‘Free fridge’ movement faces backlash from neighbors, city officials in Oregon

Amy Crevola started giving away items to less-fortunate neighbors nearly two years ago, but recently scaled down the offerings outside her northwest Corvallis home after officials warned she was violating city code.

What began as a little free library turned into a big, big controversy in Corvallis.

The Roadside Moon, run by Amy Crevola, started out in fall 2020 as a curbside book giveaway. But as donations of food poured in, the scope expanded, along with the problems. After neighbors complained about trash and traffic, Corvallis city officials cracked down and said the operation needed to be scaled back.

Such “free fridges” are installed by well-meaning residents and institutions hoping to combat food insecurity. But some experts worry that homemade pantries are skirting food safety regulations.

Crevola recently reduced her pantry’s size from a large assortment of goods on several tables in her driveway carport to a much smaller cabinet and clothes rack out by the curb, following an agreement with the city to postpone further enforcement actions.

Scott Kerman, executive director of Portland nonprofit Blanchet House, which provides food and shelter to unhoused people, warns that free fridge operators can’t guarantee donated food is safe to consume.

“How do you know whether that food has been kept at a proper temperature?” he asked. “Who’s cleaning trash or food that’s discarded on the ground or in the area?”

Free fridges also have their defenders, like Virginia-based attorney Erica Smith Ewing, who says that cities’ failures to solve complex problems like food insecurity or homelessness have led residents to step in.

“People have the right to use their property to help those in need, as long as they’re not creating a nuisance,” said Smith Ewing, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm.

The nonprofit has advised both the Roadside Moon and a similar fridge in Washington. Smith Ewing says Corvallis has backed down from its original hardline stance.

“They seem to be much more reasonable now,” Smith Ewing said in a phone interview. “Amy is continuing to be open, and she’s working on a compromise with the city.”

Crevola declined to comment, citing the potential for future litigation.

Corvallis Community Development Director Paul Bilotta likened the Roadside Moon to a nonstop garage sale or a social service organization, which he said wasn’t allowed under existing residential zoning rules.

“People are hearing this story and thinking that the issue is about one of the cute little ‘tiny free pantry’ boxes,” Bilotta said in an email. “But that is not what is occurring here. The Roadside Moon facility is a different scale of operation than a tiny free pantry box.”

There was no sign of crowds or trash during a recent visit by the High School Journalism Institute.

A sign informed visitors of the closure of the carport, but by the sidewalk, an armoire containing feminine care products, bags of rice, protein shakes and other items sat under the shade of a portable canopy.

Supporters note that food insecurity remains a pressing issue in Benton County, with 251 people calling the 211 helpline to request services this June alone, according to Shannon Rose, a community engagement coordinator for the helpline. The problem only compounded after pandemic-era SNAP benefits expired in February, she said.

In Portland, a similar conflict unfolded in the Woodstock neighborhood last June, after a resident’s “Giving Fence” was deemed a code violation by city officials, according to the Portland Mercury. The Board of Health in Clarkston, Washington, deemed a woman’s free fridge unsuitable and threatened her with fines if she didn’t cease operations, Smith Ewing said.

If free fridges present more problems than benefits, Kerman from Blanchet House still argues there are ways people can help their less fortunate neighbors.

“There are a lot of food pantries serving food for people,” he said. “Find ways to support places that are professionalized.”

–Andrew Saylor, Rex Putnam High School

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.