By Daniel Roybal, PhD student in Pharmacology
De la comunidad, para la comunidad. This is the motto that volunteers use to describe the approach of The Uptown Fridge, a community fridge in the primarily Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, New York City. The exuberantly painted Uptown Fridge is a grassroots effort to combat food injustices, driven by relentless volunteerism and a strong sense of solidarity. According to organizers, more than a third of Washington Heights and its neighboring Inwood residents face food insecurity, an injustice highlighted by the glaring wealth disparity of Manhattan.
Community fridges are public refrigerators that offer healthy food options for those who have reduced accessibility. Food organizations are often contacted for donations, but a large portion of the food comes from members of the community. As a space to store fresh items, these fridges fill a need that soup kitchens and food pantries are not designed to meet.
Produce, dairy products, and plant-based donations are welcome. Additional non-perishable items that are often placed in an accompanying storage space include dried food, grains, cleaning supplies, and personal hygiene items. Many of the fridges have limits to the kinds of food that can be donated. For example, non-labeled and homemade prepared food are only encouraged at some fridges, while raw meats, seafood, and alcoholic beverages are usually not allowed. A general rule is to donate food that you would personally eat.
Over 50 community fridges exist in NYC alone, which is a testament to the altruistic motivations of hundreds. Volunteers from The Uptown Fridge like to emphasize, though, that community fridges should be examples of solidarity rather than charity. This unity is especially welcome in 2020, when the NYC peak unemployment rate of 20.3% overshadows the 4% rate of the year prior. The problem is most clear to members of the community. “New Yorkers aren’t going hungry because of personal failure,” a volunteer expressed, “The real culprit is the social and economic system designed to enrich a select few at the expense of many.”
The mobilizing efforts of organizers and volunteers have inspired the creation of community fridge programs all over the country. While this is an encouraging idea for potential organizers, the first steps to opening up a community fridge must be considered carefully. Regarding the process and challenges of setting up a community fridge, volunteers at The Uptown Fridge strongly suggest getting involved with an existing one. If there are none nearby, it is a good idea to contact an existing organizer. The next steps are to assemble a team and scout for a local business that will donate electricity for the fridge. “The biggest challenge for us,” the volunteers stated, “was finding a business that would allow us to install the fridge and for it to be open 24/7.” Theoretically, the fridge will be donated.
Communicating logistics is essential for a well-run operation: “Where will the food come from? Who will pick it up? Who has a bike or vehicle?” The Uptown Fridge volunteers stress that there are many people needed for fridge maintenance. The established team should also have some businesses and organizations in mind to contact weekly for possible donations. It is important to be creative with food sources. A volunteer at The Uptown Fridge relayed their own story on how to spot an opportunity. “I used to work in the culinary industry and there was a lot of food waste and improper composting going on. These community fridges are a source of real change for people in the food industry because they can choose to donate food that would be otherwise thrown out.”
The endurance of community fridges that opened in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to be tested, especially as winter nears and the demand is likely to increase. But for future organizers who can volunteer, the cold weather is an opportunity to take on responsibilities that yield powerful lessons for any attempts to start a fridge next year. For example, scheduling and business outreach are a good fit for people with strong social skills. Equipment maintenance and sanitation tasks are great for those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Fighting against food injustice is a task for people of all skills and is much-needed during a time of uncertainty.
Those interested can donate to The Uptown Fridge at Venmo/Cashapp: aditivarshneya.
Peer-edited by Emily Matthew, BS student in Biology