The Whittier Community Fridge, which has provided free food for community members since August, closed its doors Friday, Oct. 23. This closure followed a protest outside of City Hall the same day, and both served as responses to a notice from the Whittier Police Department sent Wednesday, Oct. 16. The notice, which followed one prior that was overturned by City Hall, claimed the Fridge violated Whittier Municipal Code by not operating within an enclosed building and having “substandard property conditions” involving “broken and discarded furniture, trash, and debris.”
The Fridge opened Aug. 8 as mutual aid, one of the serval community fridges in Whittier, and allowed 24-hour access to food for free, including perishables within the refrigerator and canned goods beside it. Community members run the fridge entirely through volunteer efforts with a goal “to tackle the common struggle of food insecurity,” according to Sabrina Cornejo, Ariana Chavez, and Alyssa Frias, representatives of the Whittier Community Fridge (WCF).
Located in front of Frank’s Auto Upholstery and Tops on the corner of Greenleaf and Whittier Blvds., the Fridge has fed over 200 people. Frank’s Auto Upholstery gave permission for the Whittier Community Fridge to use their exterior, though the shop owner does not personally help run the fridge. It was Frank’s that received the second notice from the Whittier PD.
After the Whittier Community Fridge received their first notice, representatives fought for the right to continue operating during a meeting with City Hall. According to WCF representatives, City Hall officials approved this request, stated the group did not need a permit to operate, and only asked the Fridge to maintain cleanliness.
It was in violation of this last ground, in addition to charges of operating outdoors, that the Oct. 16 notice was sent.
Following this notice, WCF met with community officials, including Director of Community Development Jeff Adams, Whittier PD Code Enforcement Supervisor David Ball, and Whittier Senior Planner Luis Escobedo. According to WCF, Adams expressed that, in regards to allowing the Fridge to continue operating, “it’s just easier to say no.” WCF claims they got the impression that “basically, [the officials] don’t want to help us and don’t have any suggestions or connections to help.”
Over the past few years, Whittier has struggled in its efforts to house its homeless, some of whom relied on WCF for meals. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession, food insecurity throughout the entire U.S. has more than doubled to 23 percent.
The Fridge, which may reopen following further negotiations with city officials, served many of Whittier’s homeless population, including local Alejandro Sanchez. Sanchez, who had only visited the fridge “about three times” before Sunday’s closure, praised the pantry.
“I can tell you whoever came up with this idea is going straight to Heaven,” said Sanchez. He also voiced compliments to the heartiness of the food: “I take three cans a day. It fills me up,” said Sanchez.
The Whittier Community Fridge also made a Change.org petition to keep the Fridge open that received almost 4000 signatures within the last week. Many community members voiced their support for the fridge.
Ariana Viramontes, a Whittier local, commented on the petition: “I will ardently support any free service offering aid to people experiencing food insecurity, especially during a pandemic. The community fridge represents the essence of what a community should be — people supporting others not because they have to, but because it’s the kind and right thing to do.”
Comments on the Change.org petition voiced anger with the City’s notices to shut down the Fridge. Rolando Cano, for example, wrote: “This matters [n]ow [m]ore [t]han [e]ver! If the City isn’t in [c]harge of this community effort to help, then it needs to get out of the way instead of creating obstacles.” Likewise, Nick G. commented: “There is an enormous homelessness issue in the City that everyone is extremely aware of. The [City is not] doing anything to help these individuals, so don’t punish civilians for trying to do what the City is incapable of.”
Some community members voiced anger with the Whittier Police Department as well. Michael Trujillo commented on the petition page: “The Whittier PD will [always] help the rich and if they can’t find a way to keep this fridge on the corner for the community, then there is not a single good cop in Whittier.”
According to community members, much of the conflict regarding the Fridge seems to connect to a larger issue of economic division in Whittier. The Friday protest outside of City Hall in support of WCF voiced similar sentiments, which decorated the Hall’s exterior with chalk messages of WCF’s impact, printouts of all the signatures on the Change.org petition, and more messages of anger.
From some community members’ perspectives, WCF was shut down due to insufficient or untrue charges, as notified by the Whittier police. Signs present at the protest, though overwhelmingly supportive of the Fridge, did gather a minority of angry messages. One sign read “Who shuts down free food? David Ball does,” and another said, “Your b—t shelter doesn’t resolve the hunger of our poor.” Most dramatic was the taped-up statue outside the police department, which had the words “Pigs hate the poor!” written on the silver duct tape, although this may have been done by other groups prior to the protest.
Whittier City Senior Planner Luis Escobedo did not respond to the Quaker Campus’ request for comment on the matter while Director of Community Development Jeff Adams referred our paper to the City Manager’s Office. Whittier City Manager Brian Saeki did not respond to the Quaker Campus’s request for comment.
According to Escobedo, Adams, and Ball’s meeting with WCF regarding their notice of closure, they seem to support the notion that WCF violated Whittier Municipal Code. Such violations included not operating within an enclosed building, despite prior permittance of this, and having substandard property conditions for operation.
Code Enforcement Supervisor David Ball told the Quaker Campus that the direction to shut down the Fridge came directly from the Office of Community Development. “The City and Health Dept. had received complaints and concerns regarding the outdoor food pantry,” said Ball. “Outdoor Food storage has certain requirements by the Health Dept. that are not being met with the operation being outdoors.”
WCF representatives argued against these health violation claims, however. “[W]e had volunteers every day since we started to ensure cleanliness. They came every two to three hours and would wipe everything down (pantry + fridge), throw away expired or rotting items, [and] take out trash. We offered gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks for the public. We also had these provided separately for the volunteers. We also, again, had volunteers check [that] nothing was opened; if so, we tossed it.”
There were also health guidelines in place for the food. “We made sure everything was sealed, produce was individually wrapped, [and] home cooked meals were … dated, [with] ingredients labeled,” said WCF. The Fridge also stopped offering home cooked meals three weeks prior to the closure date.
Though the Fridge may have indeed violated health requirements, without access to the Fridge — or limited access to it, if moved indoors during the pandemic — many people may lose a viable food source However, there are still some local community fridges through Whittier that are currently approved by the City.
If you or someone you know is struggling with food insecurity, there are a few community resources like St. Matthias Soup Kitchen, St. Mary of the Assumption Food Bank, and, for more general needs throughout LA County, the Food Assistance Program.
Featured Image: Annalisse Galaviz / Quaker Campus