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Community refrigerator in Chico at risk of closure amid current operator’s move

Sierra Sandoval, who operates Chico's community fridge on Hemlock Street, in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024.
Erik Adams
/
NSPR
Sierra Sandoval, who operates Chico's community fridge on Hemlock Street, in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024.

A community refrigerator is a donation-based, low-barrier food resource that offers free ingredients and meals to anyone who needs them.

The “freedge” movement has gained traction over the years, but now the only one in Chico is in search of a new home – otherwise, it might have to shut down.

Sierra Sandoval currently operates the fridge. She said as many as 100 people per week visit it behind her apartment complex on Hemlock Street, to either pick up or donate food.

“There's a lot of people that use it,” Sandoval said. “I see people come in cars, I see people walking, I see people on bikes.”

But come May, the fridge will need to have its own electrical box if it is to keep operating at its current location.

The fridge is currently powered by an extension cord stretching up to Sandoval’s second floor apartment, about 30 feet away. This means she’s paying for the electricity to keep the resource available to the public.

The community fridge located on Hemlock Street in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024.
Erik Adams
/
NSPR
The community fridge located on Hemlock Street in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024.

But it’s not up to city code. And now, the city plans to fine Sandoval at least $300 dollars, beginning May 3 if the fridge keeps running without proper power.

Additionally, in June, Sandoval and her family are moving, so she’s looking for someone else to volunteer to run the fridge to keep it going.

“I either find somebody to take it over and they figure out where they're gonna put it and plug it, or it's gonna get unplugged,” she said.

The city’s Code Enforcement Division told NSPR that they have tried to make the path to compliance easier for the fridge to remain where it is, but have not found a way. The division’s supervisor wouldn’t give details about the situation because it’s still an open case.

Sandoval said the city has been helpful in the process.

Food insecurity in Butte County higher than the state average

A recent report released by the Butte County Department of Public Health showed that the top three health challenges facing residents are access to health care, mental and substance use and food insecurity.

The report shows the overall level of food insecurity or lack of access to sufficient food is 12.6%, which is about two percentage points higher than the state average.

Further, the percentage of residents with low access to grocery stores is nearly double that of the state average.

It’s a number Sheila McQuaid, program manager for 530 Food Rescue, said isn’t surprising.

“With our experience working in the space right now, I would say those numbers are most likely higher,” McQuaid said. “Food insecurity is hitting populations that haven't been food insecure before.”

Sheila McQuaid, program manager of 530 Food Rescue in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024
Erik Adams
/
NSPR
Sheila McQuaid, program manager of 530 Food Rescue in Chico, Calif. on April 25, 2024

McQuaid’s nonprofit rescues edible food that would have otherwise been thrown away. She says they’ve distributed food to the fridge in the past, and she hopes it doesn’t shut down permanently.

“It has created a great model,” McQuaid said. “I feel that there will be an opportunity to maybe take the concept and replace it, hopefully, with another organization that's willing to host the fridge.”

McQuaid said 530 Food Rescue works with a broad group of organizations that all have one thing in common food.

“That, to me, sometimes feels a little overwhelming that the need is so diverse across the spectrum of our community,” McQuaid said.

Back at the fridge, Sandoval said she can see the wide-ranging demand in the fridge’s clientele, too.

“I see people that you would think were rich using the fridge,” she said. “The fridge doesn't judge anybody.”

Sandoval has reached out to organizations and individuals alike to search for interest in operating the fridge. As of now, without success.

Erik began his role as NSPR's Butte County government reporter in September of 2023 as part of UC Berkeley's California Local News Fellowship. He received his bachelor's degree in Journalism from Cal State LA earlier that year.
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