One afternoon in May, artist and community gardener Sade Boyewa was scrolling through her Instagram feed when she caught a photo of a commercial fridge sitting outside a brownstone in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. It was stocked full of squash, canned chickpeas, carrots, and bread, and above it, there was a sign painted in bright letters that read “FREE FOOD.” “I remember thinking, this is what we need in Harlem,” she told me. “The line to the food pantry snakes around two blocks. Not everyone is fit to go and stand on line for several hours.”
Like millions of other Americans, Boyewa had been laid off from her day job in March. As she worked to put together other paid projects from home, she used any leftover time she had to coordinate a free fridge of the same kind at 352 W. 116th Street in Harlem, across the street from where she’s lived for 25 years. Through Instagram, she got in touch with A New World In Our Hearts, the anarchist community organizer behind the Bed-Stuy fridge, and after a week they were able to find and deliver a donated fridge to her doorstep. After she plugged it into an outlet at her local bodega (with the enthusiastic permission of her deli guys), and stocked the stainless steel home fridge with yogurt, plantains, apples, and lettuce, some donated and some purchased, Boyewa joined the ranks of volunteer citizens running free community fridges all over the country right now. The sign on the door read, “Take what you need. Leave what you don’t,” and in Spanish, “Comidas gratis.” “People couldn’t believe it,” Boyewa said. “‘Is this for real? Is this free?’”
The fallout from the coronavirus touching down in the U.S. earlier this year has been devastating, especially for New York City. When restaurants, bars, and nonessential businesses closed as a mandate of the state-imposed shutdown on April 29, millions of people found themselves out of jobs, unable to pay rent, and lacking the food they needed to survive. An estimated 1 million New Yorkers consistently went without food before the global pandemic began, and in only three months, that number had more than doubled. By mid-May the city pledged to deliver 1.5 million meals a day to the 1 in 4 New Yorkers who were now food insecure, but the $170 million plan was stretched thin and flawed. In a CBS New York report, some New Yorkers said they found the city’s food deliveries to be lacking in nutrition, or worse, spoiled. These solutions started to look like Band-Aids over a growing wound.
While the city’s coordinated food service worked to correct its failings, New Yorkers were busy taking matters into their own hands. In seven locations in under four months, conventional and commercial fridges, plastered with signs of free food, were plugged into extension cords tethered to apartment buildings, corner bodegas, and businesses in three out of the five boroughs: the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Thadeus Umpster, a member of A New World In Our Hearts, said the organization will soon set up fridges in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, D.C., and several more locations in New York. Many of the fridges, like one that was set up outside Playground Coffee Shop in Bed-Stuy, have social media accounts that provide updates on their daily stocks — today, blueberries and radishes; tomorrow, it could be anything.
In Brownsville, a predominantly black neighborhood in East New York, a free fridge was set up in early June by folks running Universe City, an urban aquaponic farm and workspace. The space and the fridge at 234 Glenmore Avenue have become hubs for organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement since the protests began at the end of May, and protesters who have taken to the streets to demand justice have inherited boxes of donated fresh produce to sustain their energy in the fight. “We’re incubating the political and social education of people in our community,” Alexis Mena, the co-founder of Universe City and one of the free fridge’s organizers, said, “so they can better understand how to take power back from the institutions who have taken it from them.”
Using food as a form of protest has long and storied roots in black communities, and urban farming and the Brownsville free fridge are acts of resistance to the food apartheid that leaves many BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy food. Black people have experienced vastly disproportionate COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths to white people, so the Brownsville free fridge hopes to draw attention to the racist city planning that has affected the health of their communities as well. “It’s the quality of our air, how close we are to landfills,” Mena said, so why should they trust the government to properly feed them?
By extension of the fact that the free fridges are maintained by people in the community for people in the community, Boweya, Mena, and Pam Tietze, an artist who organized the Friendly Fridge in Bushwick, said that everyone begins to feel protective ownership over the fridges. “The deli next door has a hose and they spray down the fridge sometimes to keep it clean,” she said. “The superintendent of the building next to the fridge has become its guardian angel. He interviews people who come to the fridge; he reports to the group chat what the current stock levels are like.” On Mother’s Day, a local florist left a box of individually portioned flower bouquets with a sign: “Take a flower for mom!” Tietze set up a Venmo account to receive donations for groceries and a local artist painted a friendly face on the fridge. This was the community-centered result that Tietze had hoped for. “I wanted the fridge to self-regulate,” she said. “I’m not the fridge’s mom. I’m just the person who put it out there.” As the protests against police brutality began at the end of May, Friendly Fridge organizers set up a memorial to George Floyd with a framed photo, bouquets of flowers, and santeria candles.
On a rolling gate behind the fridge, Hugo Girl, the artist who had given the Friendly Fridge a face, painted, “NO CURFEW ON JUSTICE. LET’S EAT THE 1%.”
The community fridge system, while relatively novel in New York, is not an unfamiliar concept in other parts of the world. The movement was popularized in Berlin, when a volunteer-run organization called Foodsharing that has done peer-to-peer community food saving and sharing since 2012 began setting up community fridges (known as fair-teiler) across Germany in 2014. At one point, there were 350 fridges around Germany, with 25 in Berlin alone, all with the purpose of saving and redistributing perfectly good food that would otherwise go to waste. But in 2018, the German government’s food and safety regulators in Berlin cracked down on fair-teiler, causing a large number of them to be locked by their stewards or moved to more private spaces, instead of remaining free and open on the street for anyone to use any time of the day.
