James, a homeless man living around Lancaster Drive, adds mayonnaise to a sack lunch sandwich after answering questions for Salem's 2019 point-in-time count. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Most families keep refrigerators tucked away in kitchen corners. Two Salem-area women hope to soon see these appliances in driveways, parking lots, and other open spaces around town.

They intend to help people without secure housing or ample paychecks use the refrigerators to get healthy food with no judgment attached.

The project, which they're calling Free Fridge Salem, began in September when the wild fires came to the region. April Sandvig, local macramé artist and owner of Fiber and Blood, and Summer Reyes, local community organizer, noticed a community willingness to help the less fortunate.

"Some people just couldn't get out of the smoke, and everyone wanted to help them," Sandvig said. "We distributed masks and food and water. But we really saw the community wanting to do more."

Reyes had read about free refrigerators popping up in places like Eugene and Portland, and the two thought Salem needed something similar.

The model is simple.

A host agrees to provide an electrical outlet and access. Volunteers deliver a refrigerator housed inside a weatherproof structure. Some locations also include pantries that contain dry goods and other donated items. Anyone is welcome to supply the food depots – or help themselves as needed.

Sandvig acknowledges that other Salem organizations already offer food and supplies to those in need. But she said this model is different in a few important ways.

"A lot of people who are on the street are there because of trauma that's happened in their family. Maybe they've been kicked out because their family's church doesn't agree with what they believe in, so the idea of going to a church is traumatizing," she said. "A lot of organizations that give food to the community are religious, which is wonderful, and I am so thankful for that. But you can see how that might be painful for some folks."

The refrigerator model also allows volunteers to provide nutritious meals from ingredients (like greens) that might otherwise go to waste, as they're not easy to hand out as a snack in their natural state.

"There's a lot of food waste that happens in Salem," Sandvig said. "We would love to get connected with restaurant owners and similar folks that are just tossing out food. We'll take it! And we can then transform that food into a soup or a casserole or a meal."

The handful of Free Fridge Salem volunteers will stock the refrigerators and pantries. The group may hold cooking parties to prepare meals in bulk, and teams may also head into the community to pick up donated food supplies.

The group also hopes Salem-area residents will drive to the refrigerators with their own donations of healthy food.

The first two refrigerators are purchased, and their outdoor shelters are being built. Both will be in residential communities, but the group isn't publicizing the locations until the construction is complete. Sandvig estimated the work will be done within a few weeks.

The next phase of the project involves six mini-fridges and smaller pantries for families that want to provide a place but can't find the space for a larger appliance.

Money for the project came from donations, including an online fundraiser held in October. About 50 donors supplied more than 120 auction items, and all told, the group raised $4,010.

"There are a lot of people that want to help, but we are really at a spot where we're holding and waiting for the shelters to be built, so there's a place to put the food," Sandvig says.

People that hope to get involved now can drop off nonperishable food at three locations:

Cooke Stationery Company at 370 State St.

IKE Box at 299 Cottage St. N.E.

Salem's Riverfront Carousel at 101 Front St. N.E.

Anyone willing to host a refrigerator or otherwise help can connect with the team on Instagram. Updates about new locations will be released there when available.

Sandvig said her team will ensure that those in need know about these resources through zines and other printed materials.

Many people could benefit from this project. Marion County estimates that 1,218 people in the community were without permanent shelter in 2018. And in 2019, more than 40 percent of respondents to a Salem survey cited homelessness as their top concern, along with a lack of confidence in the government's response.

"I feel like our unsheltered community and those in our community with mental illness have not been heard or supported, and we want to change that," Sandvig said. "I think there are more and more people that are struggling to make ends meet, and to feed their family good, nourishing food."

The project is in early stages but Sandvig has been encouraged by the response so far.

"The biggest thing I have been moved by is what happens in the community when people start showing their love for each other,” she said. “It just keeps spreading, and you have more people that come together and who want to help and who want to look at their neighbor no matter who they might be or who they are in a compassionate way."

"It's important, as it changes the way you look at your fellow human. I think it's the only way that we're going to actually see change in our community. It's quite huge and important if we want change, and I think most of us do," she said.

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