Not far from the closing Whole Foods in Englewood, on the street-side of the Libations to the Ancestors Garden, sits a bright blue and yellow shack-like structure. In big, pink lettering the top reads “Free Food.” A fridge fits perfectly within the shack, and fresh vegetables grow in raised-beds around it.
This is the setting of Chicago’s first solar-powered community fridge.
“Most of our system is built on upcycling, food rescue and food sovereignty. That’s like connecting the dots,” said Eric Von Haynes, a food sovereignty and mutual aid advocate with Love Fridge, the Chicago-based mutual aid group behind the program. “From the beginning, I’ve always wanted the fridges to be as autonomous as possible.”
Love Fridge started in 2020 as a free resource for communities around the city. There are twenty-four refrigerators, which stretch from Rogers Park and West Ridge to the South Shore and West Lawn. They are voluntarily stocked by community members and run 24/7 to ensure that neighbors have access to nourishing food, ultimately working to combat food insecurity.
Currently, the fridges must be hooked up to an energy source, limiting the locations that Love Fridge can offer its resources. For the past two years, Von Haynes and his group have been working to find a solution to the electrical connection issue. While Love Fridge offers some funding for electric bills to hosts of the fridges, the problem of cords persists. One fridge host even had a small archway built to overpass a sidewalk.
Now, there is a more long-term solution: solar energy.
Keyante Aytch, co-founder of Sunbend Solar, which provides residential solar installations, started installing solar panels, wiring and a battery storage unit in June. Aytch originally met Von Haynes at a celebration of the Fridges, where he pitched the solar panel idea. Now, ten six-by-three foot solar panels power the fridge, which is located at 6344 S. Morgan St and began running on solar this past weekend. The solar installation cost $12,000.
“Solar is a beautiful idea,” Aytch said. “The sun is there, no one has to pay for that presence. There’s this beautiful idea of what our energy consumption looks like when the fuel is essentially free.”
Prior to the solar initiative, the fridge was hooked up to the electric system of a nearby house. Now, the solar system will be able to provide an “abundance” of renewable energy, according to Aytch.
As long as the panels receive light, they will generate electricity, even during cloudy weather and during the winter seasons, according to Aytch. The electricity funnels into a battery system, which will in turn flow through a power cord to the fridge.
“It’s kind of rocky. It was a foundation for a house before this,” said Tobias Sample, who, along with his brother Merrick, dug the trench for the electric cord to run through. “It’s really the start to something greater…To branch off to other neighborhoods and for people to come from other neighborhoods, it just makes it more known.”
Aytch’s connection to the fridge runs deeper than the technical side. He has benefitted from this specific community fridge when he found a free meal when he was in need.
“I wish everyone could have this feeling of knowing that there’s a resource out there that can help you out,” Aytch said. “It is my personal mission to bring this back…We’re bringing the love back to the Love Fridge.”
Once the Englewood-based fridge is powered by solar energy, Von Haynes expects other fridges to be converted as well as new fridges to be set up solely powered by solar.
“I feel like this is just the beginning,” Von Haynes said. “It allows us to put them in spaces that aren’t close to buildings and other infrastructure, which is beautiful.”
Monica Sager is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has been working to cover health and science within the South Side this summer.