Andres Garza helping a man receive free food provided through the FREE Fridge on Wednesday in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

A group of local volunteers seeking to assist with food insecurity issues is searching for a new home for its communal refrigerator, which had initially been located at the McAllen Food Park but was shut down by the city’s Chamber of Commerce Thursday due to safety and sanitary concerns.

It was the sixth day the fridge was up.

Andres Garza, a McAllen native, is the lead organizer of the “RGV Free Fridge Project,” which placed a donated fridge in the food park on Aug. 29. Their mission is to address the food insecurity issues of the region amid the COVID-19 pandemic, compounded with the devastation Hurricane Hanna left in July.

The fridge was open to all kinds of goods that are normally found at home, including vegetables, fruits, eggs and drinks. Homemade dishes and baked goods were also allowed, but were required to be labeled with the used ingredients. Masking tape and markers were available nearby.

The only items not allowed inside were raw meat and alcoholic beverages.

Garza said the project’s motto is: “Take what you need, leave what you can.”

Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said though he thought the concept of the project was creative there were concerns about the health risks of a communal, outdoor refrigerator.

“It’s a cool idea, he is thinking differently and obviously with all the economic stress that people are experiencing because of COVID-19 and food scarcity, they are addressing an important issue,” Ahlenius said. “… (One) thing that is really critical is that even with the donated food, there are protocols and procedures that have to be followed, and safety is the top concern and priority. Making sure that something hasn’t been tampered with, or something having gone past its expiration date is really critical.”

Ahlenius recommended that the volunteer group make an effort to partner with other nonprofits in the region, such as the McAllen Food Bank, the Catholic Family Charities or the Salvation Army.

Andres Garza disinfects the FREE Fridge on Wednesday McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“I think by partnering with those agencies, they can multiply their effect,” he said.

Garza said he was inspired to start the project in the Rio Grande Valley by other communal fridges being installed in cities across the nation, in Los Angeles, New York and Austin. He also said a city health inspector approved of the project Tuesday.

Gloves, masks and sanitizer were also available at the site for anyone either taking food or stocking the fridge to use. However, the concern of the department was that being placed outside under the sun, there was a risk of the fridge being unable to retain the cold temperatures needed to keep food inside from spoiling.

Garza said the chamber initially required a surveillance camera to be installed.

“That is something that is a little bit concerning because a lot of the people that we want to help, the people that this fridge addresses, are the people that are already afraid of going to get that help,” Garza said. “Whether it is because of their immigration status or any other things, a surveillance camera seems kind of counterintuitive to this project and its mission.”

Garza said that for the few days the fridge was up, he has met several people who have taken food from it.

“They are all really thankful and excited that there is an access point for free food, and especially things like really cold water,” he said. “Our region is really hot and water costs money. They are able to get free purified water to keep them hydrated and cool.”

The new location of the fridge has yet to be decided, but Garza plans to place it somewhere in McAllen.

“Everyone deserves free food,” he said. “I personally believe that free food is a human right — and not just free food, but access to food that is healthy, food that is not all industrialized and cheap or GMO. We hope that anyone with the means to buy organic produce, to buy local produce, to cook delicious meals, to share that with those who don’t.”