Skywoman Stories: RVA Community Fridges
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Christina Couch | November 3, 2022
Take What You Need ... Leave What You Can.
So you’re asking yourself… what exactly is a community fridge? They are anonymous free-food access points by the community and for the community. An open door for reducing food waste by reallocating food surplus and creating new relationships between farmers, food businesses, and their neighbors. These community fridges are increasing food security for folks who are historically disregarded in the nonsensical we feed our community jargon from local food producers and businesses targeting a very specific, and likely wealthy, 1% of their county’s population. Taylor Scott, founder of RVA Community Fridges, is utilizing fridges as a tool to build a larger web of connectivity that redistributes the wealth of high quality and nutritious food, of which access to should not be a privilege.
Establishing a single community fridge, or in Taylor Scott’s case, an entire web of them across Richmond, VA, first requires a deep understanding of why a fridge needs to be there in the first place. Where exactly is there? And why there specifically? Who is being served there? And what do the people who reside or are passing through there truly need? The answers to these questions lie in building deep relationships with members of the community in which the fridge will serve. It’s about understanding preferences while simultaneously educating folks on how to prepare and utilize the items you are providing.
RVA Community Fridges
Taylor Scott is doing exactly that by leading a small group of BIPOC women to promote equal access to healthy food options, reduce food waste and insecurity, and foster a sense of mutual aid amongst her community. Her small core team of three is currently serving 10 different neighborhoods through 10 community fridges and with the support of her coordinators, Qui and Kayla, Taylor has attracted 200+ volunteers and a myriad of partners. The impact? 5,000 free meals into the hands and bellies of the Richmond, VA community… 5,000 and counting. Every day. That’s 24/7 access to free food.
On the surface, the true requirements for getting started are a physical fridge, access to electricity, approval for fridge placement, and donated products. But thanks to Taylor’s transparency during our August session of Skywoman Stories, we recognize it’s much more complex to appropriately and honestly meet the needs of the neighborhood in which the fridge is serving.
Connecting with the Community You Serve
So how do you truly get to know your neighbors and serve them well? It starts with listening to individuals to truly understand their lifestyle, their culture, their schedule, when accessing food is most convenient, what food access barriers they are facing, and how they see the fridge best meeting their needs. Not everyone will be willing to share, but creating a safe space for those open to informing is key.
Taylor and her team are doing this through bi-monthly community meetings. During these sessions her team shares upcoming events, promotes volunteer opportunities and fun community activities. More importantly, she holds an open dialogue with the community to talk through potential fridge locations, hear feedback on how to improve the fridges, understand what items folks would like to see more or less of, and hear any overall reactions to the state of their local food system. Social media has also been an awesome tool for local suggestions on what folks want to see in their fridges, like asking what their favorite school lunches were growing up so RVA can provide rewarding meals for children and students too.
Once a general understanding of local needs is underway, it’s time to begin sourcing product, and hopefully in a way that flourishes beyond a one-time drop off and transforms into a long-term supplier partnership. RVA Community Fridges is tapping into everyone from local restaurants to prepared food suppliers, farmers and ranchers and even artists to support their creativity efforts. Beyond businesses, anyone is encouraged to donate food and RVA Community Fridges is incentivizing their neighbors to leave what they can in exchange for stickers and other beautifully designed RVA CF merchandise. The ask for support is compelling in itself, but documenting the entire journey of the fridges’ establishment and impact on social media is an effective way to provide transparency and build trust with prospective partners.
Now that a supplier relationship is advancing, how can you deliver value to these local businesses in a way that will encourage a longstanding exchange? RVA Community Fridges is using social media to show their partners that their efforts are truly impacting the community - whether that be acknowledging an appreciation for harvesting, processing, packing, transporting, or coordinating product drop off. Furthermore, the RVA CF team is showing their support and gratitude by publicly acknowledging partner donations and promoting these businesses across social media channels. This not only drives more customers to the supporting businesses, but allows the neighborhood to connect with their local food suppliers and maybe even learn a bit more about where the items are sourced from and how.
To bring it all full circle, RVA Community fridges is connecting the neighborhood directly with local farms to get folks in the field for gleaning, tours and fun community building activities that create a stronger relationship between producers and their consumers over time. Beyond food collection, RVA CF is also sourcing school supplies and anything else the community may need at local farmers markets and other community events.
