As rain pelted Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights on a recent Friday afternoon, scattered passersby stopped at a refrigerator painted a vivid blue perched next to The Queensboro restaurant.
Guillermina Mosso opened the door and peered in to see packaged meals and scrapple on the shelves. She resumed her walk without grabbing anything, even though everything in the fridge is free for the taking.
Items from the fridge have been regularly helping her feed her family of four — and today, she had been hoping to find milk, eggs, fresh fruit, maybe bread, she said.
“Sometimes we don’t work, and we have to pay the rent,” said Mosso, 54, whose husband works as a handyman. “Sometimes I come three times a week, four times a week.”
As refrigerators supplying New York’s hungry have proliferated on city sidewalks in many neighborhoods as a grassroots response to vast need stirred up by the coronavirus crisis, the challenge of keeping them stocked has intensified.
Sensing the fridges’ success and their constraints, food pantries are now stepping up to help sustain the effort — including New York Common Pantry, which unveiled a partnership Monday with a fridge in The Bronx.
Since the summer, community fridges — more than 70 and growing — have sprouted in unexpected nooks, relying on power supplied by supportive businesses and residents.
Volunteers scurry to keep up with demand. Shortly after Mosso’s disappointing visit, two members of the ad hoc group Our Food NYC pulled an SUV up to the curb and packed the fridge’s shelves with a bounty of fresh produce they’d obtained for free from a vendor.
They moved quickly, hastening to make it to scheduled drop-offs at other sites.
‘A More Human Place to Be’
One fridge is nestled next to a church off busy Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and had fresh brownies one afternoon. Another is sheltered by a vibrant green shed blocks away from Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn.
Still another is newly plugged in behind a bodega in The Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood,
As the fridges have proliferated, an informal network counting more than 100 organizers has emerged to meet the ongoing challenges of keeping the fridges full — and creating new ones.
Over the apps WhatsApp, Slack and Signal, volunteers swap information about free food that’s available for pickup, coordinate shared orders and deliveries, plot driving routes between fridges and discuss winterizing the appliances.
Collaborations with restaurants and food distributors are now the norm. Organizers said that most items come free and that they seldom need to place bulk grocery orders.
Briana Calderon Navarro, an early volunteer with Our Food NYC, said the network connecting the boroughs “in such a creative and unique way” was something she could have never imagined before the pandemic.
“We can support each other really well if we are connected. We say we are autonomous but networked,” said Rena, an organizer whose home-base fridge is in Astoria, Queens.
“It’s about how do we make the city a more human place to be,” added Rena, who declined to share her last name. “I think that’s what brings us together. That’s our motivation.”
Food Claimed in a Flash
Nurtured at the grassroots, sited in high-need locations, the community fridges have become so popular that established food pantries are now getting into the act.
On Monday afternoon, New York Common Pantry — a food provider with a $12 million annual budget bolstered by state and city contracts — held an event in partnership with the community fridge on East 141st Street and St. Ann’s Avenue in Mott Haven.
In just 20 minutes, the first visitors in line claimed 125 bags of groceries containing items canned food, pasta and beans. Others had to leave without food.
Still, organizers said, every bit counts.
“Community fridges are a small aspect of how we’re combating food insecurity and so are food pantries, so it’s nice to be able to come together,” said Charlotte Alvarez, 30, one of the Mott Haven fridge’s founders and a sixth grade teacher at a nearby school.
“It’s important to have both working together in conjunction because while we are doing the same type of work and providing food for the people who need it, we’re doing so in very different ways,” she added.
Rapid depletion of supplies is a recurring theme for fridge volunteers.
“The contents change so radically from one moment to the next. There will be tons of food, then 20 minutes later, it’s empty,” said Leigh Conner, one of the founders of the Fort Greene Fridge on Myrtle Avenue and Adelphi Street. “It just takes a huge volunteer effort to keep this going. A lot of planning and follow through and follow up.”
Hundreds of volunteers are enlisted to pick up groceries, monitor the inventory and stock the shelves. The informal fridge network is “absolutely crucial” for coordinating drivers who can pick up and drop off free food, said Tahia Islam, a 24-year-old organizer with the fridge in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Sometimes, the job description involves relocating the hefty appliances.
When Mott Haven’s fridge was being evicted by the deli that powered it, a volunteer named Adela Brito stepped up to offer a new home behind her uncle’s bodega just a few feet away.
Two weeks ago, dozens of volunteers materialized on a rainy night to help lift the fridge and its adjoining pantry shelves down the block to its new location.
“A lot more people than we think have food insecurity,” said Brito, a 31-year-old teacher who lives in The Bronx. “To be able to walk up to the fridge and take what you need is an amazing thing.”
Surge in Demand
During the pandemic, more New Yorkers than ever have sought out the aid of emergency food providers, waiting in hours-long lines to get something to eat.
This year, the city’s food pantries fed 65% more people than in 2019, according to Hunger Free America’s annual survey.
From March to September of this year, more than 220,000 New Yorkers signed up for the federally backed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, which gives people on limited incomes a stipend to pay for food, according to the survey. As of September, SNAP counted more than 1.7 million participants in New York City.
Neighbors told THE CITY that the fridges have quickly become a necessary source of regular support — especially with many immigrant New Yorkers ineligible for local and federal benefits.
Iriz Martinez, a single mother with two children, said she relies heavily on the Jackson Heights fridge and often checks it.
As a restaurant worker whose hours have been cut, she said there are days she can’t afford to buy groceries. On a recent trip to the fridge, she found bags of oranges and black beans.
Organizers said the speed with which the fridges empty reveals deep food insecurity in their communities. They believe that the appliances, a pandemic addition to the city’s sidewalks, are here to stay.
“In so many ways it’s beautiful it’s getting used so much, but it just speaks to the really, really high need,” Islam said of the Jackson Heights fridge. “I hope that it remains filled throughout the winter, the most important months.”
Alvarez said that fridges, which are largely clustered in sections of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, need to spread further across the city. Staten Island currently has one fridge, which is out of commission for the month.
“I walk around The Bronx and I just see so many long lines of people waiting just waiting to get one meal. Like literally waiting in line to just grab one box,” Alvarez said. “We need to have more fridges in more communities.”
As time has passed, organizers said they’ve seen a community form around the fridges. People both take items and donate items, tidy the shelves and keep an eye on the fridges together.
“It’s not run by the government, it’s by neighbors for neighbors. Nobody needs to stand in these lines in the cold waiting to get a food distribution at a pantry or a government food delivery,” Islam said.
“For the undocumented community, it’s completely anonymous,” she added. “You don’t need to put your name in or anything. You just grab what you need that day. There should always be a fresh source of free food in your community. This is just one little way in which we can combat the food insecurity in our hood.”