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News / Clark County News

Rule change could aid Free Fridge program

Current city code forbids appliances in front yards

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 16, 2022, 1:52pm

Vancouver’s Free Fridge recently celebrated its one year of helping reduce food waste in the community, but organizers had other triumphant news to celebrate.

Last week, the Vancouver City Council addressed alterations that could be made to a city land-use and development code that prevents prospective Free Fridge hosts from joining the network. Currently, appliances like refrigerators are permitted only on side or rear yards, not front yards. The code’s purpose is to maintain a neighborhood’s orderly appearance.

Council decided to entertain an interim approach that would create a pilot program to permit structures for refrigerators in front yards. Chad Eiken, Vancouver community development director, said this would enable the program to expand while alterations to the code are examined.

When the code-amendment process is initiated, Vancouver’s planning commission will undertake a public engagement process and lead deliberations, which can take three to five months. The process may begin in the fall to avoid displacing other initiatives, Eiken said.

The city council conversation was a victory for those in the Free Fridge project.

Program organizers and volunteers began a petition months ago calling for a change to city code. They pressed officials to either change the codes or make an exception for the community project. Considering that the existing code addresses only an aesthetic standard rather than a safety issue, it should be a relatively easy change to make, project organizer Karissa Halstrom said.

Council member Kim Harless introduced the recommendation to the city council.

“The council is acknowledging that the community wants us here and we’ve been accepted — they are listening to the community’s voice in the matter,” she said. “That’s all we really need.”

Participants in the Free Fridge program offer free food in outdoor refrigerators and sheds dispersed throughout the city.

Boxed noodles, canned vegetables and breads can be found in the troves. Sometimes people donate vegetables they grow in their gardens. A few businesses provide “ugly produce,” or something that will be thrown out despite not being expired. A few individuals even supply the reserves with dozens of burritos or rice bowls.

It’s unknown how many households in Vancouver participate in the project, Halstrom said, but the handful of appliances and pantries scattered in Vancouver tend to always have something on their shelves.

Deborah Thomas of Vancouver is one of the homeowners who are itching to participate but cannot because of the development code.

The prospective Free Fridge host already has a pantry on the front corner of her property. Her goal is to provide a fridge to expand the reserve and keep items from spoiling. Adding the appliance adjacent to the pantry seemed like an easy move but was an unexpected hassle, Thomas said.

“It seems silly,” she added. “I’ve had a food pantry there for about two years … and can’t make it a little bigger to hold a refrigerator?”

Although there are options to place a unit behind her home, it wouldn’t be accessible unless people walked into her backyard. This option isn’t desirable by Thomas or those who reap its benefits, she said, as it thwarts an individual’s privacy. As soon as the pilot program is approved, Thomas said, she will be quick to jump onboard.

“There are people who want to help in any way they can, and this is a great way to do it,” she said. “It’s a small way people can make a difference.”

Columbian staff writer