Community pantries and fridges are popping up in Fort Wayne with a powerful mission

What if there was a way to fight food scarcity in Fort Wayne without the overhead, oversight, and accessibility barriers of a typical food pantry or nonprofit?

What if there was a way to break down the power dynamics between those giving and receiving support in a community?

These are the questions driving mutual-aid projects in Fort Wayne, emerging to meet resident’s urgent needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond: Community pantries and fridges.

Just like it sounds, the concept for a community pantry or fridge is simple. Take a literal pantry or refrigerator and place it in a highly visible location for residents to access 24/7—no fees, no staff, no strings attached. Each project is run by a network of volunteers, and anyone is welcome to drop off or pick up food when it is convenient for them, following a few simple guidelines.

While similar mutual aid projects have been done in bigger cities, like The Love Fridge in Chicago or the Denver Community Fridges in Colorado, local advocates say there are a few big reasons these concepts are important to Fort Wayne’s future, in particular.

The first community pantry in Fort Wayne is outside Fancy & Staple downtown.

Community Pantries

Forward Indiana is a grassroots group of changemakers behind a legion of community pantries hitting the streets of Fort Wayne.

As Co-Creators of the movement, Sarah Thompson and her partner Carlos Marcano felt the impacts of food scarcity in Fort Wayne firsthand in 2020 when they canvassed the city’s South side for Marcano’s run for Congress. Carlos Marcano and Sarah Thompson of Forward Indiana

Food scarcity has been an issue in Fort Wayne for years, with much of the 46803 and 46806 zip codes classified as food deserts, or places home to at least 500 people that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. But something that struck Thompson and Marcano was not only the level of need they witnessed in Fort Wayne, but also, the way in which this need could be met more effectively.

“We saw how much of a need there is in Fort Wayne for mutual aid,” Thompson says. “We really believe mutual aid is the future, and it’s different from the charity we grew up with in many churches, which is more along the lines of: ‘Come, needy people, and we will help you.’ This is about solidarity, which is standing alongside someone instead of above them. It’s a mindset of: ‘I give—and receive—what I can, as well.’”

Thompson says her understanding of mutual aid deepened as a result of the pandemic, too. As the artisan behind a host of creative ventures, including Sarahmics pottery and Que Sera, Sarah Bakery, her own income took a hit when the pandemic canceled art shows and put her baked goods sales on hold.

Last year was a reminder to many residents that financial fortunes can change quickly, so you never know when you might need help. As food scarcity rose to the top of Northeast Indiana residents’ concerns during the pandemic, Thompson and Marcano put their idea for community pantries to the test. They reached out to a handful of downtown area business owners to host a pantry or fridge, and the first one to show confidence in their concept was Taber Olinger at Fancy & Staple (1111 Broadway).

“When Sarah Thompson contacted me with this idea, I didn’t even have to think about it,” Olinger says. “It was brilliant, really, to make something so easy and accessible for both the person donating and the person taking advantage of the pantry. I was amazed at how fast it filled up and even witnessed someone ‘shopping’ from it on the first day.”

The first two community pantries in Fort Wayne are open.

Olinger says she’s proud to support mutual aid projects in Fort Wayne, and she hopes the idea spreads to include more community pantries across the city. Thanks to Forward Indiana’s work, that vision is becoming a reality. Since the first pantry was installed, they’ve succeeded at securing additional locations outside The Glass Park (4235 Fairfield Ave.) and indoors at Fae’s Cabinet (3215 N. Anthony Blvd.). Follow their progress on social media at @ForwardIndiana

Any business owner willing to host a pantry should contact Forward Indiana, and anyone able to contribute food is asked to drop off nonperishable, unopened, and unexpired items at the time and location of their choice.

“We try to say, ‘It’s not a place for you to get rid of things you don’t want anymore,’” Thompson says. “Try to look at it more like, ‘What would I want to eat if I was hungry or going to make a meal?”

To add an extra layer of love and respect to the project, Thompson says Forward Indiana plans to decorate each pantry with local art, so they become points of pride. The first pantry at Fancy & Staple was designed by Marcano, taking influences from his Hawaiian heritage.

“There’s a person painted on the pantry who is intended to be ambiguous, so their pronouns are they/them,” Thompson says. “We wanted to create a vibe and energy around the cabinet that would hopefully invoke some respect when you do give and take from it. And more than anything, we want you to have a good feeling when you use it.”

Community Fridges

Like the community pantry, a new community fridge project in Fort Wayne called the Fort Wayne Love Fridge is being started by a grassroots group of friends connected to Bravas food and Dirt Wain composting.

A new community pantry and the first Fort Wayne Love Fridge is being built near Bravas.

Becky Gonzalez, the older sister of Bravas Founder Bo Gonzalez, says she, Bo, and a handful of friends spent a few months developing the concept with Brett Bloom, the Founder of Dirt Wain, where she currently works.

Brett and his wife, Bonnie Bloom, were part of the friend group that started The Love Fridge in Chicago, one of many cities where they previously lived. So when they moved to Fort Wayne in 2015, they wanted to create something similar here, even before the pandemic began. Then 2020 and the temporary closure of Bravas provided them with the energy, impetus, and space to make it happen.

Becky Gonzalez is part of the volunteer team behind the Fort Wayne Love Fridge.

Becky and Bo’s father, Manuel Gonzalez, owns the buildings next to Bravas’s former location on the corner of Nuttman and Fairfield Ave., which is being transformed into the site of the first Love Fridge. Bravas also donated one of its commercial soda coolers to the project, Bo says, and community donations raised by former Bravas "Hot Dog Lady," Katie Jo, on social media have helped pay for repairs to the cooler.

On a snowy Saturday afternoon in mid-January, Brett, Bo, and Manuel worked on building a shelter for the Love Fridge out of pallets while Becky and other volunteers began to gather food and supplies. One volunteer is Kylee Khays, a former yoga and meditation instructor in Fort Wayne who met Brett through a “Compost & Yoga” event at Salomon Farm before the pandemic. Now that her classes are canceled due to COVID-19, she’s glad to have a new project to work on.

Manuel Gonzalez, Bo Gonzalez, and Brett Bloom build the first Fort Wayne Love Fridge.

In addition to housing the first local Love Fridge, the shelter by Bravas will have a food pantry on the side, Becky says. Her team has been in touch with Forward Indiana, and they're excited to see likeminded, mutual aid projects popping up serendipitously in the city.

They plan to install multiple Love Fridges around town, working with area businesses that have access to outdoor outlets. They are looking for additional, used refrigerators for the project, too—ideally ones that have freezers for meat products. While they are still working out some of the logistics, you can follow their progress on Instagram at @fwlovefridge.

Ultimately, Becky says this project is about the deeper concept underlying mutual aid in cities: We are all connected.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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