Since its inception, the L.A. community fridge project has inspired various communities across the metropolis to come together in support of food justice. With 16 active fridges established in less than three months, the project has quickly earned its place among Angeleno organizing groups.
Despite its success, on Aug. 24, L.A. Community Fridges, the grassroots organization behind the project, announced on Instagram that due to citations from public officials, the Highland Park, Compton and Long Beach fridges were no longer operational.
Many of their followers, of which there are more than 20,000, expressed outrage and concern over this recent development. For many, these actions affirm burgeoning sentiments that government officials hinder organizing efforts more often than they promote them. This belief is compacted by the project’s overall emphasis on the importance of practicing community care, rather than relying on government entities to meet basic needs.
When Ryan Hoyle first saw posts circulating on social media about this growing mutual aid project, he immediately reached out and offered to host a fridge, i.e., supply electricity. Hoyle is the co-founder of Play Nice LBC, a vintage clothing store and community space where they host a variety of events such as art exhibitions and open mics.
At that point, the project was still in its infancy, operating only two fridges, both of which were located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The Long Beach fridge significantly increased the project’s geographic breadth and helped solidify its status as a fixture of greater Los Angeles.
However, by the second day of the fridge being available to the public, the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services contacted Play Nice LBC regarding a complaint. On July 15, two department employees showed up on-site and shut down the operation.
According to Environmental Health Operations Officer Judeth Luong and Environmental Health Supervisor Mozhgan Mofidi, among the city’s concerns were the unlicensed distribution of food and the absence of a permit. Specifically, Mofidi says, the fridge violated California Retail Food Code 13.1.114387, which requires that food facilities secure a permit before distribution. Without a mechanism in place to ensure that food is safe and determine the responsible party, the department automatically identified a breach in public safety.
Health department staff recommended that Play Nice LBC collaborate with a nonprofit organization, which could either obtain a permit or distribute food without a permit no more than three times within 90 days under California Retail Food Code 2.113789.c.3.
Another option would be to store non-perishable food within a 25-square-foot space inside the store, which would not require a permit. However, this option would ultimately undercut the project’s main tenet of increasing the community’s access to fresh food. Overall, Luong and Mofidi say the department was more than willing to work with members of the project while still addressing areas of concern.
Determined not to break their stride, Play Nice LBC attempted to reach a compromise by replacing the fridge with a pantry of non-perishable goods outside the storefront. However, all alternative solutions were ultimately squashed when Play Nice LBC’s landlord prohibited the retailer from doing any food handling or storage on the premises.
Similar to Hoyle, Kani Webb also discovered the mutual aid project on social media and reached out offering to host a fridge in front of his business, Peace of Mind, a Compton-based community events space with programming designed to promote local engagement.
On July 27, L.A. Community Fridges announced the location of a new fridge in Compton. The announcement was quickly followed by a post from Compton Rising, the community organization that decorated the fridge.
Within three days, an inspector from the Compton Fire Department visited the property and ordered the fridge be moved indoors. The inspector expressed concerns about potential food contamination and child endangerment. Under California Penal Code 402b PC, abandoning a refrigerator without removing its door is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to six months in jail. The purpose of this code is to prevent the possibility of children climbing into an abandoned refrigerator and becoming trapped inside.
“The City always welcomes partnerships with nonprofits dedicated to supporting our residents, including food bank type services during our current pandemic,” Compton City Manager Craig J. Cornwell said in a statement. “However, in this situation, the community refrigerator was placed outside of the property’s gate and left unattended. Consequently, the Compton Fire Department expressed safety hazard concerns about what appeared to be an abandoned refrigerator to the operator. After productive discussions with staff, the non-profit is free to continue this program or other programs that benefit our Community within public safety guidelines.”
Cornwell’s statement references Compton’s municipal code 24-2.2.p.2, which declares it unlawful for a person owning or renting a property in the city to keep “abandoned, discarded or unused objects or equipment such as automobiles, furniture, stoves, refrigerators, freezers, cans or containers” on the property.
Numerous public officials may have deemed the fridges as abandoned, but this assessment isn’t necessarily accurate. Information regarding sanitation and food safety guidelines are distributed to hosts at the beginning of their involvement. These guidelines are also placed inside the fridges to encourage patrons to uphold these practices when selecting food. Additionally, approximately every 24 hours, members of the project check in with other organizers on a shared Slack channel to update each other on the operational status of each fridge. Though these guidelines were not approved by the Health Department, they are not indicative of abandonment or lack of use.
As outrage over the city’s decision grew, Mayor Aja Brown promised that a resolution would be reached “to keep the fridge operational and in service to the community,” adding that “the investigator requested that the refrigerator be placed within the gate for public safety reasons.”
Though Webb intends to collaborate with a local food pantry in the future, he will not continue to move forward with the project.
Sunny Mercuriadis and Ally Nikoltchev first learned about the community fridge project when its founders reached out to them in June to see if they’d be interested in hosting a fridge. Both women own Pair O Dice GiftShop, a store featuring independent brands and local artisanal goods. Pair O Dice is also used as a community event space with programming that includes art shows and video premieres.
“We had seen similar initiatives in New York and on Instagram and were more than happy to find a use for the storefront despite not being able to open our shop [due to the pandemic],” Mercuriadis says.
Based on initial conversations with the project’s founders, Mercuriadis and Nikoltchev say they had the understanding that a permit was not required because the food was not being sold. Yet from June 9 to Aug. 23, the Highland Park fridge was cited twice, both times by the Department of Public Works Bureau of Street Services Investigation and Enforcement Division. Each citation quoted Los Angeles Municipal Code 56.08(e)1, which deals with the obstruction of the right of way. After the second citation was issued, the fridge was removed before any fines were incurred.
Mercuriadis noted that prior to these citations, they had never experienced encounters with city officials. “We usually had a cafe table and chair outside when we were open earlier this year, and it had never been a problem,” she says. Despite the outcome, both women hope the project can find another home for a community fridge in Highland Park and say they are honored to have participated.
The Bureau of Street Services Investigation and Enforcement Division did not respond to requests for comment.