After a summer of lugging 130-pound batteries, calculating surface measurements, and digging a 100-foot-long trench in the old foundation of a house: it was time. Keyante Aytch was ready to hook up a refrigerator.
The refrigerator, located in the Libations to the Ancestors garden in Englewood, had been without power since November. It’s one of more than 20 refrigerators across Chicago that allow community members to provide and access food. But a year after installing it, in November 2020, it lost electricity.
“We knew this site was important,” said Eric Von Haynes, a senior organizer for the Love Fridge Network. “So it became relevant to figure out how to get it back up and running.”
Aytch, president of start-up Sunbend Solar, offered a solution: solar panels.
The big moment came on August 27, the day before the refrigerator and its new electrical equipment were revealed to the community. Aytch knelt behind the turquoise, pink, and orange frame housing the gray refrigerator. He plugged in the device.
And nothing happened.
He remembers thinking that if it was a TV show, a doom “dun, dun, dun” sound would play. Her heart sank.
He quickly realized this. It was a new take and he had to press one of the tiny buttons in the center to start it.
The refrigerator turned on, powered by the solar panels on top of a nearby shipping container.
The Love Fridge was back.
The Englewood Love Refrigerator is located at 6344 S. Morgan St., a few blocks from a Whole Foods. The grocery store is set to close Nov. 13 after opening in 2016, then touted as a way to bring quality food options to the neighborhood.
Englewood has one of Chicago’s highest food insecurity rates, according to data from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Demand for food resources has always been high in the neighborhood, said Taryn Randle, co-founder of Getting Grown Collective, the organization that planted the garden on which the Love Fridge sits. Interventions like high-priced groceries don’t necessarily improve access, they said.
The refrigerator aims to act not as a vendor but as an intermediary between existing resources and community members to dispose of waste. Now, with inflation driving up household costs, the need for accessible, quality food options has never been greater, Haynes said.
“We provide space for people to help each other when there’s a grocery store literally a few blocks away that in many ways isn’t,” Haynes said.
The fridge started in 2020, powered by an extension cord hanging from a window in a nearby house, Aytch said. Getting Grown Collective would pay homeowners for the electricity used.
After a restock, the fridge could be empty again within an hour, Randle said.
For the collective, the fridge guarantees that food products do not get lost. If an organization had extra meals, they provide a safe place to store them. It also extends the shelf life of their fresh produce, which wilted at the end of the day when placed outside for neighbors to collect. The Love Fridge association also fills the fridge with food collected through several self-help channels.
In November 2021, Randle said they couldn’t pay the electric bill, so they unplugged the fridge. During the winter, people still used the refrigerator for storage, as it was kept cool by Chicago temperatures. But in the spring they had to put up a sign that the fridge was off.
“People were always asking when he was coming back, and we just started telling people we were trying to get a solar panel,” Randle said.
“What?” was the usual response Randle received.
Love Fridge’s long-term vision has always included solar power, Haynes said. The aim is to create sustainable sites that allow communities to fulfill their mission that “food is a right, not a privilege”.
Aytch received his solar power certification in 2020 and launched the company Sunbend Solar in 2021. The Love Fridge project cost about $15,000, Aytch said, and was funded through grants received by Love Fridge and Getting GrownCollective.
Aytch compares the technical aspects of solar operation to a human body. Rooftop panels act like lungs, “inhaling” energy that goes to an inverter, which functions like a brain, determining where and when to send energy. Then the energy goes to a battery bank, comparable to a heart. These batteries power the refrigerator through wires that run through the garden about 18 inches underground.
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Because the system uses batteries to store energy, the refrigerator can run on its own for at least three days if there is no incoming energy. In winter, the main point of maintenance will be to keep the surface of the panels clear of snow. , says Aytch.
Haynes said the Love Fridge Network hopes to expand the use of solar power to other refrigerators to reach people where they are, rather than where there is pre-existing electricity.
“It allows us to work with more community gardens, even to think outside the box where homeless people may be nearby,” he said.
Right now, the network has plenty of food, with two warehouses to store it, Haynes said. But the organization still hopes to expand its pool of volunteers to prevent burnout. Haynes said some volunteers have been working in the network for two years now, devoting significant time to it, which the organization is grateful for.
“But when we talk about sustainability, it also means the ability of humans to do this stuff,” he said. “That’s also part of creating a sustainable network.”
Already in Englewood, the addition of solar panels has increased interest in the operation, Randle said.
“More people are volunteering to clean the refrigerator than before,” they said. “There’s a different appreciation for it now, having gone through it without being there.”