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Oct. 25, 2021

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Vancouver Free Fridge program expands, offers free food

Three stocked fridges available for homeless in need; owners struggle with city codes

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
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Gretta Anderson looks over contents of the free food pantry and fridge at her Vancouver home Monday afternoon. The Vancouver Free Fridge project is up to three fridges, but they're also being regulated by city codes over the structures, causing program leaders to start a petition.
Gretta Anderson looks over contents of the free food pantry and fridge at her Vancouver home Monday afternoon. The Vancouver Free Fridge project is up to three fridges, but they're also being regulated by city codes over the structures, causing program leaders to start a petition. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Vancouver Free Fridge program, which offers free food and supplies out of outdoor refrigerators in sheds to whoever needs them, expanded from one to three locations in the past few weeks.

But regulations from the city of Vancouver are limiting the effectiveness of the program by forcing the sheds into homeowner driveways instead of featuring them in the front yard, according to its leaders.

Karissa Halstrom, organizer of the Vancouver Free Fridge, started a petition to rally support for the program. Her ultimate goal is either to get the city to give an exception to the refrigerators and the sheds that hold them or to change an ordinance so the sheds don’t fall under the same enforcement as other shed-like structures in residents’ front yards.

“All codes that apply are basically for a shed, and they can’t be in front of a house at all,” Halstrom said. “I understand that some of the codes are for fire issue. But having it in front of a house? I don’t see how that’s anything to restrict except for vanity reasons. The email they sent me said it would mess with fabric of residential neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, the number of Vancouver Free Fridge sites are growing and still following city code. The first fridge, at 403 E. 28th St., was joined by new fridges at 5903 N.E. Hazel Dell Ave. and 1202 Grand Blvd. All three are in colorfully painted sheds on the homeowners’ driveways.

The idea, Halstrom said, is to offer free, fresh food at all hours of the day to whoever needs it. The free fridges offer extra support to people who might be shy to visit a local food bank, which has limited hours. The food banks also make people sign declarations of need, which might prevent some people from using the services. Portland, among many other cities in the U.S., has a similar program.

Halstrom said that one of the fridges is outside the city limits in the county, but the issues with codes because of the structure are similar.

Gretta Anderson, owner of one of the properties where a Vancouver Free Fridge sits, said since the city made her move the fridge to the side of the house, it’s not as obvious to those in need.

“It’s still OK, but not as front and center,” she said. “People have to now intentionally turn into my driveway, and sometimes people are on my porch. I have to get some more signs.”

Anderson said there have not been any issues with houseless people or people in need using the fridge.

“There hasn’t been any real problems,” she said.

Most of the people that Halstrom sees using the fridge are people who aren’t houseless.

“A lot of people I’ve seen walking up (to the fridges) are middle-aged women who are not houseless,” she said. “We could be preventing a lot of people from becoming houseless when they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”

Halstrom, who works as a server at a local McMenamins and also is attending school, said she got the idea for the Vancouver Free Fridge from a similar program in Portland.

“I’d been looking to find something local and good to do in community,” she said.

She plans on opening more free fridges in the future and she’s also looking for restaurants willing to donate unused ingredients on a schedule and for volunteers to transport food. Recently, a few big donors have given the program money, which opened the door for future fridges, she said.

“The goal is just to be everywhere we can,” she said. “Even if there wasn’t a pandemic and unemployment issues: we’re trying to share food and also tackle food waste.”

The Columbian could not reach anyone from the city code compliance department on Monday evening for comment.

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