University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alum TJ Hobbs, like so many in the Fox Valley and beyond, knows what it’s like to live with hunger.
Before becoming a small business owner in Oshkosh, Hobbs as a young adult relied on food banks to help get through some tough times. And while these organizations were a big help, they weren’t always the easiest to access for somebody with a busy work schedule.
“I was going to food banks and it was really hard,” the New Holstein native remembered. “They have limited hours and I was working so much because I needed the money—when I got done with work the food banks were often closed and it was really hard to get what I needed to survive.”
Those first-hand experiences helped set up Hobbs—with the help of husband and fellow UW Oshkosh graduate Bowen Hobbs—to create Hope Fridge, the first community food and hygiene program of its kind in the Fox Valley.
Hope Fridge is probably not far off from what you think. It’s a refrigerator maintained by volunteers to provide food and other goods to anyone who might need it. The first Hope Fridge went up outside a private home in Neenah a little more than a year ago. Two more have opened since, both in Oshkosh.
Each location includes a fridge and a wooden shelter for hygiene items. People are welcome to come and take what they need or donate what they can—after reading a few safety guidelines. The sites are maintained by a team of nearly 20 volunteers and TJ serves as a de facto director. It’s a community-run mutual aid project and requires no paperwork.
Most importantly to some, two of the Hope Fridges are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One of those is outside a home at 160 Curtis Ave., Neenah. The other is in the back parking lot of Wagner Market, 502 N. Main St., Oshkosh. The third location, inside Bowen Street Repeats, is accessible during business hours. (The fridge inside Bowen Street Repeats was unable to withstand the summer heat so it has to be kept indoors.)
TJ first learned about the concept from somebody who had one in their yard in Portland, Oregon. After a little research, it turned out a lot of cities—Madison and Milwaukee included—had community refrigerator programs. The Love Fridge in Chicago was another inspiration.
“That idea just really stuck with me,” TJ said. “It was just, wow, this is a way we can literally and physically connect with people where they’re at without any paperwork or restrictions.”
Bowen Hobbs, who earned a fine arts degree from UWO in 2007, came up with the original design elements for the website, social media accounts, paper fliers and other materials. Oshkosh business owner Molly Moon volunteered to take on the building of the structure around the fridges.
Hope Fridge functions like a nonprofit but is not a 501(c)(3). However, the group is partnered with the nonprofit Open Collective Foundation, an organization that offers money management and other tools to projects with charitable purposes.
With the assist from Open Collective, Hope Fridge is able to collect monetary donations, including from an online form. In the year since its launch, they’ve gathered up $16,000—even though the majority of Hope Fridge donations are physical items like groceries and supplies.
Those looking to help out also are encouraged to learn about the fill-the-fridge challenges on the Hope Fridge website. There, community members can sign up for a specific day to provide donated goods. Another option is to volunteer to be a fridge manager, helping to tidy up one or all of the fridges.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by folks asking how they can help and showing up to help their neighbors,” TJ said. “It’s been beautiful.”
Paul Van Auken, sociology department chair, said he’s not surprised to hear TJ is behind this ambitious undertaking to help out in the Oshkosh community. He said TJ displayed a “sharp and inquisitive mind” as a student, “with a keen interest in understanding exactly what was going on and why.”
“Sociology is a great major for people like TJ,” Van Auken said, “because at its core it is about giving students the necessary tools to follow through on two core commitments: developing one’s sociological eye, which enables a person to see below the surface to what is really happening in society, and then using those insights to engage in social activism that works toward broader change.”
TJ and company know Hope Fridge isn’t a permanent fix to the hunger issues in the Fox Valley. But it’s doing something—actually doing something—that can help people in their day-to-day lives. And that makes a difference.
“We’ve learned a lot by doing this project,” TJ said. “It’s amazing, it’s humbling. Sadly, the need out there is still great. We’re just trying to help Band-Aid over the spots and help a few people.”
Hope Fridge locations
- 160 Curtis Ave., Neenah (open 24 hours daily)
- Wagner Market, 502 N. Main St., Oshkosh (open 24 hours daily)
- Bowen Street Repeats, 2837 Bowen St., Oshkosh (open noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday)