The Giving Fridge: Buy a plant, give a meal

By Aidan Wertz

Bethanie Farrell’s original idea for Plantopia was to fill vacant storefronts in Middlebury with plants, but her plans quickly changed once she realized the scope of food insecurity in Vermont. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The Giving Fridge, a plant-filled storefront occupying a once-vacant spot in downtown Middlebury, offers a unique pop-up initiative that allows customers to support local restaurants, combat food insecurity and buy plants — all in one convenient location. 

The project employs a simple yet effective model: it sells plants, honey and other locally made goods to raise money to buy meals from local restaurant partners. Then, the entrees, salads and desserts are offered for free to anyone in need.

Founder Bethanie Farrell kickstarted The Giving Fridge on Dec. 23 with the goal of providing 250 meals between Christmas and the new year. Now, it is on pace to supply 1,000 meals by the end of January. 

The original plan was smaller in scale and was not oriented toward addressing food insecurity. When Farrell moved to Middlebury in November and noticed empty storefronts in the downtown area, she formulated Plantopia, a project that would use plants to decorate the windows of the empty spaces. Then, she read some disturbing news. 

“The statistic had come out that 1 in 4 Vermonters was now experiencing food insecurity,” she said. “It made me think that there has to be a way … to reach people who may not be already receiving assistance.” 

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A major goal of The Giving Fridge is to provide assistance for anyone in need during this challenging time — including those who may be slipping through the cracks of standard programs and relief funding. Farrell has noticed that many of the people who use The Giving Fridge do not fit the stereotypical image of poverty: they are volunteer firefighters, AmeriCorps volunteers, frontline workers and people working multiple jobs.

Arran Stokes, service coordinator at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes, suspects that people may avoid seeking aid because they don’t consider themselves food insecure. 

“Some people think that because there are people worse off than them, they want to make sure that those people get the food,” Stokes said. “I want to tell them: if your refrigerator is empty, this [Giving Fridge] is a good place.”

Even for those who have been relying on aid programs, many of the Covid-19-specific relief funds have been losing steam. For this reason, the launch of The Giving Fridge could not have been more timely. 

One of these aid programs was Vermont Everyone Eats, which was similar to The Giving Fridge but had a wider scope and more funding from the state legislature. The John Graham Shelter was receiving aid from this program until its funding was temporarily suspended in December. 

“As soon as Everyone Eats lost funding, there was this huge deluge of need. Think about everyone that was getting food from the program… it was gone,” Stokes said. “[Farrell] filled this gap. She quickly stepped up and said, ‘This is what I can do.’”

Another major goal of The Giving Fridge has been to support local restaurants and producers hit by the pandemic. Every $10 raised through sales and donations is used to buy a $10 meal from one of several partner restaurants. 

In addition to the weekly meal orders that are gifted to the community, she has started selling prepared meals to those who can afford the retail price, which provides a new revenue stream for restaurants. The Giving Fridge is open on Sundays and Mondays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., a time when many local restaurants are closed. 

Danielle Boyce is the owner of American Flatbread Middlebury, one of the partner restaurants of The Giving Fridge. American Flatbread has been preparing 40 meals each week for The Giving Fridge — from their signature pizzas to soups and desserts. Boyce appreciates how Farrell has managed to create a project that meets so many local needs.

“Bethanie has been great about always remembering that it’s not just about one thing. It’s about the storefront, it’s about the restaurants and, of course, it’s about feeding people,” Boyce said. “The moment she has one of them covered, she is going to the next to make sure that it stays in the narrative.”

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Other restaurant partners include The Arcadian, the Middlebury Co-op, Sabai Sabai, Two Brothers Tavern and Park Squeeze. Farrell has also established partnerships with farms in the area, including Ridgeline Apiaries and Scuttleship Farm, as well as with some bakeries.

In just a month, The Giving Fridge has been able to put $8,000 back into local businesses. 

Due to the nature of The Giving Fridge, Farrell faces some challenges with long-term partnerships and planning. 

“A little bit [of funding] comes in every day, so generally I can plan a week out. It would be amazing if I could plan a month out,” Farrell said. “As long as donations keep coming in, The Giving Fridge will continue. Even if someone buys just one meal, it makes all the difference.”

Farrell is also only using the storefront while it is in between tenants. Her next step for the project is to find a donor or a grant that will allow her to continue to use the space for the next four to five months while pandemic restrictions remain in place.

“The way it has come together has been really organic,” Farrell said. “I’m just hoping that it will continue to grow and meet the needs of the community.”

If you would like to buy a plant, donate to The Giving Fridge or reserve a meal for yourself or another, visit www.careofvt.com and follow @TheGivingFridgeVT on Instagram.