Through a combination of outreach efforts and in-kind donations, the New York City-based anarchist network In Our Hearts (IOH) has managed to create a network of over 40 fridges in New York City and New Jersey. The collective has even managed to facilitate the creation of project chapters across the United States and the world. However, when IOH first began its popular outdoor community fridge project, it was “almost by accident.”
Thadeaus Umpster recalled that on Feb. 8, one of his fellow IOH organizers found a Craigslist posting advertising a refrigerator that was being given away for free. After transporting the fridge to a residential building, the volunteers discovered that it did not fit through the doorway. Around this time, they received a late delivery of 12 cases of produce that was originally set to be distributed at IOH’s regularly scheduled food share, the Brooklyn Free Store. Since the group of volunteers in charge of setting up the store had already left, those in charge of the new fridge ultimately decided to leave it outside of the building with the produce stored inside. They also included a sign notifying sidewalk pedestrians that all of the fridge’s contents were free.
“Within a couple of hours, the fridge was empty,” Umpster shared. Organizers found this discovery particularly alarming because it exposed a real need for this service in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. IOH continued to restock the fridge and, over the course of several weeks, began to explore ways of expanding the project to other areas of the city.
Umpster pointed out that IOH didn’t invent the concept of community fridges, but their efforts have contributed to catalyzing their popularization in the U.S. Nine months after their first community fridge, IOH has distributed resources to groups in other cities looking to replicate its model, including Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Auckland, Toronto, Glasgow, Calgary, and Granada.
Food insecurity predates the pandemic
Even though the timing of the project had significant overlap with the pandemic, IOH organizers maintain that COVID-19 was not their primary motivation for expanding this project. “There’s the everyday crisis of the pandemic, and then there’s the everyday crisis of capitalism,” said Umpster. Helping communities fortify themselves against the violence of capitalism is one of IOH’s foundational principles, regardless of the state of public health.
However, the pandemic-induced surge in unemployment did coincide with a proportional increase in the need for the project’s services. More people began utilizing the Bedford-Stuyvesant fridge, including those who were ineligible for unemployment insurance or the CARES stimulus payment. These patrons were largely members of New York City’s various immigrant populations, such as undocumented folks and visa carriers unable to legally work or return home. The urgency of meeting this need ultimately catalyzed its overall expansion.
Prior to overly increasing the project’s scale, IOH ensured that a number of principles were consistent throughout its network of fridges. Firstly, IOH’s only prerequisite to organizing with residents of other cities or neighborhoods is the agreement that the food stocked in those fridges will be free and accessible to everyone. Beyond this primary point of unity, all of the fridges are autonomous. Hosts are also welcome to decorate fridges in whatever manner they’d like, a practice that was popularized by the Bushwick’s fridge (aka The Friendly Fridge). A number of fridges have been painted by prominent muralists and graffiti artists, such as Morgan Smith, Tiffany Baker, and Hugo Gyrl.
Aside from decoration, hosts can also decide which goods are prioritized at each location. For example, Jersey City’s West Side Community Fridge has offered a number of reproductive healthcare products, including contraception, menstrual pads, pregnancy tests, and Plan B. Its organizer Tatiana Smith, who works professionally as a doula, has also added a Freedom Store to her location. Modeled after IOH’s Brooklyn Free Store, the Freedom Store distributes free maternity and baby items, such as nursing bras, diapers, strollers, and brands of formula not readily available at local Jersey City grocery stores. For Smith, food and reproductive justice are inextricably linked since both deal with issues of accessibility and social stigma. Though maintaining consistency is important, part of the project’s charisma comes from each fridge’s individuality.
Even though hosts are afforded a great deal of independence, IOH is very clear on maintaining a collective understanding that the project is mutual aid, not charity.
“A charity is where people, who are ‘better off’ so to speak, are giving handouts to their ‘lessers,’ and this is a very different relationship. We’re all in this together… When you share food with your family, it’s not charity. When I share food with my neighbors, it’s not charity, whether they give something back or not,” said Umpster.
The quality of relationships between patrons and organizers is exemplified by a common practice, where one individual will prepare a meal from the fridge’s contents and then restock it with leftovers to share with others. Aside from mutual aid at the neighborhood level, IOH also executes these efforts at an inter-neighborhood level. Oftentimes, one fridge will receive a larger donation of food than it can physically hold. In such instances, IOH will organize the transportation of excess food to as many other fridges across the city until it is all safely stored. Organizers’ commitment to the practice of mutual aid is one of the primary reasons that the project has been so successful.
From April to the end of June, IOH went from having two to 16 fridges in the greater New York City area, and the project was only just getting started.
The Community Fridge Project began growing at a national and international level as a result of social media. Umpster noted that the majority of fridge hosts first learned about the project from Instagram and then reached out to IOH organizers via direct message for resources.
He also shared that the majority of people who have volunteered to mobilize for this movement, both online and offline, are women of color. In fact, the first group that successfully expanded the project outside of New York City was composed of women of color.
After the first Los Angeles based fridge was established, the project expanded to major U.S. cities Nashville, Chicago, and New Orleans. Around this same time, it went international with a location in Toronto. In the following months, other chapters were created in cities, such as Miami, Atlanta, Auckland, Glasgow, Calgary, and Granada.
Though the exact sequence of events has varied depending on each city, the process of setting up almost all future locations began with the exchange of direct messages followed by the distribution of materials from a central Google Drive folder. Exceptions occurred in Nashville and Quito, where a combination of digital organizing and in-person relationships enabled their respective chapters to become a reality.
Because the project is spread across multiple cities, each with different legal codes and political climates, not all organizers have shared similar experiences with public officials. In New York City, IOH has never run into any issues. In fact, health officials have reached out to organizers as private citizens offering to help them navigate any future citations. The Los Angeles chapter had three locations shut down due to violations of the California Retail Food Code, as well as Compton and Los Angeles municipal codes. The Atlanta chapter decided to work in collaboration with the city’s health department and was ultimately granted its approval. In Mexico City, a group has been struggling to successfully set up a fridge due to the complicated nature of navigating local corruption and the violence of drug cartels. Despite these challenges, the spread of community fridges will not be stopping anytime soon.