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Town fridge

Volunteer cooks stock Oakland’s ‘town fridges’ with meals to nourish body and soul

on December 6, 2022

Every other day, Gary Wade walks a few blocks from his home in West Oakland to City Slickers Farms. He says hello to everyone, and hangs out with the chickens. Then he goes to the “town fridge” to grab some fresh greens. If he’s lucky, he’ll also find a home-cooked meal from the Community Kitchens’ Home Chef Volunteer Program. The meatloaf is his favorite. 

For Wade, 72, the donated meals are a tastier alternative to the ones he receives from a senior center. Wade also has Alzheimer’s, and the farm is the only place he can walk to on his own without getting lost. Since the meals started appearing weekly in the fridge six months ago, his caretaker Kelsi Dunkelbarger says she’s noticed a shift in his mood — he’s a little less irritable, and a lot more proud.

“It’s liberating for Gary. He actually gets to go and choose what he wants. Because if I take him to a store, it’s too overwhelming or looks too expensive,” she says. “It gives him that sense of, ‘Oh, I went and did this myself.’ ”

Town fridge
Restaurants, organizations and individuals donate food to ‘town fridges’ across Oakland, including this one in East Oakland. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

Town fridges popped up all over Oakland during the first year of the pandemic. A decentralized global mutual aid movement, more than half of the fridges are still plugged in nearly three years later with varying levels of upkeep. Now Home Chef volunteers are donating home-cooked meals to five of the nine fridges in food-insecure areas. The meals provide ease, variety, and for some, comfort.

“Our goal is to provide a warm and delicious meal that nourishes not only the body, but the soul,” says Community Kitchens co-founder Maria Alderete. “So many of our residents are living through hardships. If we can bring a little bit of love, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Town fridge
CK Home Chef volunteer Audrey Rieben makes Steve’s Casserole, a shepherd’s pie in honor of her father. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

Alderete, co-owner of now-closed Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, started Community Kitchens one week after shelter-in-place began in March 2020. Community Kitchens quickly became known for their free and accessible meal program, now partially funded through Dining For Justice. Participating local restaurants add a 1% surcharge on each guest’s check, and the funds provide “meals with dignity” distributed in partnership with People’s Programs, Homies Empowerment, The East Oakland Collective, and others.

CK Home Chef launched in July as a way to tap into a community of people who like cooking and wanted to help but didn’t know how. Alderete brought on Meal Program Manager Mollye Chudacoff, and they identified high-trafficked fridges near encampments and schools.

The need for meals is high, especially in low-income areas in West and East Oakland, due to systemic inequities and rising food prices. Last year, the Alameda County Food Bank distributed 58 million pounds of food — a 71% increase from 2019. The soaring cost of living, including rising food prices, and systemic inequities all contribute to the continued need, especially in low-income areas in West and East Oakland. Corner stores often fill in the gap, but they come with a price: a gallon of milk, for example, can cost $1 to $2 more than at a chain supermarket.

Once CK Home Chef volunteers sign up, they’re invited to join a community Slack channel and participate in an online orientation that includes food safety measures. The organization then reimburses volunteers for a food handler’s license, provides packaging and labels to note ingredients, and shares a recipe book for inspiration. 

In turn, volunteers commit to making 25 meals on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and deliver them to the fridges. So far, nearly 20 volunteers have made over 3,000 meals. They range from  pearl barley salad with autumn vegetables to Filipino mung bean stew to Cajun chicken and rice. In November and December, the group is also piloting  a winter soup program in partnership with Mandela Produce Distribution, with ingredients from its network of BIPOC farmers.  

Town fridge
CK Home Chef volunteer Mana Contractor cooks hyderabadi chicken dum biryani, with her husband, Colin Scott, and dog, Chutney. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

While formally gathering feedback from meal recipients has been difficult, most meals are gone within 24 hours. Town fridge hosts also say they’ve been beneficial for older adults who don’t have enough energy to cook, unhoused folks who don’t have kitchens, and families who don’t have a lot of time. 

Sabrina Martinez goes to the fridge at Homies Empowerment once a week. A mom of four and former health nutrition educator, she appreciates the meals because they give her family the opportunity to absorb different nutrients. She also tries to contribute in any way she can. One Thursday, she finds cans of tomatoes on the shelf in disarray.

“If I see something like this going on, then I try to make it look better for people to want to grab food,” she says, lining the cans up in neat rows. “Everybody in the community knows that when you’re in a time of need, it’s here.”

Usually, volunteers purchase their own ingredients but the hope is to eventually partner with grocery stores for food recovery, as well as improve access by posting a schedule of when the meals will be in the fridges. Community Kitchens also is in the process of securing a retail food hub where volunteers will be able to cook together. 

Mana Contractor was one of the first CK Home Chef volunteers. A singer who immigrated to California from India, cooking has become a way for her to connect with home. Her mother gives her cooking advice over WhatsApp, and she’ll often invite a large group of friends to share in the experience. She’s made about 10 meals to date, including her mother’s legendary chicken biryani, and estimates it costs her $65 per batch.

The Homies Empowerment fridge is less than a mile from her house, it’s a way to make a direct impact on her community.

“Everyone deserves a well-cooked meal,” she says. “And if we’re going to do it, I feel like it needs to be done with a certain amount of respect and care.”

Town fridge
Homies Empowerment town fridge. (Celeste Hamilton Dennis)

The story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.


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