Building a Strong Team
All of this work wouldn’t be possible without the foundation of a strong team. Taylor jumped in head first and didn’t immediately think about all of the different roles that would one day come out of her first community fridge. However, as she approaches her goal of 12 fridges this year she offered us some insight on how she sees the organization’s structure taking shape moving forward:
Founder & “Face” – The founder of the community fridge or network does not always have to be the face of the effort, but in this case, Taylor Scott is killing it as both. Attaching a face to the project allows folks following the story to feel more connected to the journey and much more likely to emotionally, and maybe even financially, invest in the organization’s success.
Social Media – In any project whose success is highly dependent on community engagement, it is key to have someone dedicated to updating social media accounts to build and maintain traction on the work you’re doing.
Accountant – Equally important is a role dedicated to finances. This means maintaining strong financial records, managing donations and fundraising, budgeting for employee compensation, and overseeing purchasing of inputs and groceries. This role is extremely significant should you need to project cost expansion for additional fridges, start bringing in financially supportive partners, and/or applying for grants to sustain the efforts.
Install – To ensure the day to day function of the fridges, this role focuses on sourcing materials, installing, and maintaining the fridges. This includes fixing broken parts, keeping the fridge clean and at proper temperature by food safety standards, installing latches on doors that aren’t staying shut, and safeguarding electricity sources.
Community Liaison – This role will maintain existing relationships and develop new partnerships with prospective businesses, farms and food organizations. Partnership development can be a time-consuming lift so having an additional person to support the Community Liaison with daily logistics of coordinating grocery runs and partner food drops would be ideal.
It costs the RVA team about $700 to stock one fridge for one month, so how are they financially keeping up with 10 fridges year round, and growing? The team had an initial nonprofit donation of $2k that they ran with to launch the first fridge and after that, it’s been a culmination of personal donations from family members, accepting funds through GoFundMe, and now having a variety of partners that supply both financial and food donations.
In terms of attracting donations, social media has played a huge role in sharing the progress of RVA CF in a way that is inviting to folks that want to support their local food system. Their social media presence created a mad dash of people offering their services whether that be to design merchandise to sell for fundraising, painting art onto the fridges, donating a percentage of their businesses’ sales to RVA CF and more. The influx of interest to get involved can be directly linked to the transparency provided by RVA Community Fridges’ Instagram and Facebook accounts.
More specific elements of RVA CF's fundraising strategy:
Taylor is using Patreon to attract subscribers who can donate $8, $15, $25, $50, $100, $250, or $500 each month to help keep the fridges full. Depending on the level of support, subscriber benefits include exclusive patron-only content, RVA CF merchandise, recipes, and community garden voting rights to help decide which seedlings get planted.
The team has a general fund for the 2022-2023 Growing Season that will support the usual needs of groceries, food rescues, material for fridge paintings, grand stockings, and apparel. In addition to supporting overall expansion efforts, this fund will help purchase supplies for the RVA CF team to grow their own food in their garden plots that will help stock the fridges next year.
Taylor launched a Storefront Fundraiser last month to raise money for costs associated with finishing the interior of their aspiring storefront so it can operate with walk-in fridges and a fully stocked kitchen space, of which they will utilize for, and share with, the community.
Partnership fundraisers with local restaurants and businesses who are willing to donate x amount of sales on any given day to support RVA Community Fridges, for example, Scoop RVA donating 20% of ice cream sales.
Hosting a giveaway raffle that includes a partnering businesses’ products or merchandise as the prize and requires prospective applicants to provide a monetary and food donation for raffle entry.
Partnering with fitness instructors to host donation-based classes (i.e. yoga) where all proceeds go to RVA Community Fridges.
Folks can also support by purchasing merchandise such as denim patches, tote bags, t-shirts and sweatshirts online. Their most recent launch is a wonderfully designed “Nature’s Bounty” shirt/hoodie to raise funds for the new space.
Direct donations are also promoted via CashApp and Venmo @RVACF.
Growth and Expansion
In the 2022-2023 season, this inspiring team of BIPOC women are looking to finalize 12 community fridges and set up even more, establish sturdy overhead/pantry set ups with all fridges, acquire a temperature controlled storage unit, purchase supplies to grow their own food in garden plots, and get a building location!
More specifically on the building location, the team is looking to raise $30k to launch a storefront with an initial 3-year lease through Richmond Food Not Bombs. This mutual aid access point will be a hub for community events, cooking showcases, group meal preparations, and of course, free food.
