Last month, AJ Madison partnered with True Residential to donate a commercial-grade refrigerator to the community fridge network in Harlem, specifically The Peoples Peoples Fridge of Sugar Hill. Community fridges are outdoor refrigerators stocked with food donated by local businesses, food pantries, farms, and individual community members. The refrigerators are accessible 24/7 to any person who needs food. The community fridge network is growing every day and aims to rescue soon-to-be-wasted food from local restaurants, farms, and grocers.
The Peoples Peoples Fridge hosted a celebratory barbecue on a warm October afternoon. The fridge, sitting beautifully on the corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, was bigger than I expected – standing over 6-feet-tall. It is painted a bright sunny yellow with welcoming images of flowers and the faces of community members who have dedicated their lives to making a difference.
The fridge was stocked full of colorful, healthy foods. It looked like the grab-and-go section of any health food store – except this food is free to any person in need. The fridge was filled and emptied nearly four times that afternoon. Volunteers stocked the shelves with portioned local produce and individually packaged meals with the ingredients printed on the containers. Community members took what they needed as they passed by.
I had the opportunity to speak with The Peoples Peoples Fridge founder, Yves Voltaire. I asked him about what led him to begin the project.
Together with a group of local volunteers, Yves put together a strong network of folks who keep the fridge running.
"There's a phrase we say Uptown—- 'everybody eats.' It's a reference to a line in the movie ‘Paid in Full’ and works as a statement of fact that literally everybody needs food, needs to eat. It works also as a call, an insistence, that you, me, we make sure to spread the resources, and in so doing, everybody gets what they need and feels accounted for. It's something that everyone can get around. The beauty of our community fridge is that it allows us all the chance to feed each other and feed ourselves, to give to the community and be replenished by it."
The beauty of our community fridge is that it allows us all the chance to feed each other and feed ourselves, to give to the community and be replenished by it.
Over 30% of our country's food supply is wasted each year according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Meanwhile, underserved communities experience food insecurity and measurable health disparities. The Community Fridge network gives communities access to food that would otherwise be thrown away.
Food waste and food rescue is a serious problem in America. Many businesses dispose of leftover food that doesn't get utilized. The community fridge network works to reallocate delicious meals and fresh foods to families in need. An estimated 200 community members benefit from the fridge each day.
Community fridges are placed in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy ingredients – often referred to as food deserts or food apartheid. These communities do not have equal and autonomous access to a wide variety of food because of systemic oppression and lack of support from systems of power.
It's difficult when the nearest healthy foods are far away from their homes. "We wanted to get the fridge up and running before the cold weather," Yves explained. "When you have a many-block walk to get fresh produce, with the winter coming, the ability to walk ten blocks, five blocks, or even three blocks become exceedingly difficult. Especially for the most vulnerable residents."
At the celebration, Jade Golden (@jadegoldenbbqco) and her partner Rae (both painted on the fridge)
were grilling up hot dogs and hamburgers and offered them to patrons as they passed by. Jade and Rae have been hosting weekly Black Lives Matter barbecues in the neighborhood to support the community's mental health, nourishment, and celebration of joy. Jade has a catering business and BBQ company that serves the community regularly. Kari and Lalo, of Cocina Consuelo in Harlem (@cocinaconsuelo), brought homemade vegan tacos in individual containers for the celebration – they were delicious!
Midway through the celebration, a mother approached with her four children in tow. They each grabbed either a burger or a hot dog and a few snacks on-the-go. During an uncertain time for many families, food insecurity is real, and free food fridges are a beacon of hope and security.
Yves left me with a few closing thoughts. "The food is out there - and the need is tremendous. The cool thing about this work is it activates people to want to serve their communities. Sign up to be a volunteer, driver, or a person to do daily checks. There are so many ways to help."
The food is out there - and the need is tremendous. The cool thing about this work is it activates people to want to serve their communities.
If you'd like to learn more or get involved with the community fridge network, follow @thepeoplespeoplesfridge and @thefridgegirls. Free food fridges are popping up across the country; find a community fridge near you or start one.
The joy brought by this fridge is something to be celebrated. We live in a time where separation is the new normal. For the first time in many months, at The Peoples Peoples Fridge, celebrating with community organizers and community members of Harlem, I didn't feel that separation. Yes – we were all wearing masks and doing our best to social distance. Yet, for the first time in a long time, I felt the warmth of a community coming together to help its most vulnerable residents.
I have never seen a refrigerator so loved!