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Vibrant wooden butterflies flutter around a turquoise structure outside the Childcare Network of Evanston at 1335 Dodge Ave. The structure houses a public fridge and a small pantry that supply residents with food, independence and a strong sense of community. 

The butterflies on the community fridge by the Childcare Network of Evanston were painted by Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves Ruiz. (Photo by Adina Keeling.)

This refrigerator was the first community fridge to pop up in Evanston, but since its opening in March 2021, two more have sprouted: one outside Soul & Smoke, at 1601 Payne St., and the other beside Peckish Pig, at 623 W. Howard St. 

Community members keep the fridges stocked, and a volunteer manager ensures each is clean and looked after. Local artists, including Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves Ruiz – who painted the butterflies on the first fridge – and Matthew Henry, decorated the fridges with eye-catching art. 

The community fridge team anticipates adding more fridges in the coming months, said organizer Maggie Quinn.

The community fridge by the Peckish Pig., 623 W. Howard St. (Photo by Adina Keeling.)

Quinn is a program coordinator for the Logan Correctional Peer Doula Program, which trains incarcerated doulas to support their pregnant peers. She started the Evanston fridge movement in summer 2020 after learning about Love Fridge Chicago – a mutual aid effort that places fridges across Chicago and requests donations from the community – via social media. 

Quinn, who has an extensive background in volunteering, advocacy and community organizing, contacted Love Fridge Chicago to get involved and see if a fridge could be constructed in Evanston. 

The community fridge outside Soul & Smoke barbecue, 1601 Payne St. (Photo by Adina Keeling.)

The Chicago mutual aid organizers were not interested in expanding north into Evanston, but they provided Quinn with information and contacts to organize her own group in Evanston. “The Love Fridge provided this great framework,” she said. 

The Love Fridge organizers connected Quinn with members of Evanston for Black Lives Matter, an activist youth group. Other community members with interests in mutual aid and volunteering also came forward, and a small team formed. 

First fridge destroyed in crash

At first, the team struggled to find a host for the fridge, Quinn said, but after several months, Childcare Network of Evanston agreed to house a fridge on its property. The first fridge was scheduled to open in March, but the night before the official opening, a truck crashed into and destroyed the fridge.

This community fridge outside the Childcare Network of Evanston, 1335 Dodge Ave., was the city’s first. (Photo by Adina Keeling.)

“The community really rallied, and we were able to get another fridge up and running,” Quinn said. Once that fridge opened, other sites were more receptive to hosting fridges, she said.

An active Instagram account, @evanstoncommunityfridges, also helped grow the movement. Isaiah Tolbert, a Northwestern student, followed the Instagram for a while, and when a post asked for more volunteers, reached out to get involved. 

“It turned out they were building a fridge right next to my apartment, so I thought it’d be a great opportunity to help out,” Tolbert said.

The community fridges and adjacent pantries are stocked with a variety of food staples and operate on a mutual aid model. (Photo by Adina Keeling.)

The Evanston fridges are based on a mutual aid model, Tolbert said, rather than relying primarily on donations. He said he has friends who, while moving out, donated their food to the fridge rather than throw it away. 

Tolbert manages the Soul & Smoke fridge, and he said while his primary responsibility is to make sure the fridge is presentable and clean, he also works to raise awareness of the fridge and make sure those who need it know it’s available. 

“The fridges belong to the whole community of Evanston, so anybody should feel free to take what they need and leave what they can,” Quinn said. She added that residents interested in getting involved can also sign up to be a fridge manager or donate to the cause on the group’s Linktree, at linktr.ee/Evanstoncommunityfridge

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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