Ingredients for Change
Community fridges expand how they support New Yorkers in need
By Nicholas Hernandez
CRUCIAL PRESENCE: Established in 2021, the Astoria Halal Community Fridge has fulfilled vital needs in Queens at every stage of the pandemic. (Photos/Nicholas Hernandez)
The community fridges that sprouted on sidewalks across the city during the pandemic seem to be everywhere now.
And their job may be bigger than ever.
Decorated refrigerators, located in all five boroughs, sit outside unsupervised and unattended, stocked with fruits, vegetables, drinks and other perishables. Any time of the day, anyone can open the fridge and collect these free items, no questions asked.
The pandemic inspired a widespread expansion in a city where food insecurity plagues many neighborhoods still reeling from the disruption caused by COVID-19. Even before the coronavirus hit, more than a million New Yorkers did not have enough to eat, according to Hunger-Free America.
A recent survey of city residents cited by No Kid Hungry New York, part of a national nonprofit campaign led by Share Our Strength, found that nearly half of the respondents said they cannot afford nutritious foods. More than a third said they had skipped a meal and another 31% reported they had to struggle to buy groceries or pay bills.
Community-fridge operations in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, have expanded their work—becoming a lifeline for many New Yorkers.
Organizers are forging new partnerships with donors and distributors, offering a wider variety of supplies and initiating sustainable connections with businesses and nonprofit groups.
The Bronx: Feeding the hungriest borough
At Broadway and West 242nd Street in Riverdale, an elderly woman, a cane by her side, waits patiently near a brightly colored refrigerator that blends in with a colorful pastel-colored mural. Donations ranging from fresh, cooked sweet potatoes to pasta meals fill the fridge.
Eating some of the sweet potatoes, the woman—an assisted-living facility resident who asked to remain anonymous—said she is lactose-intolerant and does not have access to meals that meet her dietary restrictions and she cannot cook where she lives.
The rise in food prices has made it difficult to buy what she needs.
“I live in independent living, and they give food there, but I cannot eat anything,” she said. “I cannot eat certain foods because [of] acid reflux. So, I either buy my food or get it from here.”
The Bronx remains the hungriest borough, with 25.4% of its residents living in food-insecure households. One in six employed residents deals with food insecurity, according to a Hunger-Free America study published last year.
In May 2020, Selma Raven, a special-education teacher, and her partner, Sara Allen, an engineering manager, created “Friendly Fridge.”
They have been surprised by the range of people who use it—from nurses and construction workers to park workers and those experiencing homelessness.
The fridge came after Raven’s son Michael died by suicide at the age of 21. He had worked with Bronx Green-Up, a New York Botanical Garden outreach program that provides education and training. This connection introduced her to the issue of food disparities.
“This is something Michael would have loved,” Raven said.
Raven said that the fridge, powered by electricity from the Jerusalem Cafe, helps nearly 200 people on any given day and credits the success of the fridge to its accessibility—as it sits under the last stop on the 1 train and near various bus stops.
While Raven said it feels good to give back, “it’s always colored with the fact that it’s never enough.”
“We had great meals and people were so happy. But we had nothing to drink unless we bought the drinks,” Raven said. Very few donors offer water, juice or milk, she added.
The Friendly Fridge recently celebrated beverage donations that included flavored water. Riverdale Neighborhood House donated quarts of milk. Students at Atmosphere Academy Public Charter School have also become involved.
Stopping to stock the fridge with unused cafeteria items, Reginald Jay, a seventh-grade dean at the school, said his students have become invested in helping, even raising funds to supply the fridge with water bottles.
Raven and Allen said they have helped others establish community fridges, including Mott Haven Fridge, located at Brito Deli and Grocery on Crimmins Avenue. The fridge was founded in late 2020 by Daniel Zauderer and Charlotte Alvarez, a teacher at American Dream Charter School. Now, the Mott Haven Network runs a total of three community fridges—with others located on Brook Avenue in Mott Haven and Riverbay Corporation offices in Co-Op City.
Zauderer, a former teacher at American Dream, said he was inspired to combat food insecurity after conducting a survey that showed half of his students had either skipped or cut down on a meal. Nearly 25% said they skipped more than one meal a week.
The Mott Haven network distributes more than 6,000 pounds of food to nearly two dozen community sites with the help of more than 20 volunteers every Saturday. On average, Zauderer, executive director of the fridge network, said it distributes food to about 600 families every weekend.
On a Saturday in June, Zauderer and volunteers provided donations to 10 community fridges and 15 locations across the city. Ranging from New York City Housing Authority buildings to faith-based organizations and a medical clinic in the North Bronx, Zauderer said all donations come from unsold inventory at vendors at the Hunts Point Market.
Zauderer said he loves helping distribute food, especially at the medical clinic, where the organization is able to provide fresh produce to the patients and their families.
“It feels rewarding to be able to make an impact,” said Zauderer. “It also is frustrating to see how much is left to be done.”
STOCKING UP: Reginald Jay, a dean at Atmosphere Academy Public Charter School, supplies the fridge with untouched and unused cafeteria items from the school.
