On a cold November day at lunchtime, the Salt Lake community refrigerator in Rose Park was full of food.
Located next to a sidewalk, the free refrigerator, or “freedge,” was stocked with tofu, yogurt, cheese, butter, vegetables, soy milk, and other staples. The wooden shelves built around were filled with cans of soup, tangerines, tuna and sardines, as well as other non-perishable items like sacks of flour and pasta. A bunch of fresh rosemary was hung, ready to be cut into sprigs.
The small wooden structure, the size of a telephone booth, was painted in swirls of pinks, blues and purples. Magnets on the red refrigerator door marked numbers for emergency numbers for mental health crises. A zippered bag of dry dog ââfood has been placed on top.
But by Monday, the wooden pantry built around the refrigerator, located at 1151 N. 1500 West, was gone, along with the food that filled its shelves. The refrigerator was moved up a nearby driveway, inside a carport.
A leaflet on the refrigerator says it aims to promote equal access to healthy food, strengthen ties with the neighborhood, reduce food waste and tackle food insecurity. But for all the community spirit the “freedge” seems to foster, officials say it has also sparked complaints.
The refrigerator is maintained by Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid and is located in the driveway of Sarah Gronlund, a teacher who volunteered her front yard for the effort.
Gronlund is not a member of the group, which installed the refrigerator about six weeks ago. But officials in Salt Lake City have since warned her that her facility violates city code. She received two notices on her front door, as well as a letter.
The warnings stemmed from complaints from the public, officials said. They told her that she had until December 1 to bring the structure into compliance or remove it – or face daily fines.
The first notice appeared on October 20, sent by the Civil Law Enforcement Office of the Community and Neighborhoods Department. This notice referred to Municipal Ordinance 21A.40.140, which states that items, including household appliances, may not be stored in premises that are not authorized for such use.
The notice also stated that the wooden structure around the refrigerator is considered a form of outdoor storage, which is not allowed in front yards. When Gronlund asked if a side yard or carport would suffice for the structure, an enforcement officer said no.
The second notice was knocked out on October 22 by the Environmental Health Division. The leaflet included a name and contact details, but no indication of the rule that had been violated.
Gronlund also received a letter from the city on October 21 which reiterated apparent violations of the code and included a note stating that the wooden pantry since removed could stay until Thanksgiving Day as it served a charitable purpose – if the city did not receive any further complaints.
What the neighbors think
It is not known who filed complaints with the city about the refrigerator, or what those complaints stated. But before the refrigerator and pantry appeared next to the sidewalk, the Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid said it sought feedback from residents.
The group held a welcome meeting in the front yard of Gronlund, inviting people to ask questions and share their concerns. Members also met individually with adjacent Gronlund neighbors and posted flyers on the refrigerator in English and Spanish.
âWe got unilateral support. … Everyone they spoke to on that street was supportive [of the fridge] and glad to have it, âsaid Gronlund.
When a Salt Lake Tribune reporter spoke about the refrigerator with one of Gronlund’s neighbors just before Thanksgiving, she said she didn’t mind, but she thought the wooden pantry around was an “eyesore.” .
A member of Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid told the Salt Lake Tribune that she had only heard positive comments about the refrigerator. She saw people coming in for groceries for a week, as well as a man who had a bottle of corn syrup so his wife could bake a pecan pie for Thanksgiving.
âPeople were talking about the quality of the neighborhood and the quality of the community,â she said. âI really just got the feeling that the neighborhood and the community really come together, appreciate and care for each other. “
The red tape around the âfreedgeâ seems to have eased for the time being. After civil law enforcement officers met with the Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid last week – and raised concerns about a black extension cord running from the refrigerator to Gronlund’s home, which, according to them, violated the electrical code – they finally granted a request to move the refrigerator to the carport in Gronlund. .
The retired timber structure that once housed it, which was painted by local artist Margot Apricot, is stored in a backyard.
“In this case, we are convinced that there is a simple and pleasant solution, and that we will be able to work towards a compromise with the owner which simply includes moving the refrigerator and perishable items into the carport. a city spokesperson said in a statement last week.
But the situation is not easy or pleasant for the Mutual Aid Community of Salt Lake.
“We saw a need in our community and decided to meet it, and we think we are bogged down by vague interpretations of code that may not apply to this circumstance,” the group said in a statement.
“An effort supported by the community”
Across town near Liberty Park, two people who run a community pantry (without a refrigerator) said they had not received any formal complaints since it opened three years ago.
Nicole Vallieres and Brandon Evans said they are making sure the SLC Liberty pantry is as safe and clean as possible, even though they have donated strange items (including a computer keyboard) and messy foods (like packets of ketchup that are usually in).
Evans said he had not heard an unofficial negative response either. Most people say they think the pantry is a great idea, he said, and some even knock on their doors to thank them.
Located at 500 East across from the park’s tennis center, the red and white pantry is smaller than the Salt Lake community refrigerator when housed in the wooden structure – more like the size of a small library free. But it also includes a “Little Free Herbary”, a planter filled with growing herbs and a basket attached to the side of the pantry for fresh produce from the garden.
A spokesperson for Salt Lake City clarified that the lending libraries do not violate the city code because they are small enough to publish.
Evans said he believed the SLC Liberty Pantry was successful in part with the involvement of local establishments. Teachers at St. John’s Lutheran Church School, located on the same street, will be bringing school children to the pantry to donate, Evans said. And they receive donations from local businesses and the Wasatch Co-operative Market.
ValliÃ¨res and Evans were also careful to do their homework before opening the pantry. They contacted the police as well as then City Councilor Erin Mendenhall to find out if there were any laws against it. They were told that Utah’s âGood Samaritanâ laws would legally cover them, and beyond that, they only had to determine their level of comfort with strangers coming and going.
âIt’s absolutely a community supported effort,â said ValliÃ¨res. âWe donated the space, but our community and our neighbors are the ones who make it work and make it successful.â
More Utahns are struggling to feed themselves, said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. She said devices like the Salt Lake Community Refrigerator and the SLC Liberty Pantry may be more accessible to people, although their approach is somewhat “unusual.”
Traditional pantries open during the working day or for a few hours on weekends don’t meet everyone’s needs, she said. Some people can access community refrigerators and pantries more easily, as they are often open 24 hours a day. And people without transportation can often walk there, a member said. of Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid.
Vallieres and Evans said they are often surprised at how many new people they see become regular visitors to SLC Liberty Pantry.
The Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid had to halt the grocery delivery program it launched in the spring of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic due to funding restrictions, a member said, but the group always heard about food insecurity in the community. The refrigerator is one way to meet this need on a smaller scale, she said.
Over the past month, Cornia said she had seen a “huge increase” in the number of people asking for food aid. “Guerrilla” food access projects like the Salt Lake Community Refrigerator should serve as a clue to city officials that people are struggling, she said.
âThese are community members taking actionâ¦ because they see a need in the community and the barriers that prevent people from doing things under the rule,â she said. “Maybe the city should examine them instead of hitting someone with a [city code] violation.”