The Best Digital Connection Is Hand-Delivered
Maps and apps support fridge. Yet face-to-face meetings forge strongest ties
By Austin Cope
KEEPING TRACK: A computer displaying the code for nycfridge.com, which was developed by two Brooklyn software engineers to help document New York City’s 120+ community fridges. (Courtesy Cal Churchill)
It’s pretty hard to miss New York’s community fridges on the street, where they are often brightly painted and marked with signs like “free food” and “comida gratis.”
Online, they have less visibility.
A search for “community fridges in New York City” yields several different maps of the five boroughs, marked with icons representing the approximate locations of the city’s dozens of fridges, which are often situated along storefronts’ sidewalks, in front of bodegas or on street corners.
Most operate through a mutual-aid model, which encourages people to take or leave food as needed. The fridges set up at the beginning of the pandemic have since grown into a decentralized and independently-run collection of more than 120 locations.
Alongside this growth, there have been several efforts to document their locations online. The fridge organizers have a range of views on the role of technology in the movement at large.
For some, technology can enhance empowerment and connection. For others, it’s just a practical means to an end. Across the board, fridge organizers said the spirit of mutual aid and collective solidarity they hope to encourage is paramount.
SHARING EXPERIENCE: Volunteers and community members at the 155th Street Fridge in Harlem. (Austin Cope)
DELIVERY TIME: Harlem resident Elizabeth Baez assists at the 155th Street Fridge in February 2022. (Austin Cope)
Documenting the new world
One of the more frequently updated maps, nycfridge.com, was built by Brooklyn-based software engineers Mars Ballantyne and Cal Churchill. Ballantyne, a software designer for an educational nonprofit, and a Churchill, a program tester for the New York Public Library, co-run the site from their South Park Slope apartment
“It’s a hobby—we basically do it in our free time,” said Churchill, 35, who said he and Ballantyne started the site to learn a new coding language and were also inspired by their involvement with food-justice movements during college upstate.
The intent was to help New Yorkers facing food insecurity—many of whom were swept up in a trend exacerbated by the pandemic—more easily find and access fridges.
“It’s sort of like a phone book of fridges,” Churchill said, explaining that the site allows users to share information about where the fridges are, when they’re stocked and if they need repairs.
Fridge organizers can send emails to be added to the map and several mutual aid groups list the site on their pages.
The listings updated most often usually are located near restaurants, which often donate excess food. The site is used by up to 40 visitors per day, with about 16,000 visits over the past year. About 60% come via mobile browsers.
The map covers fridges from Staten Island to as far north as Connecticut. In the five boroughs, the largest density is in Brooklyn. A few swaths of the city show gaps, such as the East Side of Manhattan and Queens neighborhoods including Sunnyside, Maspeth and Rego Park.
Other maps of New York’s community fridges exist online, from those using a Google Maps-style overlay to others documenting the beginnings of movement during the pandemic. International organizations share maps that include fridges in New York, as well. Each displays a varying degree of completeness, with some fridges not included or having stopped running since the map was created.
Thadeus Umpster, who organized a fridge in Bedford-Stuyvesant in early 2020 along with the anarchist network In Our Hearts NYC, said the maps have been useful as the number of fridges throughout the city has grown. He also appreciated how nycfridge.com began.
“Mars [Ballantyne] saw that there had been other maps, but there were problems with them,” Umpster said. “Instead of trying to get permission [from us] to do something else, Mars just did it, and that ended up…being the best solution.”
Umpster, 41, noted that he has never met Ballantyne in person. They’ve communicated over Zoom calls and via Signal, the encrypted messaging app. Umpster now uses the map when he delivers food to new parts of the city and sends the map to new volunteers who help deliver food between fridges.
“They’re like, ‘OK…where do I take the food?’ We send them the map and we’re like, ‘Go to whatever fridges you want to go to. Whatever’s convenient for you,’” he said.
