It’s Saturday morning, and Michelle Nelson, 44, is neatly lining up Granny Smith apples and unshucked ears of corn in a refrigerator standing outside near the intersection of Seventh Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood. A full spread of produce is already tucked inside: tomatoes, Thai eggplant, jalapeños, summer squash, onions, Italian frying peppers, and beets.

“Someone just added this mint,” she said, pulling out a few of the green stems. “It smells so good.”

Nelson is the founder of Mama-Tee, an e-commerce store and apparel brand that recently launched the Community Fridge Project. Designed to provide food for those in need, the project features refrigerators, painted in a signature, bright-banana-colored yellow, set up outdoors for anyone to access.

“We have a ‘take what you need, leave what you don’t’ motto,” Nelson said.

The first refrigerator went up two weeks ago against the brick walls of the Ambassador restaurant (635 W. Girard Ave.). A week later, a second location was launched near Franny Lou’s Porch in Kensington (2400 Coral St.). Nelson will power up a third refrigerator by Triple Bottom Brewing (915 Spring Garden St.) next, on her way toward a goal of 20 refrigerators across the city by the end of 2020.

“One in five people suffer from food insecurity in Philadelphia,” Nelson said. “And COVID-19 has left millions unemployed. We have all kinds of people going to the fridge to make ends meet.”

Joined by three other women of color, Nelon launched Mama-Tee in May with a mission to shine light on the fight for racial equality and justice. A portion of the proceeds is donated to activist organizations, with a new one chosen each month. It’s prominently displayed at the top of the website for visitors to view, as they peruse shirts sporting such statements as “speaking out against racism is dope.” August’s pick: Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit working to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

“When we looked at the brand, we knew immediately that we wanted to do something with community outreach,” Nelson said. “There’s a lot of persistence with food insecurity in Philadelphia, and so launching the Community Fridge project here made sense.”

For months, Nelson and her team studied community fridge programs already established in such cities as New York and Los Angeles. Speaking with other organizers, they worked out details ranging from how to choose a successful location to how to prepare a refrigerator to withstand thunderstorms and other outdoor conditions.

“Putting up the fridge is really the least of it,” Nelson said. “The main part is getting the community on board. You have to talk to the community, you have to be visible, they have to trust you. It’s part urban planning, part studying the neighborhood statistics.”

Nelson explains that a major key to success is finding a location where there are both enough neighbors willing to donate and people who would need to take from the fridge. Location research includes plenty of on-the-ground talking to residents and businesses in the area.

Mama-Tee also searches for a partner to host each fridge, usually a restaurant or cafe that is open to supplying the energy. Once it is launched, team members show up daily to check on the contents.

“We take stock of what people in the neighborhood like and what they don’t like, so each fridge is different,” Nelson said. “The one at Ambassador, they love bananas and apples. At the Franny Lou location, we do Popsicles because there’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood.”

Listening to the community: It’s the key to a successful community fridge, Nelson said.

Outside of Ambassador, a community fridge stocked with vegetables for anyone in need to take.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Outside of Ambassador, a community fridge stocked with vegetables for anyone in need to take.

Right now, Mama-Tee handles the majority of the food supply, sourcing fruits and vegetables from donors including local restaurants and farms, and food brands, such as Misfits Market, a Chicago-based company that delivers ugly, but otherwise edible, produce nationwide.

Fridges are stocked and cleaned twice a day. Especially in deference to the coronavirus, Mama-Tee members wear gloves when handling the food and encourage anyone taking it to properly wash items before eating them. They ask that donors wear masks when dropping off food.

Photos are taken during each visit to document which items are most popular.

“We’re trying to develop a rhythm as to how much and what type of food we want to receive so that food doesn’t rot — this is about combating food waste, as well,” Nelson said.

Although Mama-Tee spearheads ensuring that the fridges stay full, everyone in the neighborhood is welcomed and encouraged to donate. And so far, local residents appear excited to do so.

Recently, a photo of a Mama-Tee yellow fridge was spotted in the Northern Liberties Neighbors Facebook page. Alongside several “this is awesome” and “great idea” posts were those from residents already thinking about what they could contribute.

“My tomato plants are going crazy so I can share some fruit,” one resident commented.

“I host a CSA pickup and sometimes have extra peppers, squash, etc. when members are out of town,” another wrote.

Last week, Nelson received an Instagram message that she says really touched her heart.

“When I get paid every other Friday, I could buy a few extra things to leave in there,” the message read. “I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck so sometimes a few days before I get paid things get tight, so this could benefit [me] to grab a few things when needed also. I really love and appreciate this.”

The fridges are meant to be a positive addition, not an obstruction, says Nelson. Locations are chosen so that they're always tucked away from the sidewalk in areas that don't detract from the business that's hosting it.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
The fridges are meant to be a positive addition, not an obstruction, says Nelson. Locations are chosen so that they're always tucked away from the sidewalk in areas that don't detract from the business that's hosting it.

Currently, donations must be fruits and vegetables only. At the Ambassador location, bottled water is also welcomed.

“There’s just not a ton of places to shop for fresh produce around here, so people that need it can use it, and people who have extra food can make sure it’s donated before it goes to waste,” Ambassador owner Kahlil Mir said. “It really brings the community together in this nice, positive way.”

Two-weeks in, Ambassador says it’s been seeing an average of 12 to 15 people a day using the refrigerator.

“And that doesn’t include the evenings or night,” Nelson said. “If we fill it three times, that’s 45 people we can feed per day, and if you multiply that by 20 fridges, you’re almost at 1,000. That’s where we want to head.”

Mama-Tee is seeking volunteers to help with basic refrigerator upkeep, such as discarding rotten items and arranging food on scheduled donation delivery days. Donations can be made through a GoFundMe campaign, and there are corporate packages, too, where sponsors can get their company name tagged on the refrigerator.

“It really does take a village,” Nelson said. “But the support has been so positive. It’s really a win-win-win situation. The community wins, the host wins, we win.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.