KITTERY, Maine — It's a sight that might look a bit odd at first — a running refrigerator standing outside, isolated in the February snow. Folks who visit the Kittery Community Center have likely gotten used to that unusual placement, which is serving an important purpose.
The Seacoast Fridge is a community refrigerator that's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for anyone to swing by and get some food. No applications are required. The refrigerator opened in August and has grown since then, with a team of about 30 regular volunteers. They check on the appliance twice a day to ensure it's stocked with food and stays clean.
"I think with the pandemic, there's just been such an impact on food insecurity — both with rising food costs but also accessibility," Whitney Blethen, co-founder of Seacoast Fridge, said, adding that she was inspired to take on this project after seeing similar efforts in different areas. In no time, it became a true community endeavor.
"A local builder from South Berwick donated the lumber [for the refrigerator shed], and then the seam shop at Ogunquit Playhouse actually built the structure," Blethen said.
Seacoast Fridge follows a mutual aid framework, meaning community members can give input into how the refrigerator is run. The goal is to make sure there isn't a sense of hierarchy. For example, there's a request board on the front of the appliance where people can write what food items they would like to see in the refrigerator and pantry.
For some involved, the project has given them a new sense of community, especially after a period of isolation.
"Being able to help with the fridge has, like, genuinely helped my soul," Abbe Hardiman, a coordinator for Seacoast Fridge, said. "I'm just getting back into helping people and back into the world."
Blethen and Hardiman said the entire endeavor was made possible because of support from local restaurants and farms. For example, David Vargas, the chef and owner of Vida Cantina in New Hampshire, donates food and has held events to raise money for Seacoast Fridge. Richard Greenlaw, the owner and operator of Greenlaw Gardens in Kittery, also donates fresh produce in the growing season.
"To be able to help in some form in our community — it's incredible," said Vargas, noting the refrigerator is inclusive, so anyone can access it.
"It does get a lot of use, and that's really encouraging to see," said Greenlaw.
For Greenlaw, being a part of this mission has meant a lot. He typically sells his produce to restaurants, and business was slow at the beginning of the pandemic.
"When COVID hit, we had to slap together a farm-stand and figure out a way to move the rest of our produce. The community showed up in force and really saved us," he said, explaining why he's so happy to now be giving back to his community.
Seacoast Fridge's motto is "take what you want, give what you can." Blethen and Hardiman said the best way people can help out is by buying a couple of extra items at the grocery store to donate or sending a monetary donation to the Seacoast Fridge Venmo account.
There are some giving guidelines for the refrigerator and pantry. Blethen and Hardiman ask that you don't donate raw meat, expired food, or food that is unsealed or unlabeled. If you donate a homemade meal, you're asked to list ingredients and a "use by" date. The pantry can also include non-food items like blankets, cleaning supplies, emergency tents, hand warmers, and menstrual products.
You can read more about Seacoast Fridge here.