Kenny Chiu (C ’25) co–founded Fridges & Family to combat food insecurity and food waste by implementing mutual aid fridges around Philadelphia. The non–profit is true to its slogan’s promise. Their fridges operate on a no–questions–asked basis, refilling daily to feed hundreds of residents from diverse backgrounds across the city. Fridges & Family is community work, not charity work. The distinction is important to those engaged in mutual aid work where intentions are rooted in real, interpersonal relationships to meet community needs. Mutual aid attempts to remove the complicated power imbalance rooted in traditional philanthropy and charity work.
In 2021, Chiu was restless, tangled in the uncertainties of the pandemic, and motivated to help those without access to consistent, nutritious food. Chiu and his friends began cooking hot meals out of his kitchen and distributing them to unhoused Philadelphians alongside packages of basic utilities like toothbrushes. The young band of friends followed their ritual every two weeks until it became unsustainable long–term. Chiu sent a call out on Twitter for funds to sustain their homegrown operation.
That’s when the feeds of Twitter and the universe align–kismet struck. Another impassioned then–Philadelphia resident, Justin Battle, saw Chiu’s work, reached out via Twitter, expressing his admiration. The best part was that he wanted to help.
Collaborating with Battle meant building a community separate from the logistics and barriers preventing Philadelphians from receiving the nourishment they need. Fridges & Family was born: a resource by the people, for the people.
Perhaps you've heard your parents say there’s no such thing as a “free lunch?” At Fridges & Family there is such a thing as “free lunch,” and Chiu wants to be able to provide it by simultaneously combating food waste. The community fridges partner with local grocery stores, bakeries, and other food industries, rescuing food from unnecessarily going to waste. Food waste is not a novel issue–a mobile app even implements systems for people to buy perfectly–good unsold food at discounted prices. Chiu and Battle’s partnerships have launched Fridges & Family’s organization into a full–fledged sustainable operation, and its impact is incomparable.
When asked to recount a favorite memory, Chiu recalls a day when he and his friends were stocking one of the fridges and someone asked, “How much can I buy? How much does [the food] cost?” Chiu responded, “It’s free!” It's such a simple notion, yet so impactful for Philadelphians experiencing food insecurity at a rate almost 75% greater than the general United States population. The pandemic only exacerbated the plight.
Chiu makes it clear that the work has never been solely about himself, nor has he felt a sense of sole ownership over the non–profit. Mutual aid is inherently community–based, sustained on solidarity. The locations of the fridges themselves indicate Chiu and Battle's dedication to the communities that shaped them, bringing the fridges to life with dynamic collaboration. The original location is partnered with The People’s Kitchen, residing at 1149 S. Ninth Street, just minutes from Chiu’s childhood home. Two other fridges found homes at 7044 Woodland Ave and at the 1940 Dorm at Temple University. The fourth fridge is in Battle's New Jersey hometown at 587 Springdale Ave, E.O.
Chiu’s operations have extended far beyond what he ever could’ve dreamed of in his childhood bedroom. As the son of immigrants, he “feel[s] a lot more like a Philadelphian than like an American.” Chiu successfully weaves the soul of the city into the Fridges & Family community, centering real people first, and prioritizing longevity.
People are what make a place whole, and Chiu shares why it's important to him to conscientiously contemplate fridge locations.
“I love [the fridge on S. Ninth St.] so much is because there are so many immigrants and undocumented folks here. Many can’t get food stamps or can’t cash support from the government if they're undocumented. Others have language barriers too. I don’t even think that I could fill out the food stamps for right now. It’s hard to get these social benefits. It’s awesome to see people having a resource, even if it won’t solve all their problems. But hey, if we can cover half your week’s grocery bills, that’s awesome,” Chiu says.
Transcending language barriers and bureaucracy, Fridges & Family flourishes on an incredible word–of–mouth network, continually expanding the population they serve.
At some point or another, you may have seen dozens of students dotting Penn’s campus in brown hoodies, trucker hats, and splashy screen–printed shirts, all emblazoned with the same Fridges & Family logo and slogan. Since coming to Penn, Chiu is unable to visit the fridges as often as he’d like to assess and restock. Now left to delegate tasks to others, he instead finds new ways to bring the non–profit's camaraderie to campus.
Last summer, Chiu and a Philadelphia–based artist, Brice Armond Patterson, collaborate to build a visual story through logo designs for merchandise, to be sold for fundraising. Later, Nick Shellenberger of Camden Printworks, a Fridges & Family volunteer with a career in screen printing, offers to collaborate with Chiu to turn his designs into a reality.
Chiu successfully fosters a network of Fridges & Family supporters at Penn via word–of–mouth and social media. He promotes the merch through photoshoots stamped with his signature flair for comedy and eccentricity. His most recent, wildly–successful drop of trucker hats, shirts, and tote bags has already made a splash on Locust Walk. Peers and sometimes even strangers can be found donning a hat or sweatshirt promoting Fridges & Family on any given day.
Chiu is serious about the work he does but doesn’t take himself too seriously. His casual nature of self–assured authenticity radiates through his dedication to the people of Philadelphia—a community he considers to be one big extended family. At heart, Chiu is a sports fanatic and lover of all things Philadelphia. He loves the city as though it birthed him itself.
He has long–term plans to reside in the city and to sustain Fridges & Family. But he also understands the root causes of issues like food insecurity as shortcomings of public policy. Chiu insightfully acknowledges, “I'm glad to be doing [Fridges & Family], but it’s not [our] responsibility, we have jobs, and we have school. It’s really the government’s responsibility to take care of us.” He aspires for Philadelphia public office, and possibly beyond, committing to tackle root stressors of Philly’s public school system, food insecurity, and gentrification among other exacerbators of inequality.
Ultimately, it's the resilience and solidarity of real people—real Philadelphians—that keeps Fridges & Family alive. The next time you see someone on campus wearing a Fridges & Family shirt or hat, remember that you too can effect change by donating, helping with fridge stocks, buying a shirt, or even just spreading the word. In the meantime, Fridges & Family will continue to keep it fresh in Philadelphia, fighting food insecurity one fridge at a time.