A group of Lafayette residents is launching a new mutual aid effort to encourage neighbors to combat food insecurity in the city-parish and take community care into their own hands.

The effort, Lafayette Community Fridge, was born out of a conversation on social media and a wishful desire to do good in the community that evolved into a core team of four mutual friends probing their networks of friends, family and acquaintances to turn their community empowerment project into a tangible reality.

The idea is straightforward: someone hosts a publicly accessible fridge on their property protected by a weatherproofed structure that community members both donate to and take food or drinks from when they’re in need. The concept is based on similar efforts in cities including New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York City.

Lafayette residents Jessica Ellis, an accountant, and Erinn Quinn, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, said food insecurity and limited access to fresh food in city food deserts, especially in low-income communities, have been persistent problems only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic’s increased job losses and homelessness.

People shouldn’t have to stress about where their next meal will come from or how they’ll feed their children, they said.

“When people’s basic needs are met and they don’t have to stress about that, then they have a lot more time to improve themselves and also their communities. If we just give and take a little bit, then we can all be a little better,” Ellis said.

The group purchased its first fridge Saturday with sponsored funds from another local organization after a planned donation fell through. The first fridge’s location is still being negotiated but the group is in talks with property owners in the LaPlace neighborhood, around Simcoe Street and off 11th Street about possible homes for it, they said.

Once the location is secured, the group will build a weatherproof structure for the fridge, like a shed, with a waterproof curtain or easy access door to protect the fridge from the elements and shelves for dried and canned goods. A large bottle of pump hand sanitizer will also be available for users to sanitize before and after accessing the fridge, Ellis said.

Lafayette Community Fridge is also exploring hiring a local artist to beautify the structure to add another layer of care, intention and compassion to the project, the women said.

“I think if it looks welcoming and it’s of community effort, it shows people that we’re all in this together and that this is a good addition to our community…. I’m sure that it’s hard to be in that position, so the more we can do to make it bright and stand out and attract people is ideal,” Quinn said.

There are several options for supporting the community fridge effort: People interested can volunteer time stocking the fridge, donate food and goods to the fridge, donate funds to support grocery purchases, volunteer labor to build a structure or offer to house a community fridge on their property, they said.

Fridge hosts would typically assume the fridge’s electrical bill but funding assistance is possible if cost is a deterrent to someone interested in hosting a fridge on their property, the women said.

Once the first community fridge is in operation, the team will establish a daily volunteer schedule to assess the fridge’s stock, ensure cleanliness, review expiration dates on donated goods and throw out anything that may have spoiled, Ellis said.

The mutual aid group is aiming to stock the fridge with a combination of individual donations and prepared meal donations from partner restaurants and vendors. The team currently has one restaurant lined up for recurring, potentially weekly, prepared food donations, Ellis said.

Quinn said all food donations are welcome, except for raw meat, but the group recommends supporters consider donations with a longer shelf life. Donations can be large or small; those interested could bring fruit from their tree that’s overproducing or buy an extra bag of potatoes while they’re grocery shopping to bring to the fridge, she said.

Homemade meals are also welcome, but donors should wear gloves and a mask when preparing the food to prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19 and all meals should be labeled with their ingredients, Quinn said.

A goal of the fridge, beyond providing stable access to food for those in need, is to give people a sense of investment in their community and their neighbors’ well-being. Person to person service on a grassroots level can meet needs being missed by larger charitable organizations, they said.

“I think it will help people get in touch with their humanity. We’re so self-absorbed in what we’re doing. I think this will help us meet people we’ve never met, help people we didn’t know needed help. I’m hoping it’ll open people’s eyes to the fact that there are people all around us that need love and support,” Quinn said.

The Lafayette Community Fridge leaders plan to partner with other mutual aid and food insecurity organizations in the city-parish area to raise awareness once the fridge is operational. A safe door knocking and neighborhood canvassing campaign is also being planned.

The eventual goal is to ensure sustainable operation of the fridge, with a solid and growing base of contributors and families served, then expand the mutual aid effort to other locations, creating a network of community fridges, Ellis said.

“My hope is that it grows and...it’s not something that lasts for a little while and dies off. I really hope the momentum picks up even more and I hope that we can make a difference in our little communities,” Quinn said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com