CommunityPasadena

From Free Books to Free Food, Angelenos Come Together During Economic Uncertainty

(LA Trend) — During this unprecedented time of need, Angelenos are stepping up to help neighbors nourish their minds and bodies. While food banks and larger organizations are providing resources to those in need, community members are also organizing grassroots efforts to provide for each other.

“Anything people do to help their neighbors is really great,” said Anthony Parker, who built a Little Free Library in Pasadena from a repurposed medicine cabinet two years ago.

The nonprofit Little Free Library has been providing a blueprint to help people build little free lending libraries since 2009. Their website provides official signage Little Free Library owners can download and a place to register locations in a searchable online map.

There are Little Free Libraries in 50 states and 108 countries. According to Margret Aldrich,

Director of Communications for Little Free Library, 15,000 Little Free Libraries are created each year, but they anticipate that number will be closer to 20,000 this year.

“Book access is more important than ever. With many schools and public libraries closed, Little Free Libraries can help fill that gap in book access, especially in underserved communities,” Aldrich said in an email interview. “During these challenging times, a Little Free Library can also stand as a beacon of hope in a community, signaling that we’re all in this together, even when we have to be apart.”

Little Free Libraries have been getting rave reviews for years. One enthusiastic reviewer on Yelp rated Kenzie’s Little Free Library in Eagle Rock with the highly coveted 5-stars:

“I absolutely LOVE the idea of a free library and am even considering making my own after spotting this one in ER. This free library not only has books that ranged in variety but had a lovely little bench that was shaded by a big ole tree which is perfect if you want to get a head start on one of their books,” Lauren S. said in a Yelp! Review. She called the Little Free Library a “great community-builder” and suggested patrons take a book and return a book.

Parker says the Little Free Library’s inventory depends on the neighborhood’s foot traffic but most books turn over in a few weeks. He also added bird seed on the roof of the library to feed the local Pasadena parrots, a flock of once-domesticated birds that make their home in the city.

“I’ve seen the libraries all over and I really like them. We just didn’t have one on our block and we get a lot of foot traffic because people use our street as a shortcut,” Parker said. “Recently, people have started leaving food, too. It’s wonderful and super necessary.”

Aldrich observed that Little Free Libraries have become repositories for more than just books.

“Early on, stewards and patrons began sharing essential items in Little Free Libraries to help neighbors in need — everything from food to facemasks to toilet paper,” Aldrich said. “Now stewards are reporting that their libraries are getting more visitors exchanging books than ever, since many public libraries and schools are closed.”

Parker, who works with a homeless services organization, says that the need for additional resources was always there but the pandemic has made it more visible.

In March, Los Angeles County allocated $3 million to food banks and voucher programs, but for many, this has not been enough to bridge the gap between widespread unemployment and already scarce resources.

A dedicated group of volunteers has been coordinating through the messaging app Slack to provide free food in brightly colored refrigerators plugged in through Los Angeles. The Community Fridge Project provides free meals, food and pantry items to the community.

“Traditional charity models are so different from mutual aid, which is an empowering approach that acknowledges the fact that everyone needs support, and there is no shame in needing it at any time. Especially in a country that only values certain lives, replacing the idea of the ‘haves’ giving to the ‘have-nots’ with a communal resource that supports and is supported by everyone is an empowering and liberating ethos,” said Natalie Epstein, one of the Eagle Rock Community Fridge’s volunteers.

Soon after hearing about the L.A. Community Fridge project through a friend, Epstein joined the LAFC’s active Slack channel and started making plans to bring a fridge to her community in Eagle Rock.

The Eagle Rock Community Fridge at 4808 Townsend Avenue is one of the most recent additions to the LACF project. It is conveniently located near the ROCK Coffee House’s outdoor seating area and is visible from multiple bus stops on Yosemite Drive.

The fridge’s location was no accident. The ROCK Coffee House and Community Center are already well-known for providing a space for the community. During non-pandemic times, the center is busy with after-school tutors, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, open-mic nights, enrichment classes and people just hanging out.

Epstein, who was already aware of the Reach Our Community Kids (ROCK) center and coffee house, contacted the owner about placing the fridge on their property.

“Within a week, Eagle Rock volunteers managed to clean, plugin, paint and stock the fridge. It’s amazing to watch how quickly it all happened and a powerful reminder of the beauty of mutual aid work,” Epstein said in an email interview. “Everyone contributes bit by bit, everyone can feel the impact of the work they do, everyone feels ownership of the work, and we all support one another and keep the wheels turning.”

