See That Fridge on the Sidewalk? It’s Full of Free Food
A lonely refrigerator sits on a Bronx sidewalk at 242nd Street and Broadway. It’s not trash.
Painted in bright yellows, purples, oranges and blues, the fridge has “Free Food” written in bubble letters across its freezer, with the same in Spanish, “Comida Gratis,” on its side.
Selma Raven makes good on that promise. She doesn’t ask prodding questions of those who visit the fridge. She sometimes chats as she disinfects the unit, which is plugged into a socket inside a restaurant, and stocks it with fresh produce and ready-made meals.
Mothers, home attendants, nursing assistants and the unemployed stop by the fridge to pick up food, Raven said. At first, some residents were skeptical; even cabdrivers told her it wouldn’t work. Now, they’re allies.
Community-led, free-food refrigerators, sometimes nicknamed “friendly fridges,” have been popping up on city sidewalks since February.
When the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders halted New York City’s economy, many residents — some suddenly out of work, and others sick with the illness — struggled to fill their own refrigerators.
At community refrigerators, anyone is welcome to take whatever they want and leave behind food they don’t need, like extra produce. Many volunteers who clean and stock the refrigerators daily ask local restaurants and stores to donate unused or unsold food items instead of throwing them away.
The goals are simple: Reduce food waste and feed the community.
Food insecurity and waste have plagued both New Yorkers and the environment long before the pandemic. In the city, about 2 million people, or 1 in every 4 New Yorkers, are food insecure.
About 30% of the country’s food supply is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A network of New Yorkers collaborating with In Our Hearts, an activist group, have set up and maintained at least 14 fridges, which are plugged into local bodegas, restaurants or homes with permission.
The volunteers who tend to many of the free-food refrigerators in New York communicate with one another on Signal, the encrypted messaging app, to coordinate the distribution of food from organizations like Universe City, an aquaponic farm and work space in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Thadeaus Umpster, an organizer with In Our Hearts, said that people have been giving away refrigerators through Instagram.In February, Umpster set up the group’s first refrigerator in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
As the pandemic worsened in March and April, other people asked to get involved. It also seemed that the more refrigerators New Yorkers saw on social media like Instagram, the more new ones appeared.
In recent weeks, Umpster has been distributing food to other fridges and answering calls from people across the world who want to start similar projects.