Bronx Community Fridge Operation Raises Big Bucks — and Hackles
Grassroots Grocery has a charismatic founder, a compelling origin story and a six-figure reserve fund that mutual-aid workers and organizers in the borough say are the fruits of “poverty pimping.”
Grassroots Grocery, a nonprofit organization that operates a network of community fridges and food distribution sites in The Bronx and Upper Manhattan, has raised $580,000 since launching in Fall 2020, according to executive director Dan Zauderer. That’s a stark contrast to the much sparser coffers of other independent community fridge operations that are mostly organized as mutual aid organizations.
But the relatively big bucks the fridge has taken in and the way Zauderer has promoted his operation as it’s received glowing local and national press coverage has infuriated many of the other people who have been steadily doing this work in recent years without seeking a budget or press attention.
In a phone interview, Zauderer told THE CITY that Grassroots Grocery has so far spent “about half” of its haul — which includes donations from big real estate developers with projects in the South Bronx. That money has gone to operational expenses, including a driver and truck to deliver food donated by the Hunts Point Produce Market, and his own salary, which Zauderer said started this September.
The other half, nearly $300,000, is “accrued in reserve,” Zauderer told THE CITY in an interview in November, including to fund coming salaries for a chief programs officer and someone to manage day-to-day operations. For the chief programs officer, he said, he wants someone who is “from the communities that we serve.”
Grassroots Grocery filed tax documents as a 501c3 nonprofit for the first time that month, so their complete list of expenses won’t be publicly available until next year. Preliminary tax documents shared by Zauderer and reviewed by THE CITY show numbers in line with what he described.
Zauderer, who is 34 years old and lives on the Upper East Side, launched what became Grassroots Grocery in Mott Haven Fridge, with one and then two fridges in that historically underfunded and majority Black and Brown neighborhood in the South Bronx, part of America’s poorest congressional district.
As Grassroots Grocery’s website recounts, Zauderer, while working as a 6th grade humanities teacher at the American Dream charter school in Mott Haven, says he saw a student’s grandmother looking in the trash for food. That, he says, inspired him to help feed the kids who attended his classes.
On the Kelly Clarkson Show in September, Zauderer again shared that story, and then said Grassroots Grocery “literally started out as just a teacher’s passion project. It started as a fundraiser. Friends and family and colleagues got together. We raised like $15,000 bucks on GoFundMe or something, which was awesome. But hunger persisted and the money ran out.”
He continued: “And as a teacher always thinking about the health and wellness of my students, not just of their minds but of their whole selves, I thought to myself, ‘what more can we do?’”
‘Please Don’t Do That’
Zauderer stopped teaching in September of 2021 after four years on the job and, he told THE CITY, lived off of his savings for the next year while working to build up Grassroots Grocery, including through a GoFundMe page launched in September 2020 seeking money to winterize its first fridge with a protective shed and keep it stocked.
The request expanded over time to include leasing a truck, a digital communication platform for volunteers and community partners, electricity bills and gas and delivery costs.
But that appeal, entitled “Support Community Fridges” that’s raised more than $37,000 to date toward a $50,000 goal, also raised hackles among people who’d already been working with the nine or ten other free fridges then operating in The Bronx to feed the needy amid the pandemic.
Many of those people, including several who’d been working with Zauderer as he set up that first fridge in Mott Haven, felt Grassroots Grocery was suggesting that money it took in would help support their almost entirely donation- and volunteer-supported mutual aid work. It did not.
Before Zauderer launched what was then called Mott Haven Fridge, he connected with volunteers like Taziah Taveras and Alison Garcia, who were part of a band of four known as The Fridge Girls who delivered food to fridges in 2020 and 2021. They introduced him to other fridge organizers and Mott Haven was one of several fridges that they helped fill.
But those relationships quickly fell apart, Taveras and Garcia told THE CITY. They said they were put off by late night text messages and emails from Zauderer, and what seemed to them a sloppy operation in which fridges weren’t steadily maintained and kept stocked and media appearances where he repeatedly talked about undocumented immigrants using his fridges.
But what quickly separated Zauderer from much of The Bronx’s existing community of fridges supported by unpaid mutual-aid workers was his online appeal for people to “Support Community Fridges.”
Ariadna Phillips, who organizes with other Bronx community fridges as part of her work with the South Bronx Mutual Aid collective and has worked with both Taveras and Garcia, said she and others stopped working with Zauderer shortly after a three-hour Zoom meeting in December about his fundraising they felt gave the false impression that donations would support all of The Bronx’s existing fridges.
“That’s when people were immediately like, ‘No, you’re not. Please don’t do that. Don’t fundraise on behalf of others,’” recalled Taveras.
“He was getting all of that spotlight. And it’s not a jealousy thing because none of us were trying to build a nonprofit. None of us were trying to do any of those things,” Taveras continued. “Show your receipts cause everyone else here is showing their receipts.”
