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Jammella Anderson kneels beside a bright pink refrigerator on a sidewalk in Albany, New York, stocking its shelves with fresh loaves of bread and heads of lettuce—food that is free for the taking. A passerby stops to ask how to donate. She tells them where and how to sign up to give veggies, dairy, or prepared meals. They continue walking, then double back and ask Anderson whether they can donate the stale contents of their apartment fridge ahead of a move. The answer is an emphatic “no.”
To Anderson, the question epitomizes the problem she’s trying to solve as founder of Free Food Fridge Albany: A prevailing attitude that poor, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as others who disproportionately face food insecurity, deserve only leftovers, day-old bread, or scraps. The Free Food Fridge flips that idea on its head.
“[Food] seemed so inaccessible to me because food insecurity is something that I dealt with, and because we live in a city, you don’t really see where the food is coming from,” Anderson says.
The problem is not only an economic one, or one of food scarcity, but also of food accessibility.
“This is all fresh food from the earth that people who are going food-insecure should be able to have.”
A community activist, yoga teacher, and doula, Anderson launched Free Food Fridge Albany last summer, at the height of the pandemic and resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Black woman, she wanted to push herself, and White allies, to be less performative and more action-oriented when it came to addressing systemic inequities. That’s when she started thinking about food.
Food insecurity in the United States, defined by the USDA as the consistent lack of food on a household level, severely increased during the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus swept across the globe. The pandemic exposed the tremendous faults in our structural systems—specifically our economy. Anderson knew the problem would only worsen as neighborhoods already cut off from resources were disproportionately harmed by the economic shutdown, and millions across the country lost their jobs. In the Albany metro area, more than 30,000 other people were without work compared to the previous year.
The problem is not only an economic one, or one of food scarcity, but also of food accessibility. Enough food is produced around the globe to feed every human, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, yet hundreds of millions go hungry every day.
“What can I do? What gap can I fill? How can I make something like food more accessible to people in the neighborhoods where there aren’t grocery stores?” Anderson recalls asking herself.
So she put out a call to her thousands of followers on Instagram, and someone suggested starting a free fridge. The concept is simple: In cities all over the country, vibrantly painted fridges sit on city sidewalks, stocked daily with donations of fresh food. Anyone is welcome to take as much as they need, no questions asked.
Within a few hours, Anderson had a contact at Lowe’s and a new fridge on her hands. A single location on Elm Street in Albany has since grown to a network of six fridges across the metro region. They’re stocked and supported by a local grocery store, nearby farms and restaurants, and individual volunteers—as well as more than 500 people who donate funds monthly via Patreon.
Fridge beneficiaries can retrieve anything from milk to veggies and prepared meals. It’s impossible to count just how many people have benefited—the system is anonymous by design—but Anderson says it’s been “extraordinary” to see the impact: residents enjoying fresh okra for the first time in decades because it’s been mostly unavailable in Albany; neighbors forming relationships with local farmers; even some folks who relied on the fridges earlier in the year now have the resources to donate to it.
“That’s been a really beautiful turnaround,” Anderson beams.
Anderson’s effort is only one of a global network of community fridges known as the Freedge movement that has expanded during the pandemic. Freedge, a database and resource provider for community fridge networks, counts hundreds of locations across the U.S., up from just 12 in March 2020. Many of these efforts sprung up to meet an acute need: increased levels of food insecurity during the pandemic. But the leaders in this movement see the fridges as part of a larger, long-term mutual aid effort that can solve systemic issues.
“A fridge by itself is just an individual action, but [with] many fridges, many projects, all of these other mutual aid groups together, that’s now a collective,” says Ernst Bertone Oehninger, a founder of Freedge.
Bertone Oehninger sees the fridges as a visible reminder that many people don’t have access to enough food, and also a gateway that could create enough food for all through larger efforts that include the people power of mutual aid projects.
“The fridge doesn’t solve food insecurity. What it does well is start a conversation about food insecurity,” Bertone Oehninger says. And that conversation can lead to a new urban farm, or more urban kitchens, or even systematic changes on a policy level.
