Food insecurity in the United States (U.S.) has been a concern for years, however once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, food insecurity only worsened. Before the pandemic, approximately 11% of households in the U.S. experienced food insecurity; almost immediately after the pandemic hit, that rose to nearly 15% of households, and 18% of households with children. There is a wide range of what qualifies as food insecurity, however the overarching definition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
As a response to food insecurity rates rising with the pandemic, PDX Free Fridge was created during the summer of 2020. According to their website, “PDX Free Fridge is a community based and informed mutual aid effort to increase access to free food and vital supplies by creating a network of independent fridges and pantries in Portland, OR. [Their] mission is to redistribute existing resources by providing access to free food and supplies through community fridges and pantries.” PDX Free Fridge now has locations all around the greater Portland Metro Area and continues to add locations. They provide both food pantries and fridges to allow people to have access to perishables. Along with collecting food and water, these pantries also welcome other necessities such as feminine hygiene products, coats, socks, shoes, etc.
While they may seem similar on the surface, food pantries and food banks are not the same. Food banks are nonprofit organizations that safely store food which is then delivered to local food programs like food pantries. A food pantry is purely a distribution center where hungry families can access food. Food pantries receive their food from food banks, the surrounding community, and sometimes even restaurants donating any leftover food they may have.
PDX Free Fridge began as an idea created by 10 people who wanted to combine the art community in Portland, Oregon with the mutual aid community. This was shared by one of the founders of PDX Free Fridge, Lisa Chiem. Lisa is a Portland local and graduate of Franklin High School class of 2013, and an active member of the mutual aid and artist community in Portland. Since the creation of PDX Free Fridge, the program has become truly self-sufficient as members of the Portland Metro Community have taken it upon themselves to install PDX Free Fridge pantries in their neighborhoods and local communities. In the beginning, pantries were intentionally installed in areas where it was harder for people to access grocery stores, however as these pantries have gained traction, it became apparent that there was a need for them everywhere. Lisa stressed the importance of local change, saying, “it doesn’t start in the White House, it starts in our house.” They also emphasized something that is important for all members of the community to remember, that “it serves a greater purpose. It is more than just the self.”
With the increase of food pantries, local businesses have begun to sponsor and support PDX Free Fridge having pantries near their buildings. An example of this close to Franklin High School is the Bleeding Hearts Kettlebell Club on 50th and Lincoln. Bleeding Hearts is an all inclusive gym that is female and queer owned. Their goal is to ensure everyone who comes into the gym feels safe. They are body positive, as it is important to them that the gym is a space where people feel comfortable and confident in their own skin. Bleeding Hearts is also the only gym in Portland that offers sliding scale memberships, meaning that payment is dependent on one’s income and what they can afford. During summer 2021, Bleeding Hearts reached out to PDX Free Fridge to sponsor a pantry and fridge outside of their building as a response to seeing the need for one in the neighborhood, especially after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic began, many people lost their jobs and were no longer able to afford necessities such as food. The effects of the pandemic along with the extreme houseless rates in the Portland Metro Area have led to pantries being implemented in neighborhoods all over the city. Eloise Hoatlin, one of the Bleeding Hearts Managers, mentioned, “one of the main things that can’t be overstated enough is how much it’s used […] It doesn’t discriminate […] I think some people have an idea of who they think is using the pantry, and that’s just simply not true. It’s genuinely used by everyone almost 24 hours a day. It’s a constant rotation.”
As there are a variety of people who utilize the PDX Free Fridge locations, these pantries also depend on the neighboring communities for maintenance and support. Families and people nearby the pantries provide a lot of the food support, as well as maintaining the cleanliness of the structures. Hoatlin noted that families in the neighborhood, especially those with kids, have made it a routine to make a number of meals weekly and deliver them to the pantry. Along with this, restaurants in the area come and drop off any extra food they have as well.
While the majority of the Portland Metro Community has been very accepting of these food pantries, that is not the case everywhere. In wealthier and majority white neighborhoods especially, food pantries are not as welcomed, according to active members of the Portland volunteer community, and mom, Brooke Herout. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Herout has changed her volunteer focus to target food insecurity and redistributing food through Meals on Wheels and PDX Free Fridge. She commented that she would love to host a PDX Free Fridge pantry location in her neighborhood, but that “it would be set up for failure for the folks that would come to visit the fridge. I don’t think they’d be met with much care. I live in a formally redlined neighborhood that is now fully gentrified.” Although she is not able to set up a pantry in her immediate neighborhood, she has made the effort to support surrounding pantries as much as possible.
Many local businesses have seen this rise in food pantries and are putting the effort in to help support them. Larger organizations such as Clackamas Service Center have taken their support for food insecurity organizations and more than tripled it since the beginning of the pandemic. They utilize their warehouse to both receive donations, as well as house orders for food that they place in bulk. Currently, they are receiving more than they have space for, so they have expanded their services to offer food to different community connections such as homeless shelters, refugee programs, and PDX Free Fridges. Some restaurants have also started their own food distribution services, such as local Italian restaurant, Renata. During the pandemic, Renata created a program called Nourish Mindful Meals, which similar to Meals on Wheels, is an at-home food delivery service. Herout often works with Renata as well to take their leftover food and distribute it to Free Fridges around Portland.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increased need for food pantries, as well as increased usage. The beginning of the pandemic left many jobless and in some cases without the means to be able to afford the basic necessities such as food. PDX Free Fridge has done more than just help the hunger crisis, but Hoatlin commented that “it helps bring forth the humanity of people, and within the last few years, we’ve needed to see that. It’s really helped bring people together.”
PDX Free Fridge and other pantries rely on community support in order to survive. Something as simple as making an extra sandwich when you are making one for yourself can have a tremendous impact. Please see the resources below to donate or utilize the pantry resources.
Find the pantry nearest to you: https://pdx-free-fridge.carto.com/builder/9c7a0265-8d41-4e14-acc3-d50568082a95/embed
Learn more about PDX Free Fridge: