Community fridges offer a different kind of solution in Wichita’s food deserts
Colorful refrigerators are popping up all across Wichita. Founder Tajanhee Stocker started the project with a simple idea: find a welcoming store or business, put in a fridge, and then invite the community to fill it up.
Editor’s note: KMUW is partnering with America Amplified and other public radio stations across the country forDemocracy From the Ground Up. The special project focuses on stories that look at the different ways people unite their communities.
Colorful refrigerators are popping up all across Wichita these days — full of food for those in need.
It’s part of the ICT Community Fridge Project.
The idea behind the fridges is simple: find a welcoming store or business, put in a fridge, and then invite the community to fill it up.
Tajahnae Stocker began the project in the summer of 2020.
“I was on Twitter one day, and I saw some folks from the New Jersey-New York area, I think, kind of showing off their newest community fridge,” Stocker said, “and I've never heard of a community fridge before.”
The fridges are located in areas most useful to those struggling with food insecurity — like a boxing gym in a lower-income neighborhood.
Another is at Dead Center Vintage — a clothing store in downtown Wichita, which was the first fridge location.
“It went from this community fridge and they added a pantry and there's crates there for like nonperishables,” Stocker said. “They let the community know that they're running low and community members can bring things in. So it's really grown into a huge community effort.”
Downtown Wichita is a food desert, with the nearest grocery store miles away and not as accessible for those without transportation. It’s also an area where many people experiencing homelessness live in order to receive services and access resources.
“We know the area that we're in and some of the issues of food scarcity, houselessness, all of that, that surround it,” Dead Center Vintage Co-owner Kenzie Borland said. “So if we were to turn a blind eye to it, I think we would be pretty poor business owners.”
According to a recent study, 25% of Wichita’s nearly 400,000 residents are food insecure, meaning they lack the financial or transportation resources to get to the nearest grocery store. Nationwide, it’s 10%, according to the USDA.
Stockers said the fridges are just a Band-Aid to helping those who are food insecure, though.
“We need more sustainable solutions to hunger in Wichita,” Stocker said. “We need grocery stores, we need livable wages, we need all these things. This is just a refrigerator and a business … this cannot replace any other sustainable things in the city.”
Since that summer in 2020, several more refrigerators have sprung up across the city, including one of the most recently opened fridges at Positive Directions — an STD and HIV testing center just a few blocks away from the first fridge location. It’s also near services that housing insecure people utilize in the city.
“It's a giant food desert down here,” Executive Director Brett Hogan said. “There's plenty of restaurants to go to, but the closest grocery store has to be driven to, and downtown is very foot traffic. There's no small markets.”
For those who want to get a free test and need some food, it’s a one-stop shop.
“We have had people that even though they have stable housing, their income basis is low or something,” Hogan said. “So, yes, we do have clients that actually use it.”
Outside of downtown and across the river that divides Wichita, a light pink refrigerator is nestled near the counter atLeslie Coffee Co.
“I think coffee shops can get a bad rap for being part of gentrification,” owner Sarah Leslie said. “That like a coffee shop is … some harbinger that now all the hipsters are going to roll in and everything's going to be expensive.”
But at this coffee shop, that’s not really the case.
Leslie stocks the fridge weekly with groceries purchased with cash donations from local residents, making it a community hub.
“Everybody can coexist,” Leslie said. “We can still be a thriving business that a lot of people love and feel like it's a cool, safe space to come and hang out and spend money But it's also a place where people can come and get a free cup of coffee if they need it and access the fridge.”
That’s the case for Jennifer and Kayne — who are unhoused and utilize the fridge.
“Boy, if it wasn’t for that, Jennifer and I would probably be in some serious trouble,” Kayne said earlier this year.
Stocker said that by serving those in need, the fridges help better their communities, Stocker said.
“So food is really at the intersection of a lot of the things that we are facing,” Stocker said, “and if we don't have the food and resources we need to thrive in, that community will not thrive and Wichita can't thrive.”