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Red tape threatens free ‘community fridge’ on Salt Lake City’s west side

“Guerrilla” food access projects should serve as clues to officials that people are struggling, an advocate said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Community Fridge in Rose Park is shown heavily stocked with fresh produce, baked goods, dog food and canned goods on Nov. 23. The wooden structure had to be removed, and the fridge was moved into a carport, after warnings from the city.

On a chilly November day around dinnertime, the Salt Lake Community Fridge in Rose Park was full of food.

Situated next to a sidewalk, the free fridge, or “freedge,” was stuffed with tofu, yogurt, cheese, butter, veggies, soy milk and other staples. Wooden shelves built around it were filled with cans of soup, mandarin oranges, tuna and sardines, as well as other nonperishables like bags of flour and pasta. A bouquet of fresh rosemary was hung up, ready for sprigs to be snipped off.

The small wooden structure, about the size of a phone booth, was painted with pink, blue and purple swirls. Magnets on the fridge’s red door listed numbers for mental health crisis hotlines. A zip-close bag of dry dog food was placed on top.

But as of Monday, the wooden pantry built around the fridge, located at 1151 N. 1500 West, was gone, along with the food that filled its shelves. The fridge was moved to the top of a nearby driveway, inside a carport.

A flyer on the fridge says it’s meant to promote equal access to healthy food, strengthen neighborhood connection, reduce food waste and address food insecurity. But for all the community spirit the “freedge” seems to foster, officials say it’s garnered complaints too.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Community Fridge in Rose Park is shown heavily stocked with fresh produce, baked goods, dog food and canned goods on Nov. 23. The wooden structure had to be removed, and the fridge was moved into a carport, after warnings from the city.

Code complaints

The fridge is maintained by Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid and sits in the driveway of Sarah Gronlund, a teacher who offered up her front yard for the effort.

Gronlund isn’t a member of the group, which established the fridge about six weeks ago. But Salt Lake City officials have since warned her that its installation violated city code. She has received two notices on her front door, as well as a letter.

The warnings stemmed from complaints submitted by the public, officials said. They told her she had until Dec. 1 to either bring the structure into compliance or remove it — or face daily fines.

The first notice appeared Oct. 20, sent from the Department of Community and Neighborhoods’ civil enforcement office. That notice referenced city ordinance 21A.40.140, which states that items including appliances can’t be stored on any premises that aren’t licensed for such use.

The notice also said that the wooden structure around the fridge was considered a form of outdoor storage, which isn’t permitted in front yards. When Gronlund inquired whether a side yard or carport would suffice for the structure, an enforcement officer said no.

The second notice was put on her door Oct. 22 by the Environmental Health Division. The flyer included a name and contact information but no indication of which rule had been violated.

Gronlund also received a letter from the city on Oct. 21 that reiterated apparent code violations and included a note that said the since-removed wooden pantry could remain through Thanksgiving Day because it served a charitable purpose — if the city didn’t receive any other complaints.

What neighbors think

It’s unclear who submitted complaints to the city about the fridge, or what those complaints stated. But before the fridge and pantry ever appeared next to the sidewalk, Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid says it sought feedback from residents.

The group hosted a meet-and-greet event in Gronlund’s front yard, inviting people to ask questions and share concerns. Members also met individually with Gronlund’s adjacent neighbors and posted flyers about the fridge written in English and Spanish.

“We got unilateral support. ... Everyone that they talked to on this street was in support [of the fridge] and excited to have it,” Gronlund said.

When a Salt Lake Tribune reporter spoke with one of Gronlund’s neighbors about the fridge just before Thanksgiving, she said she didn’t mind it, but she thought the wooden pantry around it was an “eyesore.”

A member of Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid told The Salt Lake Tribune that she has only heard positive feedback about the fridge. She has seen people come and take a week’s worth of groceries, as well as a man who took a bottle of corn syrup so his wife could make pecan pie for Thanksgiving.