RVA CF is also thinking more about prepared foods and how to support folks with busy lifestyles or multiple jobs who don’t have the capacity to cook dinner from the raw ingredients typically found in fridges. Taylor and her team are already partnering with community members who are producing ready-to-eat meals and hope to expand upon this model once the storefront is operating.
Producers: Leaning on Mutual Aid to Support Targeted Donations
Community fridges are certainly an opportunity to reduce food waste, but this should not be misconstrued as a place to dump poor quality items that are on the verge of going bad and don’t otherwise have a market… This is about redistributing peak-quality products to underserved communities through nonconventional community-driven outlets.
Chris Newman’s mutual aid program through Sylvanaqua Farms is a great example of the possibilities for donating food items in a way that still drives revenue to the core business. When organizations are receiving value in return for their efforts, it makes it much more realistic for them to set aside the time and labor to produce, pack and transport a premium product to the community. This added source of cash flow then allows producers to become much more targeted in what they are able to donate based on the needs of the demographic in which the fridge or organization serves. A far more effective system than just throwing whatever is “left over” at the community with no context of how it will be received.
Read more about the mutual aid program Chris launched in 2021 to better understand the producer side of providing “food for free to people systematically excluded from and left behind by the farm to table movement” in a way that actually drives his business and comprises about 1/3 of Sylvanaqua’s revenues. How does he do it? Access his latest article, Farm-to-Community: Design Elements of a Successful Farm Mutual-Aid Program to dive deeper. For Sylvanaqua Farms, receiving revenue from the mutual aid program means they can “afford to do retail and wholesale deliveries in new locations where [they] don't have a mature customer base. This will help [them] set up shop in new places and expand [their] sales, which increases the amount of land [they] can steward and food [they] can produce, ultimately getting even more food into our communities in a positive feedback loop.”
Tapping Into the Skywoman Community to Approach Community Fridge Scalability
Our ability to learn from and replicate Taylor Scott’s model could be initiated by data tracking and analysis that identifies the ideal conditions for successfully providing food to her network in Richmond, VA. We would then have to test how this model could be adapted and applied elsewhere but gathering the data is a step in the right direction.
It would be fascinating to track the number of people who visit the fridge, when the fridge is visited and how many pounds of food are donated vs. taken. These metrics can provide the RVA CF team with data on which fridges have the most traffic, peak times for food pick up and what items are most often consumed vs. left behind to improve the effectiveness of each individual fridge within its respective neighborhood. This data is also a significant reference point for quantitatively highlighting the organization’s impact for grant applications and fundraising pitches.
Although the RVA CF team is not currently tracking these metrics on each individual fridge, it would be fascinating to develop a technological solution that could help the team gather data on the points listed above. I see an opportunity for interested Skywoman members to brainstorm on how to capture these metrics in a way that doesn’t involve setting up a camera or any visible tracking device that may make people accessing food from the fridge/pantry feel uncomfortable.
Additionally, we can also think about designing a system to track progress in the upcoming storefront – this might be slightly more achievable with a physical space that removes the consumer's expected anonymity of a fridge while providing a singular touchpoint for tracking drop-offs and pick-ups. Have ideas? The Skywoman Discord is a great place to kick off the conversation.
Looking to show some love?
There are a lot of ways you can support RVA Community Fridges. If you’re in the Richmond, Henrico, or South Chesterfield areas and you’re looking to volunteer, leave your information on their volunteer signup sheet to connect with the team. There’s no doubt that maintaining community fridges takes a village … so if you have access to any fridge, help keep things in good shape – remove food you see that is open or expired, report any damage or dysfunction of the fridge, and clean up spills if you can! If you’re not local, visit the various donation avenues linked above to put ya money where your mouth is and get your hands on some awesome merch.
Thinking About Launching a Community Fridge in Your Neighborhood?
A lot of the RVA CF team’s day to day challenges deal with food going bad due to electric cords being unplugged, extension cords being stolen, power outages, the fridge door being left open and overall vandalism. Lock your electrical boxes, install latches on fridge doors, replace extension cords and just keep on keeping on.
RVA Community Fridges has been relatively lucky with an easy going Health Department but we are aware this is not the case for everyone, so for anyone looking to establish a community fridge, we highly recommend you understand your local inspector’s rules and guidelines before jumping in. City limits and regulations can also be a nightmare to navigate when looking for an approved location to set up your fridge…
… but stay tuned, we’re hoping to work more closely with Taylor Scott to co-produce a resource on how to overcome these challenges and successfully launch your own network of community fridges based on her personal learnings.