In a paper for Geoforum in 2019, Dr. Oona Morrow, a researcher at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, found that the regulatory fears governments have around community fridges often stem from “fear of unknowable risks.” (Namely, liability around food contamination and spoilage, and lack of official labeling and processing.) “These fears are stoked by a technocratic risk regime that places trust in businesses, scientists, and markets, but not the public,” she writes. But, as she told me by phone from Holland, the research she performed while working with SHARECITY suggests that “sharing food is not how food safety crises happen.” Findings around the E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in 2019, for example, pointed to the proximity of cattle to produce-growing fields in Salinas, California, as the likely source of the spread. “It’s through industrial food systems that risk is amplified.”
“Community fridges are an opportunity for people to reimagine what the infrastructure of cities could be like,” Morrow said. “Fridge volunteers are prototyping a different kind of urban infrastructure that could be more caring.” Free fridges in the U.S. have some advantages over their EU counterparts, she added, because our food safety regulations are not nearly as strict as they are in countries like Germany. “With public infrastructure, there is this idea that it can’t work, people aren’t caring enough, people don’t know how to cooperate or take care of each other,” but her research has found those fears to be unfounded, she said. Plus, with the high need for food sharing and other forms of mutual aid in our current crisis, “more things are tolerated in an emergency.”
Right now, there are free community fridges on every continent except Antarctica, and any community fridge coordinator can add theirs to a growing global database on Freedge.org, a volunteer community fridge network started by Ernst Bertone Oehninger in 2014. Bertone Oehninger, a Brazilian Ph.D. candidate in ecology at UC Davis in California, set up a community fridge on his front lawn in 2014. “We didn’t ask for permission before we looked into the food laws or liability laws,” he told me. “The county impounded the fridge because they said it was illegal food distribution.” But, as Bertone Oehninger pointed out in the local news at the time, the food regulation laws Freedge was being held to weren’t written to include individual food sharing. Freedge isn’t a restaurant, he reasoned, so why was it being treated that way?
With help from city officials, Freedge was soon protected under California’s gleaner laws, meaning it could safely distribute produce but not home-cooked food. Now, whenever someone reaches out to Freedge asking how they can set up one in their town, the volunteer organization provides resources like information on liability, as well as open-source guides to solar-powering fridges and adding cameras to make sure stocks within the fridge are fresh. Their primary recommendations are to check the fridge once a day and clearly outline what foods are not allowed, as those regulations will vary state to state.
The Community Fridge Network, which began in 2017 in the U.K., takes a more centralized, regulated approach. The fridges are donated to local communities through the country by Hubbub, an environmental nonprofit. The Community Fridge Network has clear guidelines on what can and cannot be accepted — no raw cheeses and home-cooked meals, for example, to both limit liability around allergens and prevent foods in the fridge from becoming spoiled. Each fridge has at least one coordinator who checks it daily, each fridge maintains a similar aesthetic design, and the people running each unit can receive grant money from Hubbub for maintenance and support. The primary challenge that CFN faces is that the fridges can run out of food too quickly after the stores are replenished. Clare Davies, the coordinator of a community fridge in Dorking, England, said that is only a reflection of the high need of the communities that the fridges serve. “That’s not a problem that is caused by the community fridge, that’s a problem that’s existed before the community fridge was even there.”
Food pantries and government food assistance programs should in theory help to solve the problem of food insecurity, but these systems come with their own set of problems. Mel Paola Murillo, an immigrant from Honduras who is currently seeking asylum in the U.S., has found that the major advantage of the free fridge she uses in New York is that she can get food from the fridge without judgment or questions about her documentation, identity, or needs. “To find free resources is a very important part of my surviving experience in New York,” she told me. The fridge also provides a wider range of culturally relevant foods, as the donations typically come from within her neighborhood. “I like to cook food from my country, and [in the fridge] I’ve found cilantro, plantains, and nopales.” There are also pervasive stigmas around visiting food pantries to get something to eat, as one neighborhood woman told organizers of the Free Fridge. “I feel embarrassed accepting handouts,” she said, but at the Friendly Fridge, “Nobody pays any mind. It’s a big deal that I’ve had breakfast every day this week and I’ve had dinner. It’s changed everything.”
The throughline between all free fridges — whether part of a centralized network or not, in a major city or not — is that they attempt to do the work that more bureaucratic and structural systems like the government won’t and formal food pantries can’t do. “The city, state, and federal government have failed on multiple levels in regards to this crisis,” Umpster, of A New World In Our Hearts, told me. The free fridge model is one way that communities can work together to support each other, while also mitigating the omnipresent excess of food waste in America. “[Unlike food pantries], we don’t coordinate or cooperate with the government. We’re not asking people to give us personal information. We’re not asking people to pray with us, we’re not a charitable organization. We’re a mutual aid group.” That distinction is important — the stigmas that come with having to ask for help are all but eradicated when anyone, anywhere, no matter their situation, can both give to and take from the fridge.
While no city officials have yet to interfere or raise questions about any of the community fridges that have shown up around New York’s boroughs, Umpster said that he doesn’t anticipate strong pushback, as the “response has been universally positive.” Fridges in other cities haven’t always been so lucky — one community fridge owner in Washington state has become the center of a legal battle after authorities shut her fridge down twice. This kind of response isn’t uncommon, Bertone Oehninger explained, because “if you present the idea where the idea doesn’t exist yet, ‘no’ is very easy to say.”
New York’s fridge organizers remain undeterred. “This is a people’s movement,” Boyewa told me. “And right now, people are hurting.” While Boyewa and Tietze welcome outside support and outreach from more formal systems, Mena is less optimistic that something like that could, or even should, actually happen. “No one is going to save us. They’ve proven that they don’t care,” Mena said, adding that racism has pushed his community to take matters of food distribution into their own hands. “Black, indigenous, and people of color have been set up to fail,” he added, “so the people have to come together to take the power back.”