The city of Madison is pushing to shut down a community fridge on East Johnson street, citing violations of zoning policy. The fridge, which offers free food and drinks to food insecure Madisonians, is a grassroots initiative organized by residents in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Located just up the street from Burnie’s Rock Shop, the fridge has been in operation since last August. It started as a project by a group of employees at Troy Farms, a community-supported organic vegetable farm on the city’s north side.
According to materials they’ve published online, Madison Community Fridges — which operates both the Johnson Street fridge and one on Mills Street — uses a rotating volunteer system to maintain and clean both refrigerators. They have a staff of dozens of volunteers that handle everything from administration to graphic design for the project.
Each fridge has exact policies for sanitation, safe temperatures and what are and aren’t considered acceptable donations.
Julia Levine is one of the organizers behind the project. She also hosts the Johnson Street fridge on her property, running an extension cord out from her home to the unit to provide power.
“It’s been a beautiful experience to have the fridge outside of my house, to come home late in the evening and see a line of people getting food and fresh produce from the fridge,” Levine told WORT.
“We’ve gotten notes on our doors saying ‘Thank you, you’re a lifesaver.’ A neighbor came by with some potatoes that he had cooked from the pantry and gave us a dish of them. We’ve gotten some art from somebody in exchange for the fridge. It’s really been a way for me to get to know my neighbors better and develop a sense of community. I’ve been very grateful to have this fridge in front of my house.”
The city’s zoning administrator did not return WORT’s request for comment today, but the Capital Times reports that the city has cited a range of concerns with the East Johnson fridge.
Those include, but are not limited to, residential district zoning rules, the fact that the refrigerator — which is located outside near the street — is designed for indoor use, and the possibility for wildlife to get into the food.
Alder Patrick Heck represents the district the fridge is located in. Heck says city officials have given the organizers thirty days to either conform to regulations, or shut down the operation. He says they were originally given a six-day notice, before Heck intervened and negotiated for the extension.
“Being an all-volunteer group that’s serving an important purpose, I think it’s totally appropriate to give them a thirty day extension to figure out what to do,” he says.
Heck says that the city first began inspecting the fridge after receiving an anonymous complaint.
“I don’t really blame city staff for following through with inspection, the problem is that somebody bothered to complain.”
Despite the hurdles, Levine says the Johnson and Mills Street fridges are just the beginning. Community Fridges is looking to expand their operations in the near future — placing new fridges in areas that need them.
Says Levine: “ This situation has been an opportunity to look outward. We hope that fridges in general won’t be under the wrong zoning codes or told that they cannot operate where they are. This project has been to fulfill a need in the community during a global pandemic emergency, and it really shows where the gaps are in our food system in Madison and I think it goes a long way to address those gaps. It should be supported and uplifted by the city in the future.”
(Photo: One of Madison Community Fridges food pantries / Stacy Harbaugh)