Atlanta entrepreneur and activist Latisha Springer launched grassroots mutual aid organization Free99Fridge to help combat food insecurity in some of the most vulnerable populations living within the city’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Access to healthy food is a growing problem in America, especially in recent months as more people find themselves unemployed as a result of the pandemic or struggle to make rent as housing prices rise in Atlanta.
Springer, who is Black, spent a portion of the spring and summer in 2020 protesting against police brutality and racial injustice in the U.S. Standing in the hot Georgia sun several hours a day in metro Atlanta’s wealthy northern suburbs, Springer says she withstood weeks of racial slurs and other indignities from passersby during those protests. The idea behind the Atlanta community fridge project was born, in part, from enduring such experiences and from a need to do more and actively participate in changing the system.
“I’ve been protesting for months out in Alpharetta, and I was just consumed by that. One day I decided that standing out on the corner being called a n——r for five hours a day wasn’t really helping my community,” Springer says of founding Free99Fridge. “I needed to do something else to actually make an impact in my community, which is in incredible pain right now. I didn’t feel like me being out there holding a sign was really making a difference. I’m doing a community fridge, dammit!”
A community fridge is all about neighbors helping neighbors and providing access to fresh produce, non-perishable food, and personal hygiene items to every member of the community, regardless of need, and at no cost. The fridge is maintained, managed, and stocked by neighborhood volunteers, local farmers, and businesses within the community. It’s the very definition of mutual aid — a voluntary, self-supported collective of people organizing and working together to change conditions within their own community, while also meeting the needs of its members when the current systems in place cannot.
After months of following the progress of other free community fridge projects in cities like New York and Austin, Springer decided it was time for Atlanta to have its own version. She discontinued her protesting efforts in July 2020, put together a slide deck explaining how a community fridge works, launched the Instagram account Free99Fridge, and started pitching the mutual aid initiative to local businesses.
Springer currently has four community fridge locations around Atlanta, including two refrigerators at Best End Brewing in West End and one refrigerator each at Hodgepodge Coffeehouse in East Atlanta, Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston, and North Decatur Presbyterian Church on Medlock Road.
Best End Brewing in the southwest Atlanta neighborhood of West End was the first business on board with Free99Fridge. The brewpub, located along the Westside Beltline trail at the Lee and White development, features two community fridges, which opened in the parking lot on August 28, 2020. The bright yellow refrigerators are housed in a large wooden shed to shelter the food pantry from the elements. The shed comes with shelving for canned goods and other household items. Murals are painted on the sides of the structure by local artists who also volunteered their time and talents to the organization.
Neighboring restaurant Boxcar helped stock one fridge for the opening in August, while Roti Rolls food truck initially stocked the second fridge with mac and cheese, pickled vegetables, local produce, roti bread, smoked chicken wings and ice cream sandwiches made with Atlanta-based Honeysuckle Gelato.
A launch party, held at Best End Brewing for the community fridges, allowed people the opportunity to check out Springer’s initiative, ask questions, and stock the pantry and refrigerators with additional food and household and personal hygiene products.
“Best End has been an amazing host and gave us a really big space to build the shelters. To eliminate as much waste as possible, we use scrap wood and other secondhand materials to construct the shelters,” Springer explains. “All of the fridges are donated by people upgrading their kitchens or getting rid of a fridge in their garage. We don’t want to have to purchase a refrigerator.”
Springer created a website for Free99Fridge. The website allows people to donate money, sign up to volunteer to haul away, clean, or paint refrigerators, construct shelters and food pantries, and pick up food and goods from local farms and businesses.
“The free fridge is a logical solution to redistribute goods and resources in communities. There’s no reason for anyone to be going hungry when we have so much abundance, and there’s no need for our neighbors to be going hungry,” says Springer. “People have to rally together. No one’s coming to save us. If we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.
“People just shouldn’t have to choose between keeping their lights on and feeding their family,” she adds.