The People’s Fridge- A Community Fridge to Reduce Food Insecurity and Food Waste

University of California, Merced

Date Posted: May 21, 2021
Submitted by: Erin Meyer
Content Type: Case Studies
Office or Department: Sustainability Office

Project Overview

The People’s Fridge is a community fridge in Merced, California at a local community garden which also holds a free food distribution every Saturday called the Pop-Up People’s Pantry. The People’s Fridge is a “take it and leave it” model where the community can take and/or leave free produce. It is open 24/7 and it has been so successful that a second fridge has opened in Delhi, California, the Delhi People’s Fridge. More fridges are planned for the area.


Due to the pandemic and an increased need for food in the community, in April 2020, the University of California, Merced and Community Initiatives for Collective Impact, a local nonprofit, opened the Pop-Up People’s Pantry, a free food distribution every Saturday. It was immediately successful and has grown since opening. In June 2020, based on it’s success, but seeing a continued need for food in the community, the coordinators of the Pop-Up People’s Pantry decided to open up a community fridge. Planning and coordinating began, and the People’s Fridge opened on September 27th, 2020. Initially it was only open from 9 am to 5 pm. Forecasting higher need over the holidays, the fridge transitioned into being open 24/7 during Thanksgiving. The fridge has been quite successful since opening and has aided towards UC Merced’s mission to “Save the Food. Feed the People.”


The goal of the People’s Fridge is to reduce food waste and food insecurity in Merced County. Specifically, by September 27th, 2021, 10,000 pounds of food will be donated to the People’s Fridge. By September 27th, 2021, four people/families will donate per day to the fridge. By September 27th, 2021, six people/families will access the fridge per day for free produce.


Program planning and stakeholder engagement began in June 2020. Coordinators consulted the Public Health Department EH&S, the City of Merced, local food donors, residents in the area and others to inform them of the fridge and where appropriate, establish collaborations. A shed was built for the fridge and another was set up for the donations fridge. Fridges were donated. In the meantime, data collection methods were researched and set up. Volunteers and paid student staff were recruited and trained. Local students painted the sheds and the fridges were placed inside of them. A grand opening was held on September, 27th 2020. The survey was opened for feedback. On Thanksgiving, due to overwhelming need, the fridge went from being open 9-5 pm to being open 24/7. Building on the success of this pilot, a second fridge, the Delhi People’s Fridge, at Delhi High School was opened in March 2021. The coordinators are working on opening other fridges in the area.


June 2020- Planning began. Stakeholders were consulted including EH&S, the City of Merced, food donors etc. Neighbors were consulted for approval. July 2020- Building for the fridge enclosure began. Fridges were donated. Data collection methods were set up. An IRB approved survey was created. August 2020- Volunteer recruitment and marketing began. Early September, 2020- The sheds were painted by local students from UC Merced. September 27th, 2020- The People’s Fridge officially opened. September 2020- The People’s Fridge survey opened. November 2020- The fridge went from being open 9-5 pm to being open 24/7. December 2020- A grant from the Pollination Project for $1000 was awarded. The money is earmarked for fridge maintenance and repair. However, there have been no maintenance issues and no money has been spent. March 2021- A formal logo was created for the People’s Fridge. March 2021- The Delhi People’s Fridge at Delhi High School opened. April 2021- Planning for future fridges continued.


The People’s Fridge has been a financially sustainable operation. All materials from the fridges to the building materials for the shed to the paint was all donated. Money has been spent on cleaning materials and hand sanitizer. Additionally, some compensation (roughly $200) was given to volunteers who assisted with building the shed and helping to set up our data collection mechanisms. The two ongoing costs are for electricity ($50 per month) and for the Ring Sensors that are used for data collection ($10 per month and a $140 initial cost). These ongoing costs are paid through a grant from United Way and funds raised from a Go Fund Me.


Pounds donated between September 27, 2021-May 1, 2021- 5,240 pounds Average pounds donated per week- 169 pounds Average pounds sent to compost per week- 20 pounds Average pounds donated to the local Zoo per week- 4 pounds Average number of people/families donating food per day- 3 Average number of people/families accessing the fridge for free food per day- 6

Note- data from the survey is ongoing. User Survey- The first series of questions asked about food security and indicated that 33% have high or marginal food security, .05% have low food security and 61% have very low food security. Question- “How important are each of the following reasons for using the People’s Fridge?” Question- “How frequently do you use the People’s Fridge?” 0% said daily, 20% said weekly and 80% said monthly. Question- “On average, how much produce do you pick up when visiting” 68.75% said just a few items, 18.75% said half to one full bag of groceries, 0% said one to two full grocery bags, 12.50% said two to three full grocery bags and 0% said more than 3 grocery bags. Question- “On average, how much of the produce that you select from the People’s Fridge do you end up throwing away at home? 81.25% said none, 12.50% said just a few items and 6.25% said a moderate amount, 0% said half to one full grocery bag, 0% said one to two full grocery bag, 0% said two to three full grocery bags and 0% said more than three full grocery bags. Donor Survey- Question- “How much produce have you donated? Please estimate (i.e. half to one full sized grocery bag, 2 full grocery bags). Responses included: “Half grocery bag”, “2 bags”. “2-3 bags and box of canned goods”, “2 lbs. of oranges”, 5 5# bags of spinach 6 3# bags of mixed salad, 6 2# bags of green beans”, “1 bag”. Question- “How frequently do you donate produce?” 0% said daily, 0% said weekly, 16,67% said monthly and 83.33% said “Not on a regular basis, just when I have some surplus items.” Question- “Please indicate the reasons for donating food.” 31.25% said to reduce food insecurity, 31.25% said to reduce food waste and 37.50% said to foster and build the community.

Lessons Learned

Location, Location, Location- Our location has been a blessing and a curse. The fridge is at a local community garden and it is at the back of a driveway, making it somewhat hidden. This is a benefit because people sometimes feel stigma when accessing free food and since it is off of the street, they often may not be seen getting free food. It is also a benefit in that it could prevent theft and vandalism because people do not know that it is there. However, that is the curse; people don’t always know it is there. This has meant less potential traffic to the fridge so a strong marketing campaign is required. This taught coordinators to balance the pros and cons at new host locations for other fridges. Marketing during a Pandemic- It has been hard to spread the word about the fridge during the pandemic due to the fact that we cannot knock on doors or table at events to tell people about the fridge. Therefore, we have had to rely on social media (Facebook, Instagram), the local newspaper and word of mouth. Stay Optimistic Throughout Setbacks-The process to get the fridge up and running was longer than expected due to setbacks with the pandemic, the wildfires in California and other issues. Time was of the essence considering the need in the community so these setbacks were frustrating. However, the coordinators knew the fridge would open eventually and were able to push through resiliently. Also, theft and vandalism come with the territory especially in our area with high crime rates. There was one attempt to steal the fridge which some sturdy locks prevented. Someone stole a scale from the site and someone stole one of our data collection mechanisms. Program coordinators knew and planned for the risks and were able to stay optimistic throughout.



Painting the shed

Painting the shed

Photographer credit: Erin Meyer


People's Fridge

People's Fridge

Photographer credit: Erin Meyer