This winter, longtime organizer Thadeaus Umpster had thought of ways to feed people in need in Brooklyn. He wanted to keep food fresh and easy for people to access so he looked around for a fridge. Umpster found a free one on Craigslist, picked it up and this past February he set up the free food fridge in front of Herbert Von King Park on the corner of Lafayette and Marcy in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in the front yard of a fellow activist.
When the fridge idea began, the novel coronavirus was not on Umpster’s immediate radar. He had just wanted to use his organizing skills to help those in need and have a place to store food donations. Weeks later, COVID-19 cases in the city began to rise, businesses shut down or decreased hours of operation, and New Yorkers began to lose their jobs.
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We were low in supplies and then multiple people came by to surprise us with more food to share! The fridge is accessible 24/7 at 133 Van Buren St. in BedStuy and check out the new one at 190 Knickerbocker in Bushwick. If you’d like to host a fridge, have a spare or help out in anyway please get in touch! For free food just help yourself! . #BedStuy #CommunityFridge #freegan #mutualaid #anarquismo #foodNotBombs #freeganism #BedStuyStrong #BedStuyDoOrDie #BushwickMutualAid #CrownHeightsMutualAid #SpreadAnarchy #BuildCommunity #freegans #anarchism #brooklynanarchists #covi̇d19mutualaid #coronavirusNYC
“It’s definitely good timing. Getting this fridge had nothing to do with COVID, but it was just in time,” he explained. “The lines are getting longer.”
The pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities, and Umpster said Bed-Stuy is one of the prime areas in the city where people are more at risk of becoming sick and dealing with the economic fallout that will continue long after the pandemic is over. He predicted that the need for the fridge will continue even after the chances of infection go down.
Food insecurity rates were already on the rise in Brooklyn before COVID-19 began to spread across the world. According to a 2018 report from the Food Bank for New York, more than 40 percent of the neighborhood’s residents rely on resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]. Organizations like the one Umpster volunteers with, Community Solidarity, have done food giveaways in the area for years, but Umpster said there’s even more need now that people have lost income. The organization is currently collecting donations to continue procuring food for Bed-Stuy, including the fridge, as well as Long Island residents in need. Fellow groups like New York anarchist network A New World In Our Hearts also keep the fridge stocked.
“[Bed-Stuy was] a predominantly Black working-class neighborhood for a long time, it’s been becoming more gentrified but there’s a lot of people here who live in government housing, it’s people who aren’t always financially well off,” Umpster said.
According to Community Solidarity’s website, the group focuses on providing vegetarian groceries so that everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions, can have access to a decent meal.
“We believe that Food is a Right, Not a Privilege,” states the Community Solidarity website.
A few neighborhoods away in Bushwick, Pam Tietze saw the community fridge in Bed-Stuy and the need for free food in her neighborhood as well. Like Umpster, she found a free fridge online and then found a location. It now sits in front of 190 Knickerbocker Avenue near Maria Hernandez Park. The “Friendly Fridge,” as it’s called, is painted and has signs in English and Spanish encouraging people to take food if they’re in need or to leave any extra that they have. Word spread and eventually friends that didn’t yet know Tietze was involved in the free food fridge began to ask if she had heard of it.
“I plugged it in … and it all kind of happened at once,” she explained.
In recent years, Bushwick has been a hotspot for nightlife, restaurants, and bars. But for decades it was and in some ways still is a home for working-class families, immigrants, and small business owners. Many of them are burdened by the quickly rising rents and other costs of living, and lower-income families often live with several relatives, leaving them more exposed to the virus.
At first, Tietze was nervous at first about how the fridge would be received and if neighbors would help maintain it. She noted that some nearby businesses and residents were a little nervous about who would be using the fridge, but soon jumped on board. Since then, there are trays of prepared food in the fridge, produce, and other healthy options like whole pineapples, turkey burgers, and once, a whole tray of vegetarian chili for the taking. (To help keep it stocked, you can venmo @thefriendlyfridge)
“There [are] people who regularly started stocking the fridge…it’s a very active spot,” she said. “The businesses around it have been affected but there’s a restaurant near us serving free meals. And a taco truck came by the fridge and started giving out free tacos.”
Community members have also begun to leave household goods, personal hygiene products, and kitchenware like towels and cups. And on Mother’s Day weekend, someone had left a bunch of individually wrapped flowers for people to take home. Tietze said it’s about giving community members who need food a sense of ownership and access to small nice things that can give them joy alongside necessities.
Tietze recalled how a woman who usually went to soup kitchens began to rely on the free food fridge and what it meant to prepare food for herself.
“There’s the dignity of going to a fridge instead of the [soup] kitchens…I’m confident that we’re providing a service for those groups of people,” she explained.
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Today was a Great day🙏🏾🙏🏾🙏🏾🤲🏾🤲🏾🤲🏾✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾💫💫💫 Day 1 of introducing a future freestanding and self sufficient #communityfridge with #FREEFOOD in #Harlem was a Great Success✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾 @thadeausumpster @iohnyc brought a car loaded with goddies of fresh produce, fruits and vegetables to fill the fridge. People from the neighborhood came through and did their shopping #forfree 🤲🏾🙏🏾 I am sooooo excited, beyond words, to be a part of this movement. To be able to bring this new concept of #takewhatyouneedleavewhatyoudont #takewhatyouneedgivewhatyoucan to my #Harlem #Community. To say the least, it is uplifting in a World filled with so much bad news. It gives me #HOPE and I hope that people understand the seriousness of food insecurity and need for food right now during this critical time, the pandemic of COVID-19, and will appreciated this initiative and like @111pastina111 said Direct Action is Everything!!! ✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾 Although I can and have already seen how as this is something rather new and unfamiliar, it is frowned upon by some… That being said. We all know the need for mutual aid, the seriousness of food waste and the lack of community and solidarity amongst us. I truly hope that this will grow and catch on and become #TheNewNormal. Also understand that standing on long lines may not be possible, the best option from a physical or psychological standpoint for some people, wherefore having a fridge that is always filled with something good to eat is a better choice. Please stop by if you have something to give and please spread the word 🗣🎵🎶#Barampa Bless🙏🏾🙏🏾🙏🏾 🤲🏾🤲🏾🤲🏾💫💫💫 Sade
Three other free food fridges were recently organized in Harlem, the Bronx and Crown Heights, and Tietze hopes that efforts made in Brooklyn will be emulated in other parts of New York City and even around the country for lower-income communities. (In fact, the community fridge movement has been happening around the world since at least 2012.) She hopes that the free food fridges become a more permanent fixture in neighborhoods that were impacted by COVID-19 and she envisions something like a trading post in the future.
“[We] want to connect to more community groups and we’re expanding outreach on social media,” she said. “Putting in small efforts is going a long way through all of this.”
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#Repost @iohnyc Seen via @be_present_earthlings ・・・ This movement is growing! There are at least five well stocked, maintained, used and loved community fridges right now in NYC with plans for two more to be announced very soon! We’ve also been contacted by people looking to replicate this model of #MutualAid in other parts of the country! We’d love to help others however we can because whether you lost your job, qualify for unemployment or not shouldn’t factor into whether you and your family have enough healthy food to eat! . . . #spreadthelove #spreadtherevolution #anarchism #freeganism #feedthepeople #wastenothing #buynothing #foodnotbombs #buildcommunity #anarquismo #anarchist #freegan #gifteconomy #ayudamutua #freeganismo #anarquistas #communityfridge #freedge #solidaritynotcharity #mutualaidnotcharity #goodworks #anarchists #anewworldinourhearts @thefriendlyfridge @communitysolidarity