A Global Problem
The world produces enough food to feed the entire population, but there are big problems in distribution, access, and waste, explains Nancy Roman, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, and a “food systems champion” for the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021. In the U.S., a half-eaten hamburger might end up in the garbage can, while in other parts of the world, crops may be left rotting in the field because there’s no infrastructure to get them to market. And even in countries where food is plentiful, it can be unaffordable for some and difficult to access for others.
That leaves nearly 10% of the global population—746 million people—exposed to severe levels of food insecurity, according to 2019 data from the United Nations. In the U.S., that number was about 35 million in 2019, according to the USDA.
With hunger and undernutrition, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority.
“It’s gotten much worse because of COVID-19, because the people who lost their jobs were disproportionately the lowest income,” says Roman. “People who were living on the margins got pushed into abject hunger.”
Permanently fixing these complicated barriers to food access—financial or otherwise—will come down to political will, Roman says.
“With hunger and undernutrition, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority,” she says.
That’s why her organization is calling for a cabinet-level position on food, and wants to see food infrastructure incorporated into President Joe Biden’s $2.6 trillion American Jobs Plan. But in the meantime, the nonprofit, which works to increase access to healthy food, has multiple programs distributing meal kits to families in need around the country, in an effort to build the habit of cooking at home with fresh foods.
A Grassroots Solution
The community fridge networks offer a more immediate solution.
“The existence of mutual aid is an expression of that frustration with the system. We’re not getting the things that we need, therefore we must do it ourselves,” says Christine Tran, executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council.
Tran locates the need for community fridges in the same problem that Roman sees: A lack of equitable distribution of the abundance of food we already have.
“We grow food for the world but can’t feed ourselves. And that says so much about the disconnections that exist within and across our food system,” Tran says.
And so the community fridge networks take matters into their own hands, helping communities to help themselves and build systems of support.
Bertone Oehninger realized this back in 2014 as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. He was inspired by mutual aid efforts he saw while living and traveling in Europe. Concerned about food insecurity in his own community, he plopped a fridge in his front yard and started offering free food to his neighborhood.
It only lasted two months before the fridge was impounded by health inspectors. But Bertone Oehninger and his friends kept trying, moving the fridges around and eventually figuring out how to comply with health regulations. By 2016, the group had started fridges all over the U.S., some more successful than others.
“We realized that the fridges that really work well are the fridges that are started by the community, not by an outsider,” Bertone Oehninger says.
So the Freedge website was born as a resource center that could support a decentralized network of fridges started by folks in their own communities.
Tran, who was a “free lunch kid” growing up, didn’t start the L.A. community fridge network, but she quickly came to support it as part of her organization’s work “connecting the dots” of the local food system.
There is little evidence on the impact community fridges have had on food insecurity—in large part because the system is anonymous and decentralized—but Tran said it has had a positive impact locally.
“It really destigmatizes what support looks like,” Tran says of the fridges. Anyone in the community can come to grab free food, with no strings attached.
It is also shows there is enough healthy food available for those who are most in need.
Successes and Limitations
Anderson was not an expert in food policy when she started putting fridges around Albany. While she sees the benefits of the project, she also realizes it does not solve the problem entirely.
“We are taking away many barriers, and we’re putting it right in your face, but it’s still not enough,” Anderson says. “I shouldn’t have to put Band-Aids on things like food insecurity. It’s the systemic part of it. Yes, I am putting a Band-Aid on, but if you look at the whole wall, it’s all cracking. It’s about to come down.”
If we truly want everyone to have enough food, Anderson says, we need to look at the bigger picture, which includes making sure people have enough money to buy the food they need, making sure the abundance of food we already have is distributed effectively, and making sure young people are learning how to grow and cook their own food.
“It seems like a privilege to be able to grow your own food. And it’s not. It’s a human right. It’s a basic need, it’s a necessity to be able to grow your own food and eat it,” Anderson says.
Even as the pandemic ebbs and momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement slows, Anderson hopes communities can continue the cycle of exchange they developed during the past year.
“This is a wake-up call. We need to stop placing the blame on the people who need the things, and realize that we all are living in abundance,” Anderson says.
Mike De Socio is a freelance journalist and photographer based in upstate New York. His reporting focuses on cities, climate change, and the LGBTQ+ community.