“The community fridge idea is great. I’d never heard of it before,” said Stephen Kia, founder, and CEO of Reach Our Community Kids (ROCK) and managing partner at the ROCK Coffee House.

Kia explained that the pandemic has highlighted resource inequity in the city and adds that the Community Fridge provides a direct way for neighbors who have “more than enough” to help those who lack resources.

“It’s such a simple idea and it taps into the neighborliness of the community,” said Kia. “People want to help each other but they don’t know how.”

Kia explains the ROCK’s goals expand beyond the borders of Los Angeles county. He envisions pedestrian-friendly spaces in Los Angeles and clean water projects in Africa. He says that two families are renting out the community center for online schooling and hopes to find other creative solutions to provide resources and space for the community.

“The free fridge fits into what we’re doing on a global and a local level,” Kaid said. “It’s a neighbor-to-neighbor connection that people are missing during the pandemic.”

Kia says that he has seen people gather at a respectful distance and chat while stocking the fridge and Epstein says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

Despite these stories of success, some city officials are not in support of the Community Fridges. A recent article in LAist, cheekily titled “Officials Are Not Chill About The Community Fridges Popping Up Around LA,” recounts roadblocks that volunteers face.

As of August 24, the Compton Community Fridge was closed after health and safety concerns raised by the city, and the Highland Park Community Fridge was also shut down for similar reasons.

As for the proposed community fridge in Pasadena, Lisa Derderian, Pasadena Public Information Officer, said that organizers would need to go through the Health Department and obtain a permit in order to operate a community fridge.

The majority of community fridges are donated and aren’t commercial models, like those at a gas station or convenience store. Although volunteers stock, clean and maintain the fridges, they are not staffed and have prompted some officials to label them as “abandoned.”

As reported in LAist, city officials cite the Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956 and Penal Code 402b from 1970, when citing the Community Fridges. This law states that doors be removed from abandoned refrigerators to prevent children from accidentally locking themselves inside. Fire Departments receive the majority of these calls to remove the abandoned appliances.

“An abandoned fridge is always a 9-1-1 call,” said Derderian who worked for the Pasadena Fire Department for 17 years.

Despite these setbacks, mutual aid groups and Community Fridges continue to provide help to neighbors. The L.A Community Fridge Slack channel has eight soon-to-be established locations and 12 active sites.

“It’s a great cause and will definitely help the community. We’re not saying ‘no’ but we still have strict protocol in place to ensure the safety of our community,” Derderian said.

Epstein says volunteers consulted with L.A. community members before opening the fridge but did not pursue permits. She says the volunteer group has a variety of resources, including food safety guidelines, on the community slack channel.

“The LACF Slack channel is chock-full of impressive resources for community members trying to start their own fridges including step-by-step guides for setting up a fridge and volunteer network, COVID-safety and food handling resources, and compelling graphics,” Epstein said. “After reading through the Slack, I felt confident I would be able to pull this off with my generous neighbors’ help! Getting the fridge set-up has been a collaborative process, with countless minds and hands in the mix.”

While city officials acknowledge the need for additional food resources, they still highlight the need for community fridges to comply with health and safety protocol.

“While we recognize that food insecurity continues to impact many in our communities, it is essential that we work together to ensure that those who are most vulnerable have access to food that is safe and wholesome,” Rachel Janbek, Environmental Health Division Manager, said in an email interview.

Janbek identified steps volunteers can take to ensure community fridges to comply with city standards to prevent contamination and keep both volunteers and community-members safe.

The California Retail Food Code (CRFC) currently allows limited service charitable feeding operations (LSCFO) to provide food to consumers as outlined in Section 113819. This allows for the storage and distribution of whole, uncut produce or prepackaged non-potentially hazardous foods in their original manufacturer’s packaging. For example, unopened cereal would be fine but homemade lasagna would not.

Janbek also notes that a responsible party must be identified to ensure the refrigerator is being maintained in good operating condition and that a Zoning or Code Enforcement is required for placement on public right of way or private property. The most efficient way to meet requirements is to get in touch with the health department directly.

Anyone interested in opening a charitable feeding operation may contact the LA County Consultative Services team at (626) 433-5320.

Individuals in Pasadena may reach out to Rachel Janbek at rjanbek@cityofpasadena.net. Individuals seeking guidance for a location in Long Beach can reach out to Judeth Luong at Judeth.Luong@longbeach.gov.

Those in need of additional resources, visit covid19.lacounty.gov/food or call 2-1-1.

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