Free fridges, popularized amid pandemic, keep going in St. Pete and Tampa

As food insecurity surged and “mutual aid” entered the popular lexicon, fridges became a prominent sign of community-oriented help.
Lorrie McMurrian, 39, along with the St. Petersburg Community Fridge that she oversees, outside of the Sustainable Family Services, at 8487 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg, on Dec. 15. Free fridges like this one have proliferated during the pandemic, amid rising food insecurity and the popularization of mutual aid.
Lorrie McMurrian, 39, along with the St. Petersburg Community Fridge that she oversees, outside of the Sustainable Family Services, at 8487 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg, on Dec. 15. Free fridges like this one have proliferated during the pandemic, amid rising food insecurity and the popularization of mutual aid. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 27, 2021

Several months ago, a nondescript white refrigerator took up residence on the 8400 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg. A sign on the side of the fridge, facing the street, spells out its ethos.

“Free food,” it says. “Take what you need, leave what you can!”

While mutual aid efforts aren’t new, free fridges have proliferated during the pandemic. NBC News reported in November that most of the 400-plus free fridges in the United States have appeared over the past 20 months, as rates of food insecurity climbed and people looked for ways to help their neighbors in a time of crisis.

Tampa Bay has at least two such fridges: the St. Petersburg Community Fridge and one inside a Tampa martial arts center. As 2022 approaches, the organizers behind the fridges plan to keep them going — and, in the case of the St. Pete fridge, hope to expand the project.

The St. Petersburg fridge started outside Bandit Coffee Co. before moving to its location near the Barcley Estates and Winston Park neighborhoods. Lorrie McMurrian describes herself as its steward now — posting on Instagram and corralling volunteers — but said the fridge is a communal project with no true leader.

“It actually fosters a sense of community,” she said. “Because of how it’s so dependent on personal responsibility, I think it’s really empowering to everyone involved — people who are using the fridge, people who are cleaning it, people who are stocking it, people who are telling people about it. It’s not something that someone else is doing; it’s something that you’re doing, something that we’re doing together.”

A sign on the front of the fridge, which is located outside the Sustainable Family Services building, establishes a few rules for those leaving items, oriented around food safety: no raw meat, no homemade items, nothing expired. But eggs, oils, milk, water, fruits and vegetables are all listed by a big, orange, all-caps “YES.” McMurrian said the electricity to run the fridge costs about $25 a month, which she pays with donations.

McMurrian, 39, grew up in a family that frequently volunteered through the American Legion. In the early 2010s, she began moderating a local Facebook group as part of the Buy Nothing project, which encouraged people to share goods among each other rather than buying new ones whenever possible.

Like the fridges, community sharing groups across the country surged during the pandemic — as did relief funds and other projects that could fit under the umbrella of mutual aid, in which people help their neighbors and fellow community members directly, rather than through nonprofit or commercial means. Amid rising food insecurity fueled by the pandemic, the fridges, situated in public spaces, have become visible manifestations of mutual aid efforts.

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“I think that there is a movement, and I choose to believe that it’s a movement toward love and kindness,” said Jany Coyle, one of the organizers behind the Tampa Free Fridge.

Cassidy Boe, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, started hearing about free fridges during the pandemic. She ended up getting connected to Coyle, a longtime volunteer with Food Not Bombs, a network of food distribution collectives.

In 2020, a different group of volunteers had set up a free fridge in Ybor City, but it was shut down after the city cited safety concerns about its outdoor location, Creative Loafing reported. That fridge was later moved into an elementary school, where it serves a school community. To avoid the same fate, Boe and Coyle in 2021 found a place for the fridge inside Yung Ho Martial Arts Center, in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood where Coyle grew up.

“That area’s a food desert and has so little access to nutritious food available to folks from the get-go,” Coyle said.

Both the St. Petersburg and Tampa fridges solicit donations so volunteers can shop for groceries to supplement food left by individual contributors. The Tampa organizers estimated that about two dozen families regularly access the fridge at Yung Ho. McMurrian said she isn’t sure how many people use the St. Pete fridge, but “things don’t sit.”

The St. Pete fridge’s old spot, near downtown, better served people who are houseless, McMurrian said, but it had to move amid renovations at Bandit earlier this year. She’s been trying to find another place for a fridge or dry pantry downtown, though she’s had trouble finding a willing business or property owner. She suspects stigmas around the type of people needing free food plays a role.

The fridge’s new location, while serving fewer homeless residents, draws foot traffic from nearby bus stops and residents of the neighborhood.

“We do want to serve all kinds of communities, and I think it’s dangerous to think that only transient people are the people who need food,” she said. “It’s families who can pay their rent but they can’t buy groceries, but they still make too much money to qualify for government assistance.”

Though the numbers of those served may be far smaller than the five- or six-digit figures large food banks cite, organizers said the no-barriers philosophy behind the projects make them as accessible as possible.

“We emphasize that people know what they need,” Boe said. “They take as much as they need. We trust that.”

Where to go

St. Petersburg Community Fridge — 8479 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg (outside Sustainable Family Services); open during daylight hours.

Tampa Free Fridge — 1303 E Busch Blvd., Tampa (inside Yung Ho Martial Arts Center); open weekdays 11:30 a.m.–8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

Hours may vary during holidays.