On a section of Kammerer Avenue in San Jose, California, you’ll find a white refrigerator, adorned with paintings of garlic and carrots by local street artists, sitting right on the sidewalk. Inside, you might find gallons of juice, cartons of eggs, loaves of bread and a drawer full of vegetables all for the taking, at no cost. The fridge was set up by Cheetah, a wholesale grocery delivery startup, as a way to reduce the company’s food waste and give that food directly to Bay Area residents in need.
This effort, which Cheetah calls its #FoodGiving Campaign, was inspired by the community fridges that have popped up in New York City during the pandemic. Refrigerators full of free food have appeared on streets from Brooklyn to the Bronx, a neighborhood mutual aid solution to food insecurity, which has only gotten worse throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The reason we fell in love with this idea is that Cheetah is a regular, very active food donor,” says Na’ama Moran, Cheetah co-founder and CEO. Cheetah, which launched in 2016, delivers wholesale groceries to restaurants, digitizing the distributor process with an e-commerce app. Like many restaurant providers, Cheetah opened up their platform to individuals during the coronavirus crisis.
Cheetah has regularly donated perishable items that are nearing their best-by date to local food banks on a weekly basis, Moran says. “The idea of the community fridges takes that a step further, because it brings the food donation all the way down to the individual,” she adds. “By placing the fridge in the street near nonprofit organizations or in public locations, anyone who has a need can step up to the fridge at their own convenience and take what they want.”
In the Bay Area, where wages have not kept up with the rising cost of housing, about 870,000 people out of 8 milliom are food insecure— which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life”—according to 2018 data. That’s the equivalent to the entire population of San Francisco not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and the issue has only worsened since. “The Bay Area keeps getting hit over and over again,” Moran says, citing the pandemic, the nationwide protests against racial injustice, and now the wildfires. “What’s happening here is families all of a sudden going from regular life to poverty.” Community fridges can be a small but direct contribution.
What’s available in the fridges will change depending on what’s happening in the Cheetah warehouse. Cheetah will restock the refrigerators each week—the company’s delivery vans that travel all over the Bay Area make that an easy process—but community members and local restaurants are also encouraged to fill them with their extra food. There’s no set timeline for how long these community fridges will operate: Moran sees it as a long-term project.
Cheetah has set up two community fridges so far—one in San Jose and another in Oakland—both on properties owned by CityTeam, a religious nonprofit that provides housing and meals to the homeless. The company plans to set up more, it just needs more donated locations. “We believe that we actually have the ability to operate [community fridges] at a much bigger scale than individuals could,” Moran says. “We’re willing to finance the fridges, we would love to commission more fridges to be decorated by artists, we just need more locations.”