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Restaurant owner reducing food insecurity by providing community fridges

Fill the Fridge will install 20 refrigerators at departments of recreation in D.C. within 14 days, and pay local restaurants to fill them with meals daily.

WASHINGTON — Food insecurity in D.C. has skyrocketed in the last few months. With job insecurity on the rise, a lapse in federal unemployment benefits and people stuck at home, more people are unsure of where their next meal will come from. Not to mention, getting food to those who need it requires more creativity and resources than ever before.

Mark Bucher is the owner of Medium Rare, a D.C.-based restaurant known for its steak and fries – and he thinks he has a solution.

Bucher is launching a program called Fill the Fridge, which will put community refrigerators throughout the DMV and pay local restaurants to fill them with meals every day.

“We’re going to install a refrigerator,"  Bucher said. "We’re going to fill it every day with 100 lunches that are nutritious, that are better quality than they’re getting through public nutrition [or] public assistance programs." 

The program will target community spaces like public schools, departments of recreation, firehouses and public libraries, Bucher said. It will begin in D.C. and expand to surrounding counties including Prince George’s, Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery Counties.

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Restaurant-prepared meals are not only better tasting, according to Bucher, but also arrive ready to eat, which is vital for people who don’t have the utilities to cook.

An added benefit is that this program helps support local restaurants, many of which are facing financial hardships as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re going to continue to identify community restaurants within a certain radius of each one of these refrigerators,” Bucher said. “We literally walk in their door, we call them and say, we want you to make these lunches 100 a day, and we’re going to pay you per each lunch. You have to deliver them to the refrigerator each day by 10:30.”

The pandemic is forcing restaurants to adapt to a new reality, according to Bucher. He believes Fill the Fridge will help restaurants make this transition 

“I believe the restaurant business has changed permanently,” he said. “We can’t just open for lunch or dinner anymore. You’re going to need to become a contract food supplier or caterer … School lunch programs moving forward are going to need to buy from restaurants to keep communities alive.”

And local companies have stepped up to show their support. The Washington Nationals and other local companies have lent the program their refrigerators, Bucher says, while airports, sports arenas and concert venues are experiencing lower attendance.

Bucher’s idea to connect people experiencing food insecurity with restaurants in need of customers started taking shape last spring, when older adults were asked to stay home to protect themselves from the virus. With his own elderly father in mind, he decided to take action.

“I just put a tweet out,” Bucher said. “I said anyone who knows of anyone over the age of 70, who’s home alone that needs a hot meal, let Medium Rare know, and we will deliver them a steak dinner for free… And the requests started coming in.”

With the help of volunteer drivers, Medium Rare began delivering meals to older adults in the D.C. area. Then, they started getting phone calls from public schools.

“I said, you know, I want to do this for elementary school kids,” Bucher said.

The first 20 refrigerators will be placed at departments of recreation in D.C. within the next 14 days and the next 20 will go to Montgomery County Public Schools that have identified they have a critical need, Bucher said.

The fridges will have nut-free, dairy-free meals, as well as vegetarian offerings a couple of times each week.

And this first wave of community fridges could be only the beginning.

“Say school goes back in session in January,” Bucher said. “The need for this doesn’t stop. There’s still a school lunch program problem in this country. And this is going to be the beginning of fixing it.”

Fill the Fridge is welcoming donations through their GoFundMe page.

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