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A Fridge Grows in Brooklyn    

A Fridge Grows in Brooklyn

Artwork by FISK

By Caroline Hatchett

Earlier this month, Madison Gardner transferred eight boxes of milk, eggs, cottage cheese, hot dogs, apples, potatoes, and more from her Hyundai Sonata to a bright green refrigerator with “Free Food” spray painted on the door. Gardner is one of 30 active volunteers who stocks and cleans the Greenpoint Fridge at The Lot Radio in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Neighbors are encouraged to give what they have and take what they need from the refrigerator. The clearest sign of that need is the fact that the Fridge is often bare just 30 minutes after it’s filled. 

Greenpoint Fridge is an initiative from North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, an organization founded on March 12—“the day Tom Hanks was diagnosed with Covid, and they shut down Broadway, and the NBA,” says Kevin LaCherra, a coordinator for NBMA. 

Compared to other American cities, New York has been disproportionately disrupted by Covid, with Black and Latino city dwellers bearing the brunt of the virus, unemployment, and food insecurity. Although Greenpoint is more prosperous than many Brooklyn neighborhoods, LaCherra says there was an obvious divide between the people with the money to escape the city and the people who had to stay put.

Early on, volunteers helped get groceries and personal protective equipment to elderly neighbors and people who didn’t feel safe leaving home, and as New York’s Covid case numbers leveled out in the summer, NBMA became a hub for a number of programs—among them composting, recording oral histories, park stewardship, free stores, and community refrigerators. 

“One of the problems folks identified at the height of the crisis was that we had food available but it needed to be refrigerated. Neighbors came up with solutions, and independently, in every community across the city, that’s how community fridges came to be,” says LaCherra. 

The community refrigerator model emerged in Germany around 2012 as a way to combat food waste and build community. People would share a bumper crop of cucumbers or drop off ripe avocados before going on vacation. Likewise, neighbors had access to free food, whether they were hungry or just curious. German regulators eventually shut down many of the refrigerators, citing health concerns, but the concept spread across Europe and to the United States. 

And it took off during Covid when millions of Americans lost their jobs, and established food banks struggled to keep up with demand. Greenpoint Fridge is now one of more than 60 community refrigerators in New York City, most of which launched during the pandemic in tandem with mutual aid organizations like NBMA. The refrigerators are managed by different groups, but a loose network has formed to help process and distribute large donations. 

Gardner says that the community has everything it needs to sustain the refrigerator, including a mystery baker who recently dropped off cakes for seven days straight and a coffee shop that shared a massive haul of its house blend. Neighbors are empowered to fix a broken latch or pick up nearby litter, and any person can use the refrigerator to help curb their own food waste. “If you’re a resident in Greenpoint and you make a large batch of soup or greens, the idea is to bring it to share,” says Gardner. 

NBMA added a second fridge at Cooper Park Community Center in early September. (It’s currently down for repairs but is expected to hum back to life on before the end of November.) The refrigerator complements an existing food pantry, whose staff served 200 meals a day, six days a week in March. Debra Benders, a retired MTA station agent, has lived in the neighborhood for 55 years and volunteers full-time as resident leader for Cooper Park’s 700 apartments. “People are paying for rent instead of food, so they need a meal,” she says. 

As a mutual aid group, NBMA is accountable only to its neighbors. No one is exactly sure who uses the refrigerators or how many families they serve. “We want to destigmatize the need for food, not record data or make people stand in line,” says Manny Pokol, a coordinator for Greenpoint Fridge. “As a leaderless model, mutual aid is grounded in the idea that before we help, we ask if help is necessary. And we continue to ask. It’s a tool to build a community we can all participate in. We don’t need money more than we need to show up for each other.”

With cold weather imminent and the city teetering on the edge of a new wave of Covid-19, NBMA plans to set up additional refrigerators. They’re also raising funds to winterize the refrigerators and protect them from snow and salt. But no one in the group is under the illusion that Greenpoint Fridge will solve food insecurity. It’s a big green bandage over the cracks and chasms exposed by the pandemic. As a community, they just couldn’t wait for sweeping policy changes or government funding to keep people fed. 

“We’re neighbors standing next to neighbors, facing problems together, and building power,” says LaCherra, whose family has lived in Greenpoint for four generations. “We know where resources are in New York City, and we know Covid won’t be the last crisis this community faces.”

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