The Fridge etc. is going strong after a year in Camp Washington

Across Cincinnati, community resources are abundant but you have to know where to find them.

Access is always half the battle.

So, what if a new book, a box of pasta, or a frozen meal could be found on the way home from the bus stop or when casually passing by a neighbor’s home? Even better — what if it was free?

About a year ago, Cincinnati got its first free fridge.

The free fridge is a riff on the “take what you need, leave what you can” concept that inspired the Little Free Library and Little Free Pantry movements, both of which have been present in Cincinnati for years.

Unlike the pantries, which are limited to nonperishable items plus household and personal items, a refrigerator can preserve fresh and prepared foods for those in need, donated from those looking to share.

The Fridge, etc. project began as a partnership between ETC Produce & Provisions and Jordan Tuss who was, at the time, employed in their grocery delivery department.

Tuss heard about the free fridge concept from a cousin.

My cousin was volunteering at the OG free fridge in Brooklyn, NY,” she explains.

“Given my background in community work and project management, she said [it seemed] like something that would be a good fit for Cincinnati. I couldn't have agreed more.”

Tuss says that three out of 10 Cincinnati residents live in food deserts, areas where they have limited or no access to fresh foods and produce. She thought a free fridge could be a small solution to the problem, increasing access to a wider variety of donated free foods.

When she introduced the concept to Toncia and Estevan Chavez, they were excited to partner in the project.

The Chavezes live on a farm in Felicity, Ohio and operate ETC Produce & Provisions at Findlay Market.

After quitting their more traditional jobs, they spent a year traveling across the country learning how to farm. They returned to Cincinnati in 2017 and purchased their farm, hoping to homestead. But, Toncia explains, homesteading doesn’t provide a steady income.

They joined the farmers market circuit and opened a weekend booth at Findlay Market in 2018. Soon after, they were offered a prime location in the full-time market house, where they provide “the farmers’ market experience six days a week,” she explains.

ETC Produce sells their own farm goods — things like eggs and microgreens — as well as curated products from other local vendors. In addition to their brick and mortar shop, they have an online store with products from over 150 local farmers and artisans, available for pickup or next day delivery.

When Tuss started working for the Chavezes in 2020, they were pursuing a zero waste business model. But, there were always some edible “scratch and dent” items leftover, things that would be perfect for donating to the free fridge.

They Chavezes were fairly new to the Cincinnati small farm community, but had previous professional experience in the restaurant and grocery industries. They knew other shops and restaurants would have things to contribute to the fridge, as well.

Together, Tuss and the Chavezes started networking with restaurants, bars, farms, and others vendors at Findlay Market to build a foundation of donations for the fridge.

They piloted the project in the storefront pop-up space of More Free 2020 on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine while Tuss sought a permanent home for the fridge.

Tuss says it was a challenge to find someone willing to host it and support the project. But the pilot was a success and people started to believe it was a viable concept.

Just over a year ago, the Camp Washington Urban Revitalization Council — under the leadership of executive director Sidney Nation — stepped up and welcomed the fridge to its community.

The Fridge etc. is now parked on the sidewalk outside nonprofit arts organization Wave Pool’s Welcome Project. Colorful and inviting, the basic refrigerator has a small pantry built in on the side that holds things like donated dry goods and feminine products.

The fridge receives regular donations from places like La Soupe, ETC Produce, OTR Bagel, and Blue Oven Bakery, among others. Neighbors frequently donate items and Chavez says her customers donate things, as well. Chef-baked meals appeared in the fridge around Christmas time. Someone dropped off whole, cooked turkeys for Thanksgiving and, then, another neighbor returned with a donation of pot pies made from the turkey.

The free fridge is a simple premise with the potential of a significant impact. Its success is truly dependent on the commitment and cooperation of the community. And, in this case, it’s working.

Toncia Chavez and Jordan Tuss share the continued work of managing the project, with Tuss managing communications, organizing volunteers, and consulting with people interested in launching their own free fridge project.

Tuss says a free fridge is coming to Northside, Covington, and possibly Walnut Hills, Avondale, and Price Hill.

“Our project has also helped start fridges in Columbus, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, and Arkansas, too!” she says.

“My hopes for the future of this project is that more people are empowered to start their own free fridges. [All it takes is] some time and the desire to connect with your neighbors.”

Do you want to plan a visit to the Fridge etc.?

It’s located at 2936 Colerain Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45225 and is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Donations can be dropped off at the fridge or at ETC Produce & Provisions at Findlay Market.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.