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A pandemic-inspired idea results in a network of Friendly Fridges

The Friendly Fridge at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville provides free produce and other perishable products to community members, free of charge.
Matthew Moore
The Friendly Fridge at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville provides free produce and other perishable products to community members.

Just outside the specialty care entrance on the VA Hospital campus in Fayetteville stands four containers.

One is a sturdy outdoor shed with two doors, about 3 feet wide and 6 feet tall with the words "FOOD PANTRY" in big letters at the top. Next to it are two smaller receptacles, about the size of a filing cabinet. One is labeled as a drop-off for canned foods and the other is for non-canned foods.

But the most striking container is a hefty, stainless steel refrigerator labeled “Friendly Fridge.”

Alyssa Snyder and Margaret Thomas are the founders at Seeds that Feed. Snyder said the organization helps manage the friendly fridge at the VA, primarily through its relationships with local farmers.

Synder said the organization is working to get excess food, like things it don't sell at a farmer's market or in retail, to places where people can't get out or are not going to frequent a pantry.

Seeds that Feed spend time working with senior housing, community partners and now, the Friendly Fridge.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, its food recovery work shifted focus. Seeds that Feed began getting calls to recover food from walk-in fridges at restaurants who were not going to be able to use it before it expired. The organization had heard about this new project at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.

"Oh this is the perfect spot to drop off," Snyder said.

Back in 2020, Kaitlyn Rush was the parish chef at St. Paul’s, where she managed and help cook for its community meals. She knew the community still depended on those meals and was trying to figure out a solution to keep feeding people.

"I was reading Bon Appétit at home one afternoon and I saw a friendly fridge type system had been created in New York and it's spread through all the boroughs," Rush said. "I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that would be amazing here, that could help so many people. We could start it at St. Paul’s, and then maybe it could grow.’"

I had an annual review with my boss he said, "OK, give me goals for the next year. If you do anything, what do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to do this, I want to start this friendly fridge thing that I’ve been reading about." And he said, "OK great what do you need?" and I said, "Actually nothing, because I've had an extra refrigerator in my house, I’ll donate my own." He said, "OK great, what do you need?" and I said, "I just need somebody to help me move it."
Kaitlyn Rush

The parish chef at St. Paul’s now is Grace Cleghorn. When we go out to visit the friendly fridge, there are two heavily dented cans of green beans on top of it.

"I can't keep them," Cleghorn said. "Botulism."

The fridge was loaded with fresh vegetables from the recent farmer's market on the Fayetteville Square, prepackaged sandwiches from the St. James Food Pantry, and much more.

When Cleghorn first started, she did a lot of the cooking, and on days when she wasn’t, she would plan out the recipes for the volunteers to come in and cook. She still does plenty of cooking now, but most of her time is spent restocking the kitchen and giving space for volunteers who love making food for their community, using their own recipes.

"It feels so good to cook good food for people," Cleghorn said. "And when you feel like you have that gift, you want to do it how you want to do it, and you don't want someone to tell you how to do it. These women know what they're doing—and I know how to cook, too—but that doesn't mean I should be telling them exactly how they should do it.

When it comes to the Friendly Fridge, Cleghorn said St. Paul’s has one job: to keep the fridge running. The initial refrigerator had a mural painted on it, and it died. The church bought a new one from Lowe's—at a discounted price once the store found out why they were using it—and replaced it in the midst of the ice storm of December 2021. That fridge still sits out there today. Cleghorn said they initially thought about keeping a camera out there, because they wanted to see how many hands came through daily, but decided otherwise.

"This is not about casting any judgement," Cleghorn said. "Our job is to feed, and we don't care who comes and picks it up."

Trinity United Methodist Church also works hard to feed its Fayetteville neighbors. And it uses that word “neighbors” a lot. Beth Leverett is a member of the church and volunteers her time stocking the food pantry and preparing for Sunday Meals.

I believe that I have two spiritual gifts, and those are hospitality and organization. So this food ministry perfectly fits the gifts that I have. It was just natural for me. The first time I heard about the food bank is that they needed volunteers to do the food pickup. And so I signed up for that.
Beth Leverett, volunteer at Trinity United Methodist Church

A few days a week, Leverett drives to local Walmart Neighborhood Markets that has food it can no longer sell but is still safe to eat, and she uses that to stock the food pantry. Reverend Terry Gosnell said he first heard about the idea of the Friendly Fridge from St Paul’s, because Trinity UMC partners with it for Sunday Meals.

"I think I was on vacation, but I think somebody called me from St. Paul's and wanted to give us a refrigerator, and so that's how it happened," Gosnell said.

When we went to visit Trinity UMC's fridge that day, it was pretty bare. This might sound concerning, but all of the different fridge managers I spoke to say the same thing: the fridge could be full, but come back in 30 minutes, and it’ll almost certainly be empty. That was the case at the Friendly Fridge at the VA as well. Thomas and Snyder of Seeds that Feed have been working on ways to help patrons know when there is food in the fridge and have implemented an anonymous text service.

"We've put up a flyer that says you can opt in to this (text service] if you choose," Snyder said. "If you do, you'll get an alert every time we drop off. We just say, 'Hey, we just dropped off cucumbers and tomatoes, here it is.'"

Snyder said people have been texting back responses to the service, even saying thank you in Cherokee language.

We're hoping over time that we can create a little bit more two-way communication for anyone who chooses. But, it really is 100% anonymous and autonomous.
Alyssa Snyder, co-founder of Seeds that Feed

Through some funding from the Walmart Foundation, Seeds that Feed has started thinking about taking the Friendly Fridge concept out of Fayetteville and into other towns in the region. It funded two fridges last year and are going to be putting in an additional seven fridges in the next 18 months, including one at George Elementary in Springdale.

Kaitlyn Rush, the originator of the project locally, said there was always a glimmer and a hope this sort of growth could happen.

"It was one of those things that I didn't want to turn into something that it wasn't," Rush said. "I just wanted it to organically grow, and be useful to those around. I'm amazed and super happy; that funding will make such a difference for so many people."

Margaret Thomas, co-founder of Seeds that Feed, said Rush may have thought it was seemingly small that she could do easily.

"It has created a pathway for a lot of people to have, and the community as a whole is thankful for that," Thomas said.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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