When cold can be comfort: A big fridge makes a big difference

A big fridge makes a big difference in feeding a family without burning through budget

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 

What a difference a few cubic feet can make.

Residents at Open House Ministries, a family shelter in downtown Vancouver, used to make do with dorm-size mini fridges.

While residents were grateful for a place to stay, the tiny fridges made it difficult for them to practice the sorts of skills they need to leave the shelter and become self-sufficient, said Renee Stevens, a case manager.

You can't save money and time by weekly meal planning and grocery shopping when your fridge is too small to hold even a gallon of milk. In fact, you can end up spending so much time shopping, it can get in the way of getting your life back together, Stevens said.

She would know. Before she became an employee at the shelter in 2005, she herself was a resident there in 1999.

"I was Mom with three young daughters. I had to shop every day," Stevens said.

Open House made its case in an application to the Community Foundation, which was offering money to address intergenerational poverty. The shelter didn't land that grant, but Leslie Durst and Candice Young, who are involved with the foundation, decided to write checks totalling $11,500 to purchase 30 full-size refrigerators.

Installing the fridges has involved more than just plugging them in. Since the donation came through this summer, volunteer Mel Stiehl, a retired apartment manager from Camas, has removed the mini-fridges from under counters and replaced them with cabinets to slightly enlarge the dorm kitchens, which are just big enough for a sink and a two-burner stove.

Residents appreciate the change. Tiara Simms, 24, first stayed at Open House Ministries when her daughter, now 6, was 2. She had to buy milk once or twice a day for her toddler, paying a premium for the smaller size that would fit in the mini fridge. That cost her extra money and time when she was trying to focus on rebuilding her life.

"I was lucky, because I had a car. I can't imagine having to ride the bus to the store every day to buy milk," Simms said.

Amber Coats, 22, and Eric Kingston, 28, were living in a tent until just a few weeks ago. They couldn't store food at all.

"We would get our food stamps on the 9th and run out by the 12th," Kingston said. Now that they are staying at the shelter in a room equipped with a 10-cubic-foot fridge, they can buy fresh food in larger quantities to stretch their food-assistance dollars. They were shocked at what $350 could buy when they took the bus to WinCo Foods to shop this month.

The shelter offers a weekly life-skills class that teaches residents how make use of the fridge, grocery shop on a budget, and debone a chicken to take advantage of $1-a-pound whole birds that cost half the price of boneless, skinless breasts.

"Day-to-day shopping gets to be expensive," Stevens said. "We were trying to teach independent living skills, and now (residents) can put them into practice."