Jessica McQuain and Natalie Mau both know that food insecurity is an issue in Milledgeville, a problem made even more profound during the pandemic.
A few months ago, they launched the Milly Free Fridge campaign to address the issue.
McQuain, labor organizer for United Campus Workers of Georgia, and Mau, a graduate assistant at Georgia College, were inspired by the success of Free99Fridge in Atlanta and thought Milledgeville could benefit from a similar initiative. They soon connected with Georgia College assistant professor of psychology Dr. Stephanie Jett who had also been researching such programs.
“Food insecurity is one of the major problems our community faces, and access to good, quality food is always a problem,” said Jett.
The free fridge concept seeks to address food insecurity by making fresh foods available in communities where they are most needed. Unlike traditional food pantries that rely largely on non-perishable foods, free fridges allow users access to free produce, meat and more by providing the refrigerator space needed to keep the food fresh. Free fridges are located at host sites that provide the plug for the refrigerator, while funding and maintenance of the food and the fridge are provided through donations and volunteers. Community fridges are meant to be easily accessible 24 hours a day to minimize barriers to getting food.
“We want to have a place where food that is susceptible to weather conditions … is going to be available because people deserve to eat, and they deserve to eat well,” said Mau. “We want to give people food with dignity.”
Dignity is a key concept to the model. By not requiring people to show proof of their income level to access the food, McQuain says the free fridge model creates a more equitable, community-driven way for people to give and take as needed.
“It’s based in the concept of mutual aid whereas a regular food pantry operates on a charity model,” explained McQuain. “It’s a trust-based honor system: give what you can, take what you need.”
The free give and take premise of the community fridge is similar in nature to the popular Little Free Library and Little Free Pantry cabinets that have popped up in towns all across the country. Currently, in addition to Free99Fridge in Atlanta, community fridges exist in Macon and Athens, and similar programs are in the works in both Augusta and Savannah.
Jett points out that often, food assistance programs that are available for people in need lack fresh foods, creating a dynamic where only people with financial means can access the healthiest foods. She hopes a free fridge will reduce these barriers.
“It’s really looking at food from a justice perspective,” said Jett. “Food is a right, not a privilege.”
The team has spent the last several months researching programs in other cities to create a list of resources needed to get the Milledgeville program off the ground. They created a Milly Free Fridge Instagram account to start spreading the word in hopes of recruiting aid from other community members. The group has a donation site on Givebutter.com to collect funds toward the project, and they have already acquired a refrigerator and microwave to use at their first site.
The next step is to find a host site. McQuain says they are open to community input on sites that might best serve the most amount of people in need of access to food. She envisions a site that will be approachable, accessible and free of judgment. Mau also stresses that site providers only need to provide the outlets for the appliances and the willingness for people to come and access the fridge. Utility costs and oversight will be managed by Milly Free Fridge.
“I don’t want people to be hesitant reaching out to us thinking they’re going to incur a bunch of electrical costs,” said Mau.
People interested in helping with the project can do so by offering both financial and volunteer support. Once the fridge is up and running, volunteers will be needed to check in on the food regularly to maintain its integrity.
“Part of keeping that food with dignity is keeping it clean, making sure nothing goes bad, nothing is moldy, or leaking, or any kind of health hazard,” said McQuain.
Milly Free Fridge also hopes to partner with local farmers and restaurant owners to have surplus food donated to the cause and thus lower local food waste rates.
“There’s really a benefit to the environment because things aren’t getting thrown into a landfill,” said McQuain.
Once the free fridge is operating, the trio invites community members to donate extra items harvested from home gardens to the program. Food guidelines will be posted online and at the site to encourage practices such as packaging the food and marking it with a “best by” date. Jett said that items such as fresh herbs are often a luxury some people cannot afford, and by bringing extras from her garden to the fridge, she will be sharing healthy and flavorful resources with the community.
“It’s those kinds of things that’s helping to bring back equality and dignity to food,” said Jett.
In the meantime, the team encourages community members to continue donating non-perishable items to the heavily used Little Free Pantries located near Mt. Zion Baptist Church off Harrisburg Road and near Hardwick Baptist Church on Thomas St SE.
Those interested in supporting Milly Free Fridge can find the organization on Instagram and can reach out at email@example.com. Financial donations can be made at https://givebutter.com/z2KkBE?s=kRSyci . Milly Free Fridge will also have a table out at Milledgeville Main Street’s Second Saturday event downtown on May 8. They invite anyone to stop by and learn more.
“We’re all neighbors, and we’re all together in this community,” said McQuain. “Anybody can contribute something. We all have a role to play, and we all have some skill or benefit that we can give.”