Chicago’s solar-powered community fridge puts down sustainable roots in Englewood

Love Fridge currently has 26 fridges sprinkled across Chicago that offer free and fresh food. The Englewood location at 6344 S. Morgan St. is the first to be “off-grid” and powered exclusively by nearby solar panels.

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Risa and Eric Von Haynes started the Love Fridge back in 2020 to help people during the pandemic. The mutual aid organization’s motto is “Take what you need, leave what you can.”

Risa and Eric Von Haynes started the Love Fridge back in 2020 to help people during the pandemic. The mutual aid organization’s motto is “Take what you need, leave what you can.”

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

Eric and Risa Von Haynes have quite the haul to unload at the Englewood Love Fridge.

On a recent afternoon, the Hayneses carry their usual pickups from food pantries and the Chicagoland Food Sovereignty Coalition to the refrigerator. 

The South Side community fridge sits inside a colorfully painted wooden structure that has the words “Free Food” in painted pink wooden letters on the front.

As the Von Hayneses stock the fridge, familiar faces walk up, greet them and take their pick of the bounty. “Take what you need, leave what you can,” is the organization’s motto, and visitors follow suit.

The Englewood Love Fridge is stocked with bags of green grapes, an assortment of breads, jugs of milk, carrots, apples, eggs, bacon and more.

The Englewood Love Fridge is stocked with bags of green grapes, an assortment of breads, jugs of milk, carrots, apples, eggs, bacon and more.

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

There are currently 26 fridges scattered around Chicago that are able to be accessed 24/7, but this one in Englewood, at 6344 S. Morgan St., is special. 

It’s the first to be “off-grid” — powered by solar panels that have a “robust” power bank, Eric Von Haynes says, making it not only sustainable, but more autonomous.

According to Eric Von Haynes, this is not only Chicago’s first solar-powered community fridge, but also the first in the Midwest. The only other one he knows of is in Los Angeles.

The duo, who call themselves the “spokes” in the Love Fridge wheel, started the mutual aid group in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, to share free, fresh food during a time of increased food insecurity.

The Englewood Love Fridge is on land managed by Getting Grown Collective, an Englewood nonprofit focused on aiding food access through agricultural skills. The nonprofit also maintains Libations to the Ancestors Garden — used to teach collective members how to grow medicinal herbs and native plants — at the site.

The fridges are refilled by the Von Hayneses and other volunteers multiple times a week. Some sites, like the one in Pilsen, are often emptied just 20 minutes after they are stocked.

But it’s not difficult to keep the fridges stocked, the pair says — the pantries, stores and restaurants that supply them often have food to spare. There is a need, though, for more volunteers to distribute food to the fridges.

“We’re just trying to get those resources out there,” he said. “It’s kind of ridiculous, there’s so much waste. If people just take like an hour a week, you can help get some resources out here.”

Most of the time, the standalone fridges run without an issue. But the original Englewood fridge lost power, which made it the perfect candidate for a solar power installation done by Keyante Aytch, who owns Sunbend Solar, a company that installs residential solar energy systems. 

Over a year ago, Aytch came across the fridge one day by chance and snagged a meal when he was hungry. 

“That just blew my mind. I was feeling so much gratitude,” Aytch said. “The amount of joy that one free meal gave me, I can’t imagine how this resource would continue to impact so many people just by providing one free meal.”

One day, Aytch spotted someone stocking the fridge and asked to get involved. He ended up meeting Eric Von Haynes, who mentioned the Love Fridge group wanted to try starting solar installations for the fridges. 

Fast forward to now, and Aytch has completed the first solar installation, which cost $16,000. The panels are inside a structure next to the garden and have enough energy at all times to power the fridge for days, even without access to the sun. 

The Libations to the Ancestors Garden next to the Englewood Love Fridge is also managed by Getting Grown Collective. Attached to the garden is the structure that houses the solar panels that power the Love Fridge at 6344 S. Morgan St.

The Libations to the Ancestors Garden next to the Englewood Love Fridge is also managed by Getting Grown Collective. Attached to the garden is the structure that houses the solar panels that power the Love Fridge at 6344 S. Morgan St.

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

A common misconception about solar panels is that sun is needed to power them. In reality, only light is needed, meaning that the panels are only not creating energy at night and when the panels are physically covered by something like snow.

However, during these times, the fridge is powered by the robust power bank provided by the panels. According to Eric Von Haynes, just an hour a day of light can power the fridge for days, so the fridge does not lose power at night.  

Funded by grants, Getting Grown Collective and Love Fridge itself, the solar installation allows the fridges to be placed in more accessible locations. 

Currently, the rest of the fridges are connected to people’s homes or businesses. The hosts are reimbursed by Love Fridge for the electricity used by the fridges, but finding people willing to oversee the fridge can be difficult, Eric Von Haynes says. 

Using solar panels could solve that problem.

“It just gives us an opportunity to put these in some spaces that we believe that could be useful,” he said. 

The Von Hayneses are adamant that the fridge is for everyone, no matter their status.

“Part of this is destigmatizing who needs and doesn’t need food,” Risa Von Haynes says as her partner pockets a snack for later. “We all need food.”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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