CONNECTING RESOURCES: Started by Stéphanie Tonnoir, the fridge at West 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue receives electricity and food donations from the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club. (Austin Cope)
The local connections
Another organizer, Héctor Gerardo, 39, who directs the Bronx-based nonprofit 1 Freedom for All, helped a group of youth volunteers set up the Ujaama Fridge outside the community room at Frederick Douglass Houses in West Harlem near the beginning of the pandemic. He said he occasionally uses the fridge maps to recommend other locations to community members, but most of their coordination happens over group messaging apps.
They organized the fridge’s setup via Zoom meetings and group chats via Signal and later on Telegram, another encrypted messaging app. He said the platforms’ extra level of privacy protects them from hackers or government entities that could target social movements. And outside of the behind-the-scenes organizing, he said face-to-face interactions are also important.
“Most of the people that take the food are older folks, that are not used to technology as much, so it’s hard to put out a [social media] blast,” he said. “The younger people are the organizers.”
In general, he said technology is especially important for young people because the community has lacked access to resources such as smartphones and technology-centered education.
“When it comes from food to technology, we need to be part of the conversation. Because right now we are facing environmental racism, technology racism, all of this,” he said, adding that his organization also teaches young people to code and to do other forms of community organizing.
Elsewhere, the choice of online platforms matters less than the community relationships the fridges build. Asha Edey, 20, helps organize the Woodside Community Fridge in Queens, which receives its electricity from the adjacent 31st Ave. Deli. Edey said fridge maps have rarely been part of their work.
“People reached out a bunch in the beginning to add our fridge to [the maps], which I think is great,” she said. “But I haven’t used them at all.”
Instead, she finds other fridges using Instagram hashtags. She and the fridge organizers rely on the platform to communicate with volunteers, share photos and updates for community members, and find financial support, she explained.
All the other fridge organizers interviewed for this story expressed a similar preference toward Instagram, though each also voiced concerns about past issues with its privacy, censorship, and ethics. Instagram is part of tech giant Meta, which also owns Facebook and has faced controversies involving censorship of activist groups, privacy and psychological impacts on young users. Edey also said the fridge’s Instagram account had recently been hacked, leading organizers to create a new account.
But Edey said the platform’s ease of use and wide reach helped publicize the fridge when it was first starting because some people were skeptical of community fridges. Organizers balanced their use of Instagram—and of technology in general—with the philosophy of mutual aid, which encourages a system of solidarity, not charity. Edey said that can be best supported by face-to-face interactions.
“Our goal, when we were starting the fridge, was that you wouldn’t need to have technology to feel like it’s your fridge,” she said. “But a lot of that also happens when you’re actually at the fridge and just talking to people who are coming by.”
Close to home
Despite the various online platforms and media coverage over the past two years, the most concrete part of the community fridge movement— attempting to help people access quality food—remains most visible in person.
In West Harlem, a line of about 40 people waited for a food drop-off at a community fridge on West 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. Started by a nearby resident, Stéphanie Tonnoir, it is operated independently but receives electricity and food donations from the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club. The fridge also maintains an active Instagram presence.
The visitors, almost all over the age of 50, waited with wire carts and shopping bags as three organizers loaded boxes of food into the fridge.
Ramón González, 77, said he appreciated the difference in food selection compared to what was available at the bodega near his Polo Grounds Towers home.
“No vale la pena allí”—it’s not worth going to the trouble there, he said. The bodega’s options were often limited to squash, onions or apples. Here, the fridge sometimes offers oranges and occasionally meat.
He heard about the fridge from his neighbors—“La gente te informa.”
Though he didn’t have a phone to access the Internet or find information about the fridge, one of his neighbors did—and they let him know the fridge was distributing food.
Before they started to distribute the food, Tonnior and volunteer Jordan Ash took photos of each other in front of the mangoes, peaches, and bundles of asparagus that filled the fridge.
Both organizers knew about the maps, though Tonnior said she didn’t know if they were accurate. Ash said they were—and she had recently reposted a link to one of them.
After the delivery, Desire, who preferred to share her first name only, pushed a cart carrying a box full of vegetables. She said she had been coming to the fridge almost every weekend since April 2020.
She had met Tonnior in person and contacted her via Facebook and Instagram. And for the 69-year-old, that use of technology worked just fine.
“It’s perfect,” she said.