Patsy Miller, left, and Maureen Davis stock the free community refrigerator Saturday outside the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce at 23 Commercial St. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — As Maureen Davis was listening weeks ago to National Public Radio, she learned about community refrigerators that had been set up in New York City to help those who are food insecure.

Davis reached out to Patsy Miller, a friend and member of her book club. The women and other members of the club have replenished two blessing boxes for months. After hearing the story on NPR, Davis pitched the idea of starting a community refrigerator.

Currently, the blessing boxes stand at the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce at 23 Commercial St. and Centenary United Methodist Church at 113 Dr. Mann Road, also in Skowhegan. The boxes allow the community to offer and receive food assistance anonymously.

“I called Patsy and told her about (community refrigerators),” Davis said. “I think we can do it. I have a refrigerator that I’d donate.”

From there, Davis said Miller sent a message to the other book club members to see if they supported the idea and were willing to help replenish the refrigerator.

Davis and Miller then contacted the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce, which agreed to house the refrigerator on its property and bring the idea to the town’s Board of Selectmen.

Beginning Saturday, the refrigerator has sat at the chamber of commerce office, with the approval and support of the Board of Selectmen. The board OK’d the project — for a month — at its Jan. 12 meeting. As part of the agreement, Davis and Miller are responsible for maintaining the property.

“We’re hoping that the community will get involved and bring things,” Davis said.

Some members of the Board of Selectmen said they had reservations about allowing a community refrigerator, but eventually agreed to it after stipulating the matter would be reviewed in a month to confirm it is being maintained.

Maureen Davis is reflected in the window to a blessing box as she helps stock the free community refrigerator Saturday outside the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce at 23 Commercial St. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It’s been done in other places. It’s a good way for people to take things that they’re not using and have it there for other people to be able to go and get, just like the blessing boxes,” Selectwoman Betty Austin said at the Jan. 12 meeting. “It’s a good way to help others, and that’s what these ladies want to do. They’re willing to make sure that the refrigerator stays clean and things are kept up. It will look good.”

Paul York, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said he liked the idea, but was hesitant to approve it without conditions because of possible problems, such as food tampering and issues with the location. Selectman Todd Smith shared similar concerns. After a discussion, Austin adjusted her motion to reflect that it would be revisited in a month.

“I am happy to add the motion to revisit,” Austin said. “I don’t have the same concerns because the blessing boxes have worked well.”

The amended motion passed 4-1.

“Freeges,” short for “free food refrigerators,” sprang up throughout New York last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic fueled a rise in food insecurity and hunger, according to the NPR report. Community refrigerators have since spread throughout the country.

Patsy Miller stocks the free community refrigerator Saturday outside the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce at 23 Commercial St. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

In Maine, one in eight adults and one in five children experience food insecurity, meaning they are unable to get enough healthy food on a daily basis, according to a report from Maine Equal Justice. In September 2020, the Portland Press Herald reported that before the pandemic, the state already had an elevated level of hunger in comparison to the rest of the nation.

In the days before the community refrigerator was set up and stocked in Skowhegan, several businesses stepped up to assist, including Hammond Lumber Co., which donated wood for the box around the appliance, and Quinn Hardware, which donated an extension cord.

“When things are feeling down, you can always do something nice,” Miller said. “For me, it was taking food down to the blessing cabinet. People should not go hungry.”

Miller said she planned to help restock the community refrigerator Saturday with meat and frozen vegetables. She and Davis have contacted local businesses to make them aware of the “freege” and encourage them to drop off any donations, including unwanted or unused food.

Davis said she hoped that as the community learns about the community refrigerator, supporters and users can get creative, such as sharing recipe ideas at the site to match what is inside the “freege” or blessing boxes.

“We should be able to help those who are food insecure,” Miller said. “We’re excited about it. It’s such a good time to do something for our community.”

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