When Yuan Wonton food truck co-owner and chef Penelope Wong learned about Denver Community Fridges online three weeks ago, she immediately sprang into action, cooking a giant pot of congee to divvy up into individual portions and put in the group’s refrigerators. “As much privilege as there is in this world, there’s a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of struggle out there,” Wong says.

She is one of the many Denver area residents inspired to donate their food, time, and energy to the two-month-old grassroots initiative, which aims to help address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Through the Denver Community Fridges program, organizers have solicited donated refrigerators and found local business owners willing to host the appliances on their property. Volunteers fill the fridges with food, keep them clean and organized, and post regular social media updates about which refrigerators are full and which could use more food.

The refrigerators offer contactless access to nourishment 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Anyone can take or leave donations, though there are guidelines about which types of foods are acceptable; unless cooked and packaged in a licensed kitchen, prepared meals cannot be donated. Shelving units next to the refrigerators hold pantry items and toiletries, including menstrual products, diapers, masks, and hand sanitizer.

Denver Community Fridges is the brilliant brainchild of Eli Zain, who moved to Denver from southern California a year and a half ago to pursue graduate studies in humanities and social sciences with an emphasis in social justice at the University of Colorado Denver. Zain, who is trans/non-binary (and uses they/them pronouns), was shocked by the number of people without housing in Denver and how poorly many unhoused individuals are treated. Add on the pandemic, which has caused thousands of Denverites to lose their jobs, businesses to close, and unforeseen economic hardship for many. 

In July, 24-year-old Zain decided to try to help. Inspired by similar programs in New York City and Los Angeles, they started work on Denver Community Fridges. After months of organizing, the first refrigerator officially opened in early December outside of Mutiny Information Cafe on South Broadway. Since then, three additional refrigerators have been established: outside of Base Coat Nail Salon in Five Points; at Huckleberry Roasters in Sunnyside; and at Amethyst Coffee Company in Berkeley. Other locations are in the works and Zain hopes to someday plant fridges throughout Denver. A similar but largely separate initiative is also underway in Boulder. 

“Since we started, our work has exploded,” Zain says. “Even though houseless folks are at the center, we know that people across class boundaries are using the fridges. We’re able to provide fresh groceries directly to people who are in need and really allow people to have agency over what they eat.” 

Zain says the refrigerators are part of the broader community of social services programs and organizations working to address food insecurity in Denver, but pointed out that the initiative fills several gaps. The refrigerators are open outside of regular business hours, which is helpful for people who work during the day, and are easily accessible on foot or bike. The contactless setup allows people to remain anonymous and avoid answering questions about their identity or situation, which Zain believes makes the refrigerators more approachable to all. 

“We don’t require anything for people to take donations from our fridges,” Zain says. “You don’t have to sign up, you don’t have to show your ID, you don’t have to check in. That is really huge for reducing the shame and stigma that comes with being food insecure or being low income. You can take whatever you need, whenever you need it.”

The Denver Community Fridges refrigerator and stocked shelves outside Basecoat Nail Salon in Five Points. Photo by Eli Zain

Denver Community Fridges commissioned local artists to paint the refrigerators, with a double goal of making them highly visible and offering creatives a paid work opportunity. Each fridge has its own unique style, featuring big, bold colors, letters, and designs. “We would not get nearly as much attention and interest in the work that we do if not for these ginormous, beautiful structures that our artists are incredibly important in creating,” Zain says. “Also, by putting our fridges on the sidewalks and making them incredibly visible, we make it really hard for people to ignore food insecurity in their direct community.”

The initiative is run by volunteers and welcomes anyone who wants to get involved, whether by dropping off food, helping with transportation, or donating, painting, or hosting refrigerators. The volunteer leadership team is also encouraging local restaurants, food trucks, catering companies, grocery stores, and other facilities with licensed commercial kitchens to donate prepared meals for people who don’t have a way to cook for themselves. 

“You drive through downtown Denver right now and you see these tent encampments and all I can think about is, ‘How are they eating? Are they eating at all?’” says Lisa Kelly, a personal chef who also volunteers as Denver Community Fridges’ food manager. “If you spend five minutes at one of the fridges, you might see someone come up and get really excited to open the fridge and be able to pull out a meal. There are people who say, ‘This is the first full meal I’ve had since Christmas,’ and they’re just dancing around the fridge, they’re so excited. It’s really fulfilling. We want to keep that momentum going and be able to reach as many people as we can.”

You can learn more about Denver Community Fridges online and on Instagram. The refrigerators are currently located outside of: Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway; Base Coat Nail Salon Five Points, 2700 Walnut St.; Huckleberry Roasters, 4301 N. Pecos St.; Amethyst Coffee Company, 4999 W. 44th Ave.

Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta is Colorado-based writer and editor. She writes about travel, lifestyle, food and beverage, fitness, education and anything with a great story behind it.