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County Officials Condemn Public Fridge


A UC Davis student is on a mission to stop food waste by placing a refrigerator in his front yard for neighbors to share leftovers. 

Ernst Oehninger pulled up his garage door to reveal a used soda fridge. A sign read, “Take what you need and leave what you don’t.” 

Oehninger opened the clear door and turned on the light inside the four-foot fridge. He built a giant green box with a corrugated metal roof to house the device.

Currently, the shelves are fairly bare. There is a bag of roasted seaweed, some macaroni, and a couple of cans -- including some pumpkin puree. But, at the height of the fridge’s popularity Oehninger says it was packed.        

“There was one day we were concerned about space because there was so much food in there," he says. "I think the next day everything was gone, and the day after it was full again." 

Around Thanksgiving the shelves were filled with turkey, casseroles, fruits and vegetables. Oehninger tracked the items on an Excel spreadsheet. He says about four items were exchanged daily.

Oehninger is a Phd student from Brazil. He is studying environmental policy and he says he’s passionate about food waste. He bought the fridge after he saw a similar idea explode in Germany. The New York Times reports that there are more than 50 public refrigerators in Berlin.

Jim Swinehart added granola bars one day. He says the fridge helped start conversations in the neighborhood.

“One sees a car drive up and two elderly ladies get out and go over and look to see what’s in the fridge," he says. "It builds community.”

However, in late October Yolo County officials slapped a red condemned notice on the fridge. They cited Oehninger’s effort as “illegal food sharing.” Oehninger kept with it until his landlord stepped in and made him remove the fridge.

April Meneghetti, a health specialist with Yolo County says, “While I understand the intentions it was putting people at risk by putting this food out for anybody to take. You never know what people are going to do, or how they prepare their own food in their own kitchen.”

Oehninger and some of his neighbors were disappointed.

Liesel Swinehart lives a couple doors down. She said the fridge wasn't any different than going to a neighbor’s house or going to a potluck.

But, the county requires a health permit to give away or sell food to the public.

Oehninger doesn’t agree with the law. He’s gathering signatures for a petition he plans to present to Davis city council. He would love to see public fridges expand throughout Davis and beyond.