This community fridge helped battle food apartheid. Now it’s rebuilding.
“We’re all providing for each other, we’re all looking out for each other,” said Robert Long, community fridge volunteer.
When Janice Tosto saw what had become of her beloved community fridge in the Spring Garden/Callowhill neighborhood, she was devastated. The top door had been completely torn off, forcing Tosto, hunger relief supervisor at the nonprofit agency Bebashi at 1235 Spring Garden St. to toss out the fridge.
A few neighborhoods over, in Kensington, one of Tosto’s community partners stepped back from managing the fridge Tosto had given her — people addicted to drugs had been taking and selling the food from the fridge, she said, and threatening neighbors who complained about it.
Tosto and other staffers at Bebashi felt dejected at first, unsure of what to do next, and whether they had it in them to keep trying.
Bebashi, a nonprofit agency that provides health and hunger relief services to Black and brown folks, launched its first community fridge in December. Tosto had been a longtime supporter of the community fridges that operate in her Germantown neighborhood, providing equitable access to healthy and free food for the community. So when one of her staff members suggested they start their own community fridge, Tosto enthusiastically said yes.
They located a fridge, and worked with the Nirbhayam Project and other volunteers to build a shed for and beautify the fridge. Faces representing the diversity of the neighborhood were painted on the sides of the fridge, along with the phrase “Free food” in Mandarin, English, Arabic, and Spanish. The front had colorful drawings of different produce and foods.
“The good thing about the fridge is that we make food available when people can’t get to our food pantry.”
“I wanted it to be something that had faces that represented the multiple people in our community, that also said ‘Free food’ in multiple languages, to make it accessible to them,” said Samyuktha Natarajan, founder of the Nirbhayam Project and one of the designers of the fridge. “It also made it really clear what this thing was, so if you were passing by and not sure why there was a fridge on the sidewalk, you would have a pretty clear sense.”
That accessibility was a key motive behind starting the fridge in the first place.
“The good thing about the fridge is that we make food available when people can’t get to our food pantry,” Tosto said. “And sometimes people are reluctant for whatever reason to come inside your pantry — it could be because of language barriers, or it could be stigma and shame.”
That’s where the fridge comes in. Open 24/7, the fridge — which is not plugged in — was restocked multiple times a week with healthy pantry items, such as canned tuna, vegetables and more. Once, Tosto mentioned, a father stopped by the fridge with his two young sons in the middle of the night, after he had finished his work shift to get them breakfast items for the next day.
It’s not charity — it’s mutual aid
The fridge proved to be a particularly useful resource in a neighborhood that has not had a supermarket in years, becoming a way to fight food apartheid in the city. But Robert Long, a volunteer with the community fridge, emphasized that it’s not charity — it’s mutual aid. People can give and take as they see fit, depending on their needs and what they have to offer.
“It’s not people at the top giving to the bottom,” he said. “We’re all providing for each other, we’re all looking out for each other. There’s a snack in there for you, too.”
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But when the Bebashi fridge was vandalized, and the Kensington one faced challenges, the Bebashi team members weren’t sure whether they should continue.
“One of our clients said to me, ‘So when are you guys gonna open another fridge?’ I shook my head at him because I was so hurt,” Tosto said. “Our security associate said, ‘I know you’re feeling a bit dejected about this, but I would hate for you guys to not try to open up another fridge because of this.’”
Other volunteers who have worked with the community fridge said the challenges are just windows into other service gaps that need to be filled for the community.
“I think it has the possibility to be a conversation-starter and opportunity to relationship-build.”
“I think it has the possibility to be a conversation-starter and opportunity to relationship-build and be more deeply embedded in your community,” said Natarajan. “I think that shouldn’t discourage us from continuing to ask: ‘What is it that you actually need support with? Are there other resources that we can connect you to?’”
After a staff meeting following the vandalization, the Bebashi team members came to a consensus: We shouldn’t let this stop us. They have a new fridge that’s ready to be beautified, and in September will be back on the street, serving the community.