Editor's Note: On Sept. 4, NBC 7 received word that the community fridge had been shut down. City Council Member Chris Ward said the County's Department of Environmental Health was contacted to review various health concerns presented by some residents.
Even in an eclectic neighborhood like North Park, the yellow refrigerator sitting outside a dry cleaning business along the bustling 30th Street would catch your eye.
Handwritten maroon letters scrawled across the front of the appliance reveal its purpose: "North Park Community Fridge. Take some, leave some."
Set up just last Friday, the community fridge is meant to provide the food insecure a safe and judgment-free space to go to pick up essential products -- from fresh produce, meats and cheeses to canned and boxed goods. Even health and sanitary items can be spotted on a shelf near the refrigerator.
Annie Lein, a San Diego resident and activist, was inspired to set up a community refrigerator after seeing others in cities across the country.
"It's a nationwide project that has been going on for a few months and I really liked the idea and thought it was a great idea for our community," Lein said.
So Lein acquired a fridge. She then had to canvas the North Park neighborhood for areas that could sustain the project. She needed accessibility and a business that would be willing to not only be the location host but pay for the fridge's electricity.
The latter was hard to find.
"Most (businesses) weren’t interested and had reasons they wouldn’t be able to and I respected that and moved on to the next one," Lein said.
After months of searching, she finally found a business owner who was willing to provide the space and the electricity for the community fridge project -- Gordon Shaw, the owner of Hangers Cleaners and Laundry.
"I think they probably caught me at the right time, I was receptive," Shaw said.
The small business owner admits that when Lein and her friends were pitching the project to him, he may have been thinking about how the fridge could solve one of his problems, too.
He explained the side doorway to his business, where the community fridge would eventually be installed, was being used as a gathering spot for some homeless members of the community. Trash was often left behind and he was responsible for its cleanup.
“If all I have to do is provide the electricity and it makes (the side area) look cleaner and nicer and it does some good for people, then it seemed like a good thing," Shaw said.
But the project, with a newly minted Instagram page that has grown to more than 1,200 followers in just four days, received some pushback from community members who thought it may be drawing more unsheltered people to the area.
Lein said she has been communicating with those who are hesitant and has felt like she' was able to change some people's minds.
NBC 7 San Diego has reached out to the North Park Main Street business group for their thoughts on the project but has not heard back.
Shaw said he can't predict what will become of the project but hopes the fridge will bring enough positivity to the North Park community that anyone utilizing it would want to respect it and keep it clean.
"It's something new and everybody's got different opinions and I think, with Annie, she’s young and motivated and got some good ideas but there are other people that have some other ideas," Shaw said.
"It's not like there's a blueprint, 'This is how you do it.' It's the type of thing that there’s no intention whatsoever in creating anything negative for anybody," he added.
Anyone experiencing food insecurity can grab items from the fridge anytime they wish.
Photos on the project's Instagram page show the yellow fridge stocked with milk, butter, fruits and vegetables, bread, and more. Shelves are filled with cans of soup, and vegetables, sauces, macaroni, diapers, nasal spray and tampons. Even utensils are available for those in need.
"As far as the people who are getting food from the fridge they are really excited about the opportunity as a judgment-free way to get food from the fridge whenever they need to do so," Lein said.
A sign left by Lein explains that items must be unused and unopened. Donations should be labeled with an expiration date and that volunteers should toss any food with an expired date.
Lein said she has about 100 people who have volunteered to either stock the fridge and pantry with goods or make stops to check for expired products and keep it clean. The effort is organized through the @NorthParkCommunityFridge Instagram page.
The fridge has only been installed for a few days, but Shaw said there are always volunteers.
"If you see how many people she has following the Instagram account, you can tell it's well-received by a lot of people and that’s when you see a neighborhood have a lot of energy and vitality," Shaw said. "And I’m an old man, I like energy and vitality.”
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