While over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California, many areas of the fertile Central Valley are considered “food deserts” — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthful foods. One partnership in Merced is trying to bridge the fresh produce gap with a community refrigerator.
The People’s Fridge opened in downtown Merced in September, offering free fruits and vegetables to community members daily. A refrigerator was placed at the site of the 18th Street People’s Garden and anyone can open the fridge and pull out a variety of fresh fruits and veggies to take home.
The community refrigerator was the brainchild of Erin Meyer, a sustainable foods programs coordinator at UC Merced. Meyer, a frequent patron of the Merced farmers market, would ask vendors for surplus produce to donate to a local food bank. She expanded her food outreach in the community by hosting pop-up pantry events at the 18th Street Market, giving out food directly to those in need.
“The pop-ups going so successfully we were mulling over other ways to mitigate food insecurity,” said Meyer when she came up with a community refrigerator.
“It’s a novel concept for people that there’s free food in a random fridge outside,” she continued.
The refrigerator was donated and volunteers built a shed for it next to the garden. Businesses and community members donate the food, much of it locally grown.
Meyer said it’s also a good way to help others during the pandemic, when need is high and the ability to get involved is limited.
“The numbers of folks reaching out on Facebook and calling me about it has been increasing,” she said.
As part of her work at UC Merced, Meyer plans on conducting a research study on how people are using the community fridge and if they are food insecure, as well as who donates food and why.
The People’s Fridge is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 936 W. 18th St., Merced. For more information, visit the People’s Fridge on Facebook or Instagram.