Queens: A “crucial” local service
Emily Pesa, an Astoria resident, stands near the Astoria Halal Community Fridge as volunteers prepare to distribute hot meals to the community during the last days of Ramadan. This marked the first hot-meal distribution organized by the volunteers.
Pesa said the simplicity of the fridge setup—connected outside an insurance business at 25-75 Steinway St.—is key to its success.
“It’s so open and I think it takes away some of the stigmas that people might feel a little reluctant or hesitant, or maybe a little shy to go to a food pantry,” she said. “And here, they can just do it on their own and on their own schedule.”
In Queens, nearly a quarter million people were dealing with food insecurity even before the pandemic, according to Hunger-Free America.
The Steinway Street fridge opened in March 2021, said organizer Raniem Abdelaziz. Its challenges included finding a host, helping residents understand the concept and some businesses taking items for their own use.
Despite the setbacks, organizers aim to develop new distribution and delivery systems to expand access, Abdelaziz added.
Bryant Silva, an Astoria resident and volunteer, said the community-funded fridge sustains itself thanks to steady donations from residents and organizations that “recognize that food insecurity is a problem here in Western Queens and that not everybody has the same access to quality food.”
Abdelaziz, a staff member at DreamYard, a Bronx arts-education organization, said volunteers try to supply the Halal fridge with food for the Southwest Asian and African communities.
“It’s just also good to know, like, they have those options if they need food, but they’re not just getting anything that they could get their hands on,” she said. “They’re getting what they’d actually eat if they could get it themselves.”
She said allocations from Astoria Food Pantry, restaurant partnerships, the grocery delivery startup Gorillas and other organizations keep the fridge replenished.
However, having the fridge continuously stocked is an ongoing issue.
“Once we do fill it up, it is gone in like 30 minutes,” Abdelaziz said. “It looks like the fridge was empty for a long time. But it was just full.”
She believes the pandemic has made New Yorkers more aware of food insecurity and the importance of community fridges.
“I think [the community fridge] is crucial, regardless of where we are in terms of the pandemic. I think for us, like, as long as our host allows us to stay, we’ll be staying,” Abdelaziz said.
The grassroots movement has evolved, she added, to distributing food to families across New York City during Ramadan, a month observed by Muslims that consists of fasting, prayer and reflection. For the second year, the organizers have been able to deliver items because of donations. The GoFundMe fundraiser exceeded this year’s goal—raising $4,380.
Abdelaziz said the deliveries were to primarily single mothers who recently emigrated from Egypt, Morocco and other countries. The volunteers were able to deliver packages to 31 families from all five boroughs, Abdelaziz said.
GETTING READY: Nonya Khedr and Raniem Abdelaziz, Astoria Halal Community Fridge organizers, prepare hot meals for the organization’s first food distribution.
BRONX ASSIST: Mayra Cedano, a “Friendly Fridge” volunteer, hands out hot meals donated by Claudy’s Kitchen.
Brooklyn: Expanding the range of help
Caroline Flynn, a Brooklyn resident, an assistant production coordinator and an organizer with the Classon Community Fridge, said volunteer work has made inroads in Crown Heights.
“From a volunteer standpoint, from a donation standpoint, from a food standpoint, it’s kind of crazy to think that now we have people in the neighborhood, they know us, they rely on us, they are working with us, they want to be a part of it with us,” Flynn said. “It’s just a really great community that we’ve built.”
In New York City, Brooklyn has the highest number of individuals living in food-insecure households, an estimated average of 390,000 from 2018 to 2020, according to Hunger-Free America.
The fridge, located at 641 Classon Ave., was created in February 2021. Over the past eight months, Flynn said, volunteers have led seven food distribution events.
Organizers have partnered with Gotham Food Pantry, which helps with the payments for their large-scale distribution, assists with getting donations from City Harvest and contributes to paying delivery drivers’ costs.
And the Friends and Lovers bar, which hosts the fridge, pays for the electricity powering the fridge and for trash pickup around it.
Partnerships with Gorillas, food warehouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and restaurants such as Dough Donuts, which provides hundreds of donuts a week, keep the fridge constantly stocked.
Still, Flynn said there are challenges with keeping a routine schedule for large-scale distributions. Supply chain problems and funding cuts from programs supporting two major community-food distribution hubs have resulted in fewer donations.
“It’s hard to promise, you know, Tuesdays at 2 p.m. [to pick up food],” Flynn said, “because that’s not really something we can guarantee.”
The addition of text services accessed by about 200 fridge users has made it easier to notify them about drop-offs and the availability of personal-care items.
Flynn said the project has given away $1,000 worth of hygiene products ranging from diapers to tampons and menstrual pads, along with 1,500 COVID-19 test and personal protection equipment kits.
“Some days it’s hard because we feel like we are not doing enough because we’re just, you know, one little fridge on a corner,” she said. “And other days, it’s like absolutely amazing to see the turnout that we did.”
HELPING HAND: The “Friendly Fridges” began operations in May 2020 and generally serve nearly 200 people every day, founder Selma Raven said.