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An Antiquated Law Threatens Fort Worth’s Community Fridges

A 1964 law intended to protect children from getting trapped in refrigerators could mean the end of this essential feeding program

community fridge featuring a hand-painted mural of a girl with black hair and blue hoop earrings holding a bowl of fruit
Funky Town Fridge’s community fridge
Funky Town Fridge/Facebook

Funky Town Fridge, the collective behind a trio of community-accessible refrigerators first established in Fort Worth last September, is in danger of being shut down by the city.

According to Funky Town Fridge founder Kendra Richardson, the city set its sights on the community feeding program with plans to shut the fridges down in January if she didn’t make major modifications to the way that the fridges operate. At issue is an obscure, archaic law, passed in 1964, that is meant to prevent children from becoming stuck in airtight appliances, like refrigerators, she was told.

Right now, the fridges operate under a “take what you need, leave what you can policy,” where donors can drop off refrigerated foods to be picked up by those who can use them. There are no locks, and the fridges are unmanned, which puts the program at odds with the 1964 law.

According to Richardson, officials at the city’s code compliance office suggested a few options — adding locks, asking volunteers to man the fridge, or replacing them with smaller fridges — that Richardson feels make the project less accessible to both those who donate to it and the people who need it. Instead of making the changes, Richardson is asking the city to make an exception. If that doesn’t happen, the fridges could be shut down by January 17.

After the city of Fort Worth told Richardson to make the modifications, she reached out to other community fridge collectives throughout Texas, including those in Austin, Houston and Dallas, and was told that none of the organizers have heard from their state or local governments about how appliance laws relate to community fridge programs. “Other cities are too big for their governments to care,” Richardson says.

The local Fort Worth code stems from a series of incidents in the 1950s in which a number of American children suffocated after becoming trapped inside old-fashioned fridges, which closed with a locking mechanism similar to a car door handle. A federal consumer safety law, the Refrigerator Safety Act, was passed in 1956, requiring all new fridges to be built with an interior mechanism allowing them to be opened from the inside. This led most major fridge manufacturers to start selling fridges that latched with magnets instead of handles.

Several states passed similar laws. The Texas law, last updated in 1989, does not govern the construction of fridges, but essentially says that airtight appliances like fridges cannot be left unattended outdoors in a way that makes them accessible to children. Fort Worth’s version of the law, passed in 1964, is more specific, stating that the appliance can only be left unattended if it meets certain dimensions — a capacity less than one and one-half cubic feet, and an opening of less than 50 square inches.

Community fridges are not new, but they first started popping up en mass throughout the United States last summer, when food insecurity was rising quickly due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd was leading to more community action. Envisioned as a form of mutual aid, organizers regularly update social media with lists of grocery needs, calls for volunteers, and requests for financial donations.

Unlike food pantries, community fridges are decentralized, and can host perishable items alongside non-perishables. Some of the most popular items are milk, meats and eggs and produce.

Fort Worth’s first community fridge was installed by Richardson in September 2020 at 3144 Bryan Avenue, outside Southside botanical shop Greenhouse 817. The opening was celebrated with a block party. Since then, Funky Town Fridge has added two more community feeding locations, one at 2308 Vaughn, and one at 5705 Wellesley.

Since the December meeting with the city, Richardson has acquired pro bono legal aid to help her in this battle. She’s also been in contact with her representative, District 9 City Councilwoman Ann Zadeh, whom Richardson says attended the first Funky Town Fridge’s opening and even brought donations.

Officially, the refrigerator law was created to protect children, but Richardson said she feels the city is using the archaic law to shut her down instead of using that energy to address bigger issues, like food apartheid. “Nobody is worried about the safety of the children,” she said.

But Richardson also doesn’t want to get into a protracted legal battle with the city. She just wants an exception. “They could have just left me alone,” she said.