Dozens of people attended that meeting, almost all of them working with mutual aid organizations and seeking to hold Zauderer and his nonprofit operation accountable for what they saw as a lack of transparency and a sense of entitlement.
Zauderer stayed in the meeting for hours and, participants say, later shared with some of them a spreadsheet, which THE CITY has reviewed, showing he’d spent over $7,000 on expenses. He did not agree to share any of the money Grassroots Grocery took in from the GoFundMe campaign with other fridges.
“You don’t understand what mutual aid is,” Taveras recalled someone telling Zauderer at the meeting, after which many of The Bronx’s existing community fridge groups cut ties with him even as local and national media outlets lauded Grassroot Groceries.
Zauderer said he did not recall what he said “verbatim in meetings that happened over two years ago.”
Taveras, though, found it “upsetting” to see Zauderer raise so much money that she said could be better used at “so many other places.” The reason why, she said, is “because he tells a better story… It’s gross.”
In his interview with THE CITY in November, Zauderer said that “We definitely don’t represent all community refrigerators, and never claimed to represent all community refrigerators.”
“We need to come up with a three-word tagline for fundraiser [and] ‘support community fridges,’ to me, is genuine to what the intention was and that we were using that money to fund the logistics to get food into fridges,” he said, noting that when the fundraiser launched, Mott Haven Fridge had already established two fridges in the neighborhood and was developing its delivery network to add others. “So to say, ‘support community fridges’ I don’t think implies in any way ownership of the movement or in any way is a claim that we are founding or starting any of those community fridges.”
Zauderer characterized much of the criticism he’s received from inside the community fridge world as a matter of politics.
“I think there are lots of different types of organizers in the space. There’s some people who are very committed to certain ideologies, for example, the ideology of mutual aid, and they’ll do whatever they can in service of lifting that particular ideology,” he said. “My personal opinion is that sometimes when we — when people get so laser focused [on] ideology that they lose sight of the people that they’re trying to serve.”
He concluded: “The food insecurity space is big enough for everybody.”
‘If There’s Money There, Then Why Not?’
According to the preliminary tax document Zauderer shared with THE CITY, his organization’s revenue surged in 2022 with about half of that coming from six-figure’s worth of small-dollar crowdfunding effort while the other half came mostly from corporations and big donors.
“He could have compensated the people who helped hold down his fridge, who lived on the block, who would be there every time we showed up to unload things and to chat with us,” said Garcia, calling the $580,000 Grassroots Groceries has raised “an insane amount… money that I can’t even wrap my head around for this type of work.”
Grassroots Grocery says online that “Every Contribution Counts [as] $25 Can Help 16 Families.” By that math, the roughly $290,000 the group has in hand could help 185,600 families.
Zauderer acknowledged that he’s received contributions from real estate developers working in The Bronx including Brookfield Properties and L+M Partners.
“Along with dozens of other nonprofits doing good work in the community, we’ve taken money from the charitable arms of real estate development companies, yes,” he said in a December text message. “This support has helped to bolster our boots on the ground community work. … This money is going to be given to nonprofits no matter what, and we want to make sure that we get as much funding as we can to support our mission.”
In a separate email in December, Zauderer stressed that ”Grassroots Grocery is a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to use the power of volunteers to expand dignified access to healthy food in the heart of under-resourced communities,” and said “Our most deeply held belief is that, as New Yorkers, we must come together as a community to fight hunger, and we’re thrilled to be building tools, infrastructure, and networks of volunteers and community partners to make this as easy as possible.”
The money Grassroots Grocery has raised, Zauderer said, has helped the organization provide certainty that fridges are regularly stocked by covering a delivery truck to bring food from Hunts Point Produce Market to a pickup point for volunteer drivers (who also get their gas expenses covered) and supporting an online platform for communication with volunteers and fridge organizers as the operation that started with two fridges in one neighborhood now delivers food to about 30 sites in The Bronx and Upper Manhattan.
While Grassroots Groceries has created such a large network that it’s difficult to compare to one community fridge at this point, even a small chunk of its unspent money fundraised would go a long way towards keeping other independent fridges stocked, maintained and covering food delivery costs.
“Most of the fridges have operating budgets under $1,000,” said Phillips.
How to Help Local Free Fridges
You can find and support a community fridge near you anywhere in New York City using this Fridge Finder app.
To donate, you can reach out to the following Bronx community fridges through their websites or Instagram pages:
The Anchor Fridge in City Island is one of those fridges. “Zero, seriously,” texted David Diaz, one of five volunteers stocking the fridge, when asked how much money he works with to maintain the fridge, relying on donations from local farmer’s markets, neighbors and the occasional elected official. He’ll also make supermarket runs out of his own pocket.