“People were talking about how great the neighborhood is, and how great the community is,” she said. “I’ve really just felt a sense of the neighborhood and the community really coming together and appreciating each other and taking care of each other.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Community Fridge in Rose Park is shown heavily stocked with fresh produce, baked goods, dog food and canned goods on Nov. 23. The wooden structure had to be removed, and the fridge was moved into a carport, after warnings from the city.

Tentative solution

The red tape around the “freedge” appears to have come down for now. After civil enforcement officers met with Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid last week — and raised concerns about a black extension cord running from the fridge to Gronlund’s home, which they said violated electrical code — they ultimately granted a request that the fridge be moved into Gronlund’s carport.

The since-removed wooden structure that once housed it, which was painted by local artist Margot Apricot, is being stored in a backyard.

“In this case, we’re confident there’s an easy and agreeable solution, and that we will be able to work toward a compromise with the homeowner that includes simply moving the fridge and perishable items into the carport,” said a city spokesperson in a statement last week.

But the situation isn’t easy or agreeable to Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid.

“We saw a need in our community and decided to meet it, and we feel that we are getting mired down by vague code interpretations that may not apply to this circumstance,” the group said in a statement.

‘A community-supported effort’

Across town near Liberty Park, two people who run a community food pantry (without a fridge) said they haven’t received an official complaint since opening three years ago.

Nicole Vallieres and Brandon Evans said they are careful to keep the SLC Liberty Pantry as safe and clean as possible, even though they have had people donate some strange objects (including a computer keyboard) and messy food items (like ketchup packets that typically get stepped on).

Evans said he hasn’t heard any unofficial negative response either. Most people say they think the food pantry is a great idea, he said, and some even knock on their door to thank them.

Located on 500 East across from the park’s tennis center, the red and white pantry is smaller than the Salt Lake Community Fridge was when it was housed in the wooden structure — more like the size of a Little Free Library. But it also includes a “Little Free Herbary,” a planter box filled with growing herbs, and a basket attached to the side of the pantry for fresh garden produce.

A spokesperson for Salt Lake City clarified that lending libraries don’t violate city code because they’re small enough to be on posts.

Evans said he believes the SLC Liberty Pantry has been successful in part because of the involvement of local establishments. Teachers with the school at St. John’s Lutheran Church, located on the same street, will bring schoolchildren to the pantry to make donations, Evans said. And they receive donations from local businesses and the Wasatch Cooperative Market.

Vallieres and Evans were also careful to do their homework before opening the pantry. They reached out to police as well as then-city councilwoman Erin Mendenhall to find out if there were any laws against it. They were told that Utah’s “Good Samaritan” laws would cover them legally, and beyond that they just had to determine their comfort level with strangers coming and going.

“This is absolutely a community-supported effort,” Vallieres said. “We have donated the space, but our community and our neighbors are the ones who keep it going and keep it successful.”

‘Guerrilla’ solutions

More and more Utahns are struggling to get food, said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. She said fixtures like the Salt Lake Community Fridge and the SLC Liberty Pantry can be more accessible to people, even if their approach is somewhat “unusual.”

Traditional food pantries that are open during the workday or for a few hours during the weekend don’t meet everyone’s needs, she said. Some people may be able to get to community fridges and pantries more easily since they’re often open 24 hours a day. And individuals who lack transportation can often walk to them, said a member of Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid.

Vallieres and Evans said they’re often surprised by the number of new people they see become regular visitors to the SLC Liberty Pantry.

Salt Lake Community Mutual Aid had to stop the grocery delivery program it started in spring 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic due to funding restrictions, a member said, but the group was still hearing about food insecurity in the community. The fridge is a way to help fill that need on a smaller scale, she said.

In the past month, Cornia said she has seen a “huge upswing” in people requesting food help. “Guerrilla” food access projects like the Salt Lake Community Fridge should serve as a clue to city officials that people are struggling, she said.

“These are community members who are taking action ... because they see a need in the community and the barriers that prevent people from doing stuff within the rule,” she said. “Maybe the city should examine those instead of hitting somebody with a [city code] violation.”

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