Jessica Wescott peers into the colorful refrigerator outside The Warehouse, a new recreational and educational center for teenagers, in Northeast Wilmington.
“I was just here over the weekend and it was filled with fruits and vegetables,’’ Wescott told WHYY, delighted that it had since been restocked.
“It looks like people have been donating some ready-to-go meals. Looks like chicken fajitas. I see some pasta with some desserts. I see some other sandwiches. Apples, fruits, oranges, potatoes, milk, applesauce.”
The replenished bounty of fresh fruit, produce, prepared meals, snacks and beverages that anyone can take — at any time and free of charge — is exactly what Wescott envisioned when she recently launched two community refrigerators in the Riverside area off Northeast Boulevard.
Her nonprofit, Planting to Feed, opened the first fridge in December at the Kingswood Community Center, and this month installed the one at The Warehouse.
Known in some circles as “freedges,” community refrigerators that provide healthy and varied food choices at no cost have been sprouting in cities across America and the world. Philadelphia has a bunch of them. Now Delaware has its first ones.
Logan Herring, who runs The Warehouse and Kingswood and oversees the Reach Riverside revitalization project, says the fridges are a welcome and vital addition to an area he calls a food desert. He said too many residents go to bed hungry or without eating nutritious meals.
While there’s a Food Lion supermarket about two miles away, not everyone can get there, Herring said.
“If you think about it, if you don’t have a car, by the time you walk in the summertime your milk is spoiled,’’ he said. “There aren’t a lot of healthy options in the neighborhood. We have a lot of processed foods. We have three dollar stores in the neighborhood, corner stores and Popeyes chicken.”
Herring says the fridges are open around the clock, with no limitations on users.
“If you don’t want to come get it and have people seeing you get it, you can get it at 3 o’clock in the morning,’’ he said. “We aren’t judging anyone. You can come take as much as you want or as little as you like.”
Melody Phillips, operations director at The Warehouse, seconded that notion.
“If you have nothing in your house, and you are like, ‘Ah, you know what, the community fridge is right around the corner, across the street’ absolutely help yourself,” she said.
“Or if you’re like, ‘Hey, you know what, I just didn’t feel like cooking and the fridge has something I could easily heat up, then please use it. There’s no restrictions or requirements. You don’t have to be without food to use it.”
Phillips said she also wants teens who use The Warehouse to see how important it is to support people with food insecurity in the neighborhood.
Westott, who works for a tech company, got involved with Kingswood a few years ago while bringing residents prepared meals that contained produce she grew at a church location near Newark. Herring showed her an underutilized community garden behind the center with more than 30 beds, and her group took it over. They grow peas, broccoli, carrots, beets, cabbage, beans, greens, and more.
But when the pandemic hit last year and serving meals became logistically problematic and dangerous, she broached the idea of putting in community refrigerators. Herring said he readily gave his blessings.
The fridge at Kingswood proclaims “Free Food” on the front door, which also has the sayings, “Take What You Need,” “The Food Inside Is For Everyone,” and “Sharing is Caring.” There’s also a box with canned goods.
Westott and other members of her grassroots agency stock the fridges, but neighbors and other volunteers also add food without being solicited.
When WHYY visited a few times in the last week, the inventory included several donated meals from the state’s school lunch program. But you never know what goodies might be inside. The freezers also had tall containers of turkey meatballs and “grass finished” beef chili, each with a price tag of $18, from the local store Honeybee.
That farm to table eatery, in Wilmington’s Trolley Square, provides donations to Wescott’s effort but she also purchases items from Honeybee, in large part to introduce users to foods they might not have eaten before.
Honeybee owner Karen Igou says she’s delighted to participate in what she considered a noble, worthwhile endeavor.
“I saw what she was doing [on Facebook] and I thought it was cool and I wanted to be part of it,’’ Igou told WHYY News.
Wescott said gracious donors have even provided gourmet delicacies.
“At one point we had caviar in the fridge, which was insane to me,’’ she gushed.
The users do have their favorites. Blueberries are a big hit. So are avocados.
“Avocados are something that if we don’t have them people start leaving notes,’’ Wescott said.
Wescott is now in talks with other organizations to put the fridges in other pockets of the state.
“My vision for Delaware,” she said, “is to provide quality food and access to quality food for people who can’t get it.”