By Ian Aldrich
May 13 2022
The actual fridge where donated meals are kept (a reclaimed Snapple cooler).
For “Feeding the Soul” (season 6, episode 7), we’re in Middlebury, Vermont to meet Bethanie Farrell, who is thinking both big and local to address the food insecurity issues that face her state. Bethanie shares her story behind The Giving Fridge, through which she collaborates with area restaurants to assemble and donate hundreds of prepared meals using profits from selling plants, honey, and other local goods. Along the way, we talk to some of the folks whose lives have been impacted by her non-profit. Learn more about The Giving Fridge in this 2021 Yankee feature.
Late last year, as the pandemic still gripped the country and winter loomed, Danielle Boyce, the owner of American Flatbread, a pizza restaurant in the college town of Middlebury, Vermont, specializing in local ingredients, received an unexpected email. The sender was Bethanie Farrell, a recent Southern California transplant to Middlebury who wanted to connect residents who couldn’t afford healthy, nutritious food with area eateries that were struggling to stay afloat. She called it the Giving Fridge.
What caught Boyce’s attention was a plan both simple and audacious. Farrell had set up a Merchants Row space to sell plants and local honey; the building’s owner and manager had agreed to let her use it, pro bono, until a new tenant moved in. Farrell would use the proceeds to buy meals from local restaurants and distribute the food between Christmas and New Year’s for free to those who needed it. Business owners would get a much-needed boost in revenue, while struggling residents would have easy access to salads, spring rolls, freshly made breads, and vegetable-laden entrees.
“It gave us some money at a time when everything felt so uncertain,” says Boyce, who at one point last year saw her business drop by as much as 55 percent. “We all needed whatever help we could find, and this gave us a little bit of revenue. It was awesome.”
But what started as a one-week holiday push to get 250 meals to those in need never stopped. Today, the Giving Fridge has a permanent home in a former downtown diner. Each week, Farrell collaborates with eight area restaurants to assemble and donate nearly 300 prepared dinners and lunches. The recipients are anyone who needs the food—no questions asked. In a state where one in four residents don’t always have enough to eat, the Giving Fridge’s success is as much a tribute to Farrell’s vision as it is a sign of the immediate and deep-seated need she’s trying to address.
“I know finances are a barrier to eating healthy, but it shouldn’t be,” says Farrell. “Because good health requires healthy food. If you’re not healthy, you can’t work. It affects your happiness. It affects whether you have to depend on other people. And that’s not a good place for anyone to be in.”
At the heart of the Giving Fridge is an actual refrigerator. Farrell stumbled across the old appliance last November in the downtown storefront she planned to turn into a painting studio. It had been a long road back to her creative side.
Farrell grew up in Ohio, studied painting in college, and then forged a successful career directing gallery exhibits around the world and heading up her own artist management company. But in 2016, Farrell was crippled with a severe neurodegenerative condition that kept her largely bedridden for the next two years. Her eventual recovery changed not only how she had to live her life but what she wanted from it. Through experimental treatments and a radical change of diet, Farrell regained her health, and as she did, she and her husband, Billy, a photographer and native Vermonter, began talking about leaving their life in Southern California for a new start. Before long, they had bought 27 acres of forest and meadow that hugged the shores of Lake Champlain, which they called Nice Island. Last year the couple moved to Vermont.
The Farrells had planned to build a small farm of their own that could also double as a public space to host workshops on things like pollinators and agroforestry. But the pandemic temporarily shelved construction plans. After Farrell read a recent University of Vermont study that revealed the depths of the state’s food insecurity issues—and with unexpected free time on her hands—she decided to focus on creating something that truly addressed the times.
“[Food insecurity] is not an issue that’s easily visible,” she says. “There’s a woman who comes in here—she and her husband own their home, they have a car, you’d never know they were struggling. But when Covid hit, their income just stopped. She told me, ‘We look like we’re doing OK, and we can’t keep it all together.’ They’re not the only ones. And knowing how so many restaurants were struggling, there seemed to be a way to be able to make a difference.”
That difference is obvious the moment you set foot inside the Giving Fridge’s headquarters. This is not a soup kitchen or a food pantry. It’s a space that evokes a sense of rebirth and healing. In a building that sat vacant for several years, plants crowd the front of the room. Many are hand-me-downs that Farrell nursed back to health. They’re propped up on old apple crates. In the back, the resurrected refrigerator hums, stocked with food.
“The worst part of being so sick was that I couldn’t be of value anymore,” says Farrell. “I had to put so much focus on myself and my health so I wouldn’t be a burden to my husband. It was a kind of torture to not be able to work or help anyone else out, so this has been really great.”
At the moment, Farrell has just finished organizing that day’s donations in different plastic crates. The containers are filled with flatbreads, soups, and spring rolls. In the fridge is a stack of stir-fries to give out, as well as potpies. Farrell is confident the maple cookies will go fast and is cautiously optimistic about the salads with goat cheese. On her desk sits a stack of cards that lists the partner restaurants as well as Farrell’s reminder of what this whole endeavor is all about: “Someone cares about you and wanted you to have these delicious meals,” it reads.
Soon, a mother from Vergennes and her young son stroll inside. “I loved that goat cheese salad,” she says after Farrell explains the offerings. “I liked that other one, but the goat cheese was a surprise. I never would have made it before, but it was great.”
Next comes a ponytailed middle-aged man in a black NASCAR “Dale Jr.” T-shirt. He’s another regular, and he’s picking up for himself and two friends.
“Looks like you got some nice stuff today,” he says, looking over the crates. “I loved that stir-fry, but ooh, that sauce was a little spicy.” His eyes widen. “Hey, are those cookies?”
Others file in. Farrell knows them all. The exchanges aren’t long, but there’s a flow to them. The conversations are relaxed and familiar. There’s talk about dogs and Farrell’s guinea hens. For a few minutes, the man with the ponytail explains how he discovered a bird’s nest while he was cutting firewood. Through her own illness, Farrell is well aware of the feeling of shame that can come with asking for help, so she’s worked as much as she can to eliminate it from these interactions. She wants people to feel good about the food they’re picking up and the sense of community around this project.
Farrell is also thinking beyond what she’s already created. She plans to host workshops on nutrition and cooking. She’s talked with a local hospital about developing a program around dealing with chronic disease. And as she and her husband develop their farm, Farrell sees the Giving Fridge as a natural extension of the public programming they still want to build there.
“I just want to help people’s quality of life,” says Farrell. “I was lucky. We were financially OK, but it was still difficult to get the help I needed and the education to help me understand what I was dealing with. How we often help people is so fractured. We need to be thinking more holistically. I want to help people deal with whatever struggles they might be facing so they can understand their well-being and take control of their health.”
The Giving Fridge is a Vermont Everyone Eats! hub for Addison County. For more information, go to givingfridge.com