing food insecurity without the added layer of socioeconomic disparity that complicates other forms of community service. The ATX Free Fridge motto is “solidarity, not charity.”

The four fridges in Austin are a plucky contribution to a global movement. Freedge is a UK-based network that connects similar initiatives in over 400 cities around the world, with locations in coffee shops, bodegas, churches, parking lots, schools, community centers, front yards, and even an auto body shop. These fridges have become particularly welcome in regions where summers are getting hotter and drought seasons are lengthening–or anywhere the climate is increasingly unpredictable. (Who could have guessed a heat wave earlier this summer would cripple the historically damp and chilly parts of Europe, let alone drain rivers like the Rhone and Seine?) Although fall approaches, the dangerously high heat index goes on and on in other cities across America: Phoenix, Sacramento, St. Petersburg, Las Vegas. 

But even with refrigerators, rising temperatures still pose hurdles for keeping food fresh. Noble quickly discovered that the original ATX Free Fridge equipment couldn’t handle the heat without physical shelters to shield them from the relentless Texas sun. “We had to get new fridges to deal with food safety in these temperatures. People offered us second hand ones, and it would be great to take donations, but now we’re focusing on garage fridges, which are better than the ones in your house.” Noble explained that the Nixta fridge is best prepared for extreme weather events. 

A friendly invitation is taped next to the stainless steel commercial unit outside the city’s popular taqueria: “Take what you need. Leave what you can.” More donation messages encouraging people to do their part are fixed to the sides of napkin holders on each of the tables on the outdoor patio. (The placement of these calls to action is pretty genius given how deliciously messy chef Edgar Ulysses Rico’s juicy duck carnitas tacos can get.) Noble reached out to Rico’s partner, Sara Mardanbigi, to help set up the pilot program, because she was already spearheading Nixta community outreach. 

“As small business owners, it’s our responsibility to think about the greater good, and how, on a micro-level, we can enact sustainable change,” Mardanbigi said, who estimated that almost 100 people drop by daily to use the fridge. “The majority are our neighbors, but we’ve seen a wide array of participants from all over the city.” Mardanbigi explained that the kitchen contributes “oopsie orders,” as she refers to the extra tacos made by accident. The restaurant also handles fridge maintenance and grocery runs underwritten by cash donations, as well as liaising with other restaurants and organizations dropping off supplies. According to Mardanbigi, prepared meals are the most popular.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the fridge was filled with chicken pot pies donated by The Cook’s Nook via a church food bank. “It’s whatever we have left over,” said volunteer Sarah Pernell, hauling boxes from her car. “Every week, it’s something different.” Her granddaughter Brianna swiftly stocked the shelves with individual plastic containers of pre-cooked peas, carrots, meat, and gravy under a biscuit crust. “You don’t have to heat it up. You can just eat it cold.” The two women finished and shut the fridge again. “And it’s gone so fast.”

Please consider contributing to a free fridge near you. To get started, here are maps for NYC and Atlanta and Los Angeles.

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