What Happened to All of NYC’s Community Fridges?
Three years after the beginning of the pandemic, and as food insecurity continues to rise, many of these fridges have shut down. Why?
11:07 AM EST on November 22, 2023
In July of 2020, Fort Greene resident and teacher Leigh Conner helped create a community fridge located outside of the Farmer in the Deli bodega on Myrtle Avenue. According to Conner, at its peak, the Fort Greene fridge was staffed by a network of hundreds of volunteers who cleaned it three times a day and distributed over 40 boxes of bulk produce each weekend.
"It was a very, very busy fridge," the 36-year-old Conner said, noting that the fridge served a community made up mostly of low-income Black and Chinese tenants of the nearby Ingersoll Houses, as well as residents of nearby homeless shelters. "Foot traffic was insane. We couldn't keep up with the demand."
But this past May, the fridge closed down, after nobody volunteered to continue hosting it.
In an Instagram post announcing that the fridge was closing, organizers blamed "NIMBYism and hostility towards the unhoused and AAPI communities who built the foundation of our community." "We miss the daily interactions with our neighbors and are heartbroken we can't continue to address hunger through the use of a public fridge/pantry," they wrote.
In 2020, outdoor community fridges started popping up all over New York City and across the country, often set up by mutual aid groups that formed during the pandemic. These community fridges, sometimes known as "friendly fridges," offer free food with no long lines or other barriers to access, unlike many food pantries and soup kitchens. According to the long-time activist Thadaeus Umpster, who claims to have founded New York City's first community fridge in February of 2020, the concept was inspired by the Black Panther Party's free breakfast for children program in the '60s. These fridges are open 24/7, and run by the community, for the community—at least, that's the idea.
But now, three years after the beginning of the pandemic, many of these fridges have shut down. It's a good time to take stock: Are community fridges doing what they set out to do, and can they be an effective, sustainable form of mutual aid? And in a city where food insecurity is surging, is there still a useful role for community fridges to play?
No one can say with certainty how many COVID-era fridges remain. According to the tracker NYCFridge.com, there may still be over 100 community fridges in New York, but it's hard to tell how many are actually operating. (At the time of publication, the website lists 162, but many fridges are marked as empty or closed, or are listed multiple times.)
Recently, I visited 10 community fridges that are listed as active on that tracker, and only one looked like it was being maintained and used. Some fridges, like one in Brooklyn Heights, were empty; others were dirty and appeared to have not been cleaned for weeks. A couple weren't even plugged in, and I couldn't find the Chinatown fridge where it was supposed to be. The fridge outside of the Bed-Stuy coffeeshop Sincerely, Tommy was filled partially with radishes. The Essex Market fridge was empty and missing a door; inside, there was a single package of vegan feta, which had expired weeks earlier.
The few fridges that do persist have done so in the face of adversity. Fridges don't last as long outside as they do in your kitchen; one organizer said that they need to be replaced at least once per year. They also need to be supplied with electricity, and that electricity needs to be provided by someone—usually a sympathetic business or a faith-based organization. Then there are the complex logistics of organizing and maintaining a well-stocked fridge. "You have to have the donators, you have to have somebody pick [food] up," said Alison Daguila, a former student who did outreach for an online archive of community fridges as a project for the CUNY Graduate Center. "You have your monthly meetings. There's usually at least, what, 12 people involved, if not more, per fridge."
In the case of the Fort Greene fridge, Conner noted that crowds often gathered, which wasn't always positive—on several occasions, people fought over items in the fridge. After two unhoused people started sleeping on benches nearby, the owner of Farmer in the Deli requested that the fridge be moved.
The fridge's founders then spent months trying to find a new host. Their only solid lead for a new location—in front of Bravo Supermarkets, near the Whitman Tenant Association Office—got shut down by NYCHA after months of negotiations.
"The Whitman Tenant Association did not want the fridge there at all," Conner said. "They felt like it was going to be their responsibility to deal with the 'mess' that it would create."
The Chelsea Community Fridge, located outside of the Church of St. Francis Xavier and maintained by a group of dozens of volunteers, is one of the COVID-era fridges that's still operating.
William Gagnino, who has been unhoused for the past thirty years and has passed time in and out of shelters, relies on the Chelsea fridge for food. He also volunteers to help out with distribution, prepping bags for others to package and carry food.
