On a recent, unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn, I walked to visit several community fridges. Children leapt in t-shirts and shorts, carrying their first ice creams of the new year, delighting in the sunshine after weeks of frigid cold. One fridge I visited was empty, and another—which used to be ripe with tomatoes, lettuce and cauliflower—had disappeared. Earlier that morning, California announced that they would define COVID as “endemic,” marking a new stage in the virus response. What did that mean for community fridges, which had served as a physical symbol of need in crisis for so long?
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, fridges sprouted across New York City like wildflowers. Painted in lush green or bright magenta with “free food/comida gratis” scrawled across them, they offered a colorful vision for a different world. In this world, everyone had access to delicious food, and care was a human right. In a moment of unprecedented precarity, the fridges affirmed: We take care of each other.
Soon, there were fridges across the country. By late 2020, freedge.org, a comprehensive community fridge database, listed locations in Georgia, California, Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. They were part of hundreds of mutual aid efforts—which activist Dean Spade defines as “the radical act of caring for each other while working to change the world”—that emerged to staunch the flood of food insecurity, which rose to thirty percent in households with children during the pandemic.
Two years have passed since Thadeus Umpster placed the first fridge (a Craigslist find that he couldn’t fit in his basement) in front of his apartment in Brooklyn. A lot has changed since then. Their explosive growth, he reflected, has been “humbling and inspiring.” However, fridge organizers are grappling with their futures. As volunteers return to work and food insecurity persists, they are considering: What’s next?
Labor organizer Jess McQuain and psychology professor Dr. Stephanie Jett started the Milly Free Fridge in Milledgeville, Georgia, to fill a “gaping hole” in pandemic relief. They launched at community events in May 2021, where they distributed produce, detergent and other essential-but-expensive items. (Their efforts came just in time: In June 2021, Governor Brian Kemp pre-emptively ended the extra $300 weekly benefit from Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.)
At first, community members were skeptical. “What’s the catch?” they asked, accustomed to the frustrating process of accessing government benefits like SNAP. When they realized there wasn’t one, word spread rapidly. They texted friends and family members to visit the fridge, and many community groups provided contributions. (Donations from a local sorority filled “every inch” of Dr. Jett’s car when we spoke.) Today, food placed in the fridge is usually gone by the end of the day.
The challenge, both organizers shared, is sustainability. Last Fall, Dr. Jett returned to in-person teaching at her university, making it harder to pick up donations and coordinate with volunteers. McQuain recently transitioned to a remote position to offer more support for the fridge and the other mutual aid projects she leads. They have consistent volunteers (their “backbone”) who have incorporated the fridge into their weekly routines. Still, “sometimes, we just need people to go out there and clean it.”
Sustainability has also been a challenge in New York City. At the height of the pandemic, there were 150 community fridges in all five boroughs. Today, there are 80.
The reduction in fridges isn’t all bad. In many ways, it marks a return to some semblance of normalcy. Students have gone back to school with free breakfast and lunch programs, unemployment has decreased to pre-pandemic rates and vaccines have increased the safety of in-person grocery store visits.
But food insecurity remains high, and the challenges organizers face to keep their communities fed have only deepened. The past two years have taken a significant toll on the mental health of people in traditional care-taking roles such as nurses, teachers and organizers (the vast majority of whom are women and specifically women of color). Fatigue and burnout are the results of trying to halt a flood of systemic failure without the adequate resources—financial, social, political—to do so.
Indeed, when I asked Kristin Guerin—co-founder of a community fridge network in Miami—about her vision for the future, she shared, “It would be amazing if our city and our country provided for citizens in a way that allowed them to not need food access support.” This is the paradox, and the vision, of community fridge projects: To become so successful that they no longer need to exist, for the care that they model to be embedded into daily life. (As McQuain told me, “We want a world where mutual aid is not a response but our best offense.”) This would mean the transfer of land back to Black and Indigenous communities, policies to end food waste and a transformation of public benefits to become more culturally competent and accessible.
Moving from crisis response to world change is a central goal of mutual aid. As Spade writes in his aptly titled book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And The Next), “The stronger we build our networks of mutual aid now, the more prepared we will be to help each other survive those disasters and transform our ways of living together toward liberation.”
Umpster, who has organized in New York City for more than twenty years as part of Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy efforts, shared a similar sentiment. He said that the decrease in fridges is not a failure. In fact, it should be seen as an expected part of the life-cycle of movement work and represents a vital form of learning for the future.
“The next time there’s a disaster or historical moment, I see people coming from community fridge organizing. There are a lot of new organizers who have learned how to work together, how to get resources, how to get volunteers, and all these skills are going to be important in the future to create a better world.”
Of course, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that impermanence and a collective inability to predict the future is a fact of life. These are questions we are all asking: What did we learn, how have we changed, and how will we embody those lessons to create a more sustainable, delicious future for all?
Even at the height of their success, community fridges could not fully address food insecurity, which stems from the structural inequities that are baked into our current food system. What they have provided, though, is a vision for how communities can respond to crises—even as policymakers refuse to. In a hope-depleted world, they offer a light.
At the final stops on my walk, people buzzed around the fridges. School had recently let out around the corner, and a group of students stared inside the fridge with the same searching posture for an afternoon snack—hands on hips, heads slightly tilted—that kids have embodied in front of the buzzing glow since the invention of fridges. The group clapped with delight at the discovery of fresh bagels and cream cheese. In the warm afternoon light, the promise of the fridge had been fulfilled.