By Marisa Sloan
Hidden in the alley behind a used bookstore in Humboldt Park is a fully stocked refrigerator. Giant fruit and vegetables are painted on its doors alongside the phrase “free food” and its Spanish translation, “comida gratis,” in red and pink.
A piece of cardboard reading “I AM NOT TRASH!” sags against its side.
The refrigerator, one of seven throughout Chicago’s South and West Sides, is part of a grassroots effort called The Love Fridge that combats food insecurity and food waste in the city. Founded less than two months ago by music producer Ramon Norwood, better known as Radius, the collective encourages community members to take what food they need and leave what they can.
“Food is love, in my opinion,” said Norwood. “And a lot of people are really depending on this thing.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago’s South and West sides were already facing rates of food insecurity risk double and triple that of their northern counterparts when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. Those rates doubled again after statewide stay-at-home orders forced many to lose their jobs, with Black and Latinx households disproportionately impacted, according to a study by Northwestern University.
As an artist from the South Side, Norwood has always been interested in the intersection of arts and activism. Although he donated what money he could spare to his community’s farms and food distribution centers when the pandemic first started, he spent months wishing he could do more.
A routine work trip to Brooklyn at the beginning of summer wound up being the inspiration he needed. After noticing “friendly fridges” filled with free food on corner after corner, Norwood spoke with the organizers of that campaign to learn how he could launch something similar back home.
“A week later, I started putting the information out on my social networks to see who was down,” he said.
At first, he was able to convince just five friends to help out. Now, less than two months later, The Love Fridge has amassed over 5,700 followers on Instagram and over 100 active volunteers.
“Since a lot of people have been locked down, [they] are anxious to make a change and empower each other to make something happen,” said Norwood. “A lot of us are [offering] resources that we would normally charge an arm and a leg for.”
In addition to individual donations, The Love Fridge receives food from farms, businesses and meal delivery services that would otherwise go to waste. The refrigerators, which are donated as well, are hand painted by local artists to reflect the communities in which they are placed.
Amanda Maraist, an artist from Humboldt Park, has volunteered with The Love Fridge since its inception. She uses her truck to load and move the refrigerators as well as bulk food donations from local farms.
“The beauty about this thing is that we all do a little bit of everything,” said Maraist. “It’s been a really organic example of an emergent organization with a fluid power structure.”
Norwood said their biggest issue has been finding businesses willing to host a refrigerator and ensure it is powered 24/7. He’s thankful that the refrigerator in Humboldt Park is now being hosted by Dirt Farm, a small-scale farm that grows organic herbs and vegetables in a dozen garden beds behind Humboldt’s Used Books.
The farm’s owner, Niki Urell, said she agreed to maintain the refrigerator because she wanted to deepen their engagement with the community. “The fridge gives us the opportunity to serve locally,” said Urell, who founded the farm in 2018 to sell boxes of produce, homemade teas and other preserves.
She added that she hoped to contribute some of the farm’s produce and wild mushrooms from local forests and state parks. Once a chicken coop has been built, fresh eggs will join the list as well.
The Love Fridge requests that donations be healthy, plant-based foods. Norwood said the decision was partly due to the questionable food safety of uncooked meat and partly due to the lack of nutritious food sources across Chicago’s South and West Sides.
He said when people live too far away from grocery stores, “they may only have access to alcohol, chips and cigarettes.” When communities rely on corner stores to fulfill their nutritional needs long term, it can lead to widespread issues like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, said Norwood.
It’s why he plans to keep The Love Fridge operating long after the pandemic has ended.
“This has always been necessary and will continue to be necessary,” he said. “We want to sustain this as long as possible.”