"I've been coming here, helping [out], maybe about a couple months now, maybe a half a year," Gagnino said. "I like talking to people. I like socializing with people. I like telling jokes, talking to people like you. I like laughter. I try to have a good outlook."
Although he likes the community he has found, he still doesn't feel entirely welcome at the fridge.
"They have a sign, they don't want us hanging out," said Gagnino, referencing a sign on the side of the fridge that asks community members not to linger. "I wish we had a building."
Gagnino highlights the limitations of community fridges: a fridge can only do so much. It can hold food, but it can't actually create a community where one does not already exist.
Maya Gomberg helped found the Middletown Mutual Aid Collective (MMAC) in Connecticut, and was involved with NYC's Abolition Eats, an offshoot of the City Hall occupation group Abolition Park. Both projects that Gomberg worked on ended up disintegrating, which Gomberg blames on the fact that those efforts were led by people like them: white, middle-class organizers who wanted to connect with marginalized communities, but lacked experience and established relationships. To Gomberg, while MMAC had the goal of providing true mutual aid, its work "felt much closer to charity." They are now skeptical of whether the kind of community fridges that proliferated during the pandemic can be sustainable.
"A lot of people understand community fridges to be a mutual aid or organizing tactic—to create community, to share food, to do all these things with new people that you don’t know," they said. "That has largely been extremely difficult, and I don’t know whether that long-term functions as an organizing tool."
Former fridge founders told Hell Gate they never envisioned community fridges as a permanent solution. Zenat Begum, the owner of Playground Coffee Shop in Bed-Stuy, got profiled in the New York Times for her efforts to fight food insecurity and was involved in the operation of four fridges, including the one in Fort Greene. Two of those fridges have since closed. These days, Begum does not think that community fridges are a long-term response to food insecurity, and believes that food distribution should be done by the City itself. "We're doing the job of our government," she said. "We don't deserve scraps as humans. But at the same time, food is food."
Thadeaus Umpster, the first fridge operator, agrees with Begum—he founded his fridge to respond to immediate need, and plans to continue operating it while also fighting for systemic change. "I don’t think [fridges] are the solution," he said. "We need to revolutionize the entire way we distribute food. Everyone should have access to a healthy diet. They shouldn’t have to worry about working or paying for it."
Community fridges have declined even as food insecurity has gone up. According to an analysis done by City Harvest, monthly visits to New York food pantries have increased by 60 percent since before the pandemic. Today, as COVID-era government nutrition assistance expires and the cost of groceries continues to rise, food insecurity remains a very real and urgent problem, one that both community fridges and food pantries seek to address.
In community fridge circles, the work done by charity organizations like food pantries is often looked down upon. "Soup kitchens and other more charity-oriented organizations both have higher barriers to accessing foods, and generally don't build that much community with the people who are accessing the foods," Gomberg said. "They are not trying to challenge the structures that make them necessary."
Cheryl Murray, who works at the Hanson Place Seventh Day Adventist Church's soup kitchen and food pantry, saw a large increase in the number of people relying on the church’s charity services during the pandemic. She reports that those numbers haven't dropped since the beginning of 2020, especially given the recent arrival of tens of thousands of migrants to the city.
Murray thinks community fridges were great for addressing food insecurity during the height of the pandemic, when people were worried about going indoors.
"At the time when they were opened, they did fill a need," she said. "Even though during the pandemic, our food pantry was open and our soup kitchen was open, sometimes you had a lot of people who just didn't want to come out, they were afraid."
Murray says that community fridges and charity-based pantries have more in common than not.
"The hardest thing about coming out of the pandemic is people always need food, whether it's a single person or a family of four or five people. If you have kids in the family, you have to feed them," she said. "It's really the same purpose."
Even if some organizers maintain that community fridges remain a viable response to food insecurity, many volunteers seem to have moved on. Several interviewees commented that they no longer do fridge organizing, or have only visited the fridge they represent a few times personally.
Still, organizers of fridges past and present believe that community fridges are worthwhile. "I absolutely think true community fridges are still possible and still exist in the city," said Conner, of the Fort Greene fridge. Community fridge archivist Daugila concurs: "No doubt in my mind, you just need the right people that care, and an outlet."
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