By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
EAST DEUTSCHTOWN — In the spring of last year, The Garden Café owner Gayle McGarril got the idea to add a free community fridge to the exterior of her business.
Inspired by examples of the concept in other areas, the fridge would be a source of free food for anyone in the neighborhood who would need it. After a successful fundraising campaign — and a very helpful donation from a local church — the fridge was set up in June of 2022.
Now, close to a year later, the outdoor fridge has proven to be so popular, McGarril has trouble meeting the great demand.
“It is highly trafficked,” she said. “In fact, our biggest challenge with the fridge is that it is almost impossible to keep it stocked.”
The fridge, which is located on the back patio of the café, carries a variety of food items. McGarril said she likes to stock it with easy-to-make items, such as microwaveable meals or salad kits, but she also tries to balance things out with general ingredients like milk or even eggs donated by a local person who has chickens.
In addition, she’s stocked the pantry next to the fridge with some non-food items, mainly personal hygiene products like deodorant, shampoo or diapers. Much like the food, McGarril said “that all goes really fast too.”
Part of why the fridge has proven so popular, Mc-Garril suspects, is also one of the greatest challenges in keeping the fridge stocked. Namely, the currently high price of groceries.
“Food prices are insane,” she said, “and even when we get donations, it’s really hard to make the most of that.”
McGarril, while speaking to The Chronicle, said a recent customer had donated $20 toward the fridge. While certainly appreciated, McGarril said such an amount “hardly goes anywhere” at grocery stores these days, with many food items priced at $5 or higher.
However, she stretches each donation as much as she can. In fact, McGarril is hoping to find additional ways to funnel donations toward the fridge.
“I’m always looking to partner with different local organizations to take some food they might otherwise waste off their hands,” she said. She mentioned businesses that do catering as an example of the kind of community partners she’s looking to get in contact with.
Donations, in many ways, are the heart of The Garden Café’s community fridge. It was, after all, only thanks to donations that it was made possible in the first place.
The fridge itself was donated to the café by St. Michael and All Angels Lutheran Church. McGarril said the church’s food pantry had an extra fridge, allowing them to donate it.
McGarril had launched a GoFundMe with the original goal of purchasing a fridge. With that expense taken care of by the donation, she was able to use the money to build a small shelter to keep the fridge covered against the elements, as well as to install an outlet to keep it powered. There was even enough money left over to hire Pittsburgh artist Jordan Monahan to paint the shelter.
All of those efforts were in service to a community feature which has remained popular since its inception. Even after a year, the fridge sees frequent use. McGarril told The Chronicle on April 7 that she had stocked the fridge with some items that could be used for Easter dinners, as the holiday was still upcoming at that point.
“I had just put it in there, I had just gotten back into my car,” she said. “There were already people back there taking stuff. It really is hard to keep it stocked.”
McGarril said she occasionally has people stop into the café and mention how much the fridge had helped them during their time of need.
The Garden Café is always accepting donations to keep the fridge operating and stocked. The GoFundMe page which was initially launched to purchase the fridge now serves as an ongoing fundraiser site to facilitate the purchase of more food. The page can be found at gofundme. com/f/community-fridge-at-the-garden.
In addition, Garden Café staff accept cash donations at the store itself, and McGarril said anyone wanting to get more information or to inquire about supporting the fridge can speak with her or the staff members while the café is open.
Finally, anyone can drop off food at the fridge 24/7, as it remains always open to the public. The Garden Café is located at 1022 Chestnut St. The cafe’s website — gardencafepgh. com — also has instructions on what kinds of food are accepted under the Community Fridge tab.