“I estimate we feed about 25-30 people per week. Pounds really range because sourcing has been difficult,” he said, noting that filling the fridge became more difficult after the city cut supply from its federally-funded P-FRED program that offered emergency food distribution to address pandemic needs.
Diaz said that, given the resources, he could establish more fridges in the East Bronx.
“When I can source food and things of that nature, I go around and try and fill fridges,” he said, mentioning another community fridge in Allerton. “I’m trying to get other fridges up here, which has been a little difficult.”
While Zauderer is now paying himself a salary for an operation he says currently helps feed more than 1,0000 families a week, most of the people providing labor to Grassroots are volunteers. Those include Sonia Taylor, a longtime community organizer who ran for district leader earlier this year, and Ruben Calderón, each of whom manages one of the Grassroots Grocery’s original two fridges in Mott Haven. Both volunteers said that they had good working relations with Zauderer, and both were surprised to learn from THE CITY about how much money he’s raised.
“I don’t know because I’m too busy out here doing stuff,” said Taylor, saying that more people should be paid for the work they’ve already been doing given how much Zauderer has brought in. “If there’s money there, then why not?”
Calderón, who can usually be found at his fridge, using crates and benches as makeshift seating and ensuring the area is always neat, said that Zauderer “should start looking out for the people that work with him, you know what I’m saying, if he got that money like that… I mean, he should share.”
Some of that money, notes Phillips, came from real estate interests she said were driving construction and development in the South Bronx that she sees as a prelude to gentrification and displacement.
“It’s poverty pimping. He’s now making money off of this,” said Phillips, stressing that her beef was strictly with Zauderer and not people helping out at Grassroots Grocery’s fridges. “We know there are a lot of volunteers working with him that are doing it for the right reasons.”
‘So Many Struggles’
As Zauderer quickly drew media attention, he repeatedly talked about how his fridges were used by many undocumented people, something that Garcia and others said could have helped U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids target those people.
Wow! We are so grateful for the shout out! We encourage folks to visit our gofundme page and to follow us on Instagram @motthavenfridge https://t.co/sjlU7vbcva https://t.co/mON2brGrBF— Grassroots Grocery (@grassrootgrocer) October 26, 2020
“We live in a community with so many struggles and when the pandemic hit, it was just crisis mode for so many of our families,” Zauderer said on CNN in October of 2020 in explaining why he’d started a fridge. “And because they’re undocumented, many of them felt like they had nowhere to turn. They feared reaching out to pantries and these other sources of food.”
Afterward, Garcia recalled, “we had to explain to him that that wasn’t a safe thing to do for people. You’re blowing up the spot, you’re making the neighborhood unsafe, you’re making people uncomfortable. You don’t go on national news and start talking about people’s immigration status.”
Zauderer, who continued to talk about his fridges serving undocumented people in subsequent media appearances, told THE CITY that he was only stating what was happening and stressed that he isn’t giving out any personal information about undocumented Bronxites.
“I think it’s important for people to know about the struggles that undocumented people face,” said Zauderer. “It’s not as if I’m saying, you know, their first name, last name, this person’s undocumented and you can find him right here at 11:30.”
On Saturdays, Zauderer regularly coordinates unpacking, division and distribution of food, donated from Hunts Produce Point Market and picked up by a paid truck driver, at a parking lot behind a shopping center in Castle Hill.
About 90 volunteers weathered consistent morning rain to prepare sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches and set up pallets of strawberries, blackberries, brussel sprouts and spinach, THE CITY noted in a visit earlier this month to what Zauderer calls a “produce party.”
As Haddaway’s infamous “What Is Love” song pumped out on a speaker, volunteers prepared bags of produce to be picked up by drivers, also volunteers, who then take the food to their designated fridges.
THE CITY spoke with several volunteers who said they were from Scarsdale, Mamaroneck and the Upper East Side. One group of volunteers was there with the $10 trillion investment group Blackrock; another group had come from Brearley School, a private school on the Upper East Side. Some people at the produce party said they’d been volunteering for months, while others were pitching in for the first time.
Once the packaging was done but before drivers picked it all up to distribute, Zauderer huddled the volunteers and told his favorite story.
“One day, I was walking home from school. On my way home from school. I ran into one of my students Justin. Next to him, I saw that there was a woman who was digging through a trash can. She was an elderly woman. The next day, I asked my student Justin who the woman was. What do you think he told me?” Zauderer asked the audience. He immediately answered his own question:
“He said, ‘That’s my grandma.’ And then he said, ‘That’s normal.’”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the caption shows Daniel Zauderer making a delivery to a community fridge that was established by Gotham Food Pantry, and that Zauderer said that Grassroots Grocery has nearly $300,000 “accrued in reserve” rather than in a “rainy-day fund.”