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On an overcast afternoon 27-year-old Josiel Gonzalez rummaged around a very well-stocked refrigerator.
“Right now we have a lot of kale, there's carrots in there,” he said taking inventory. “There's also some pizza in there, some apple crumb cake that my friend just brought, raisins, a lot of waters at the bottom.”
But this bright green refrigerator, which also holds zucchini, blueberries and apples from a local orchard, isn't in Gonzalez's kitchen. It's on the sidewalk outside a barber shop in Jamaica Plain. The words "free food" are painted on the fridge's door in English and Spanish, and what's inside is for anyone who's struggling to put food on their table.
“If they need food, go for it. Grab it. Please do,” Gonzalez urged. “We encourage everyone to eat dinner at night. No one should go to bed hungry.”
He explained how this “community fridge” runs on a simple principal and tagline: “Take what you need, leave what you can.”
The surge in pandemic-related unemployment is driving a nationwide explosion of food insecurity. According to the Greater Boston Food Bank one in eight Eastern Massachusetts residents is struggling with hunger. Food pantries and other organizations are scrambling to meet a dramatically increased need for nourishment. Gonzalez said the small grassroots effort he's joined is doing its part around Boston with help from a common – now too-often barren – household appliance.
He got the idea for this micro food project after he and a friend read about the community fridge movement that's been growing in New York City where they've also earned the nickname “friendly fridges.” There are more than a dozen sprinkled throughout its boroughs. “And we decided, hey, let's pursue one in Boston,” Gonzales recalled.
Turns out another person in Boston was thinking the same thing. Gonzalez said they joined forces to enlist and merge altruistic-minded troops through social media. But they needed a fridge. And somewhere to put it.
Another friend suggested Gonzalez make a pitch to D'Friends barbershop on Centre Street and introduced him to the owner. “I came and got a haircut from him, we spoke, and I told him about our idea of maybe starting a community fridge.” He loved it, Gonzalez said. “My mom donated the fridge for me – which was awesome,” he added proudly.
Now the fridge is humming along with dozens of volunteers who help out by sanitizing the fridge and monitoring what's on its shelves.
“Every morning somebody comes by and takes a picture so that we know what items we need, and we'll post it on our Instagram account,” Gonzalez said. The day before we talked, the team sent out a call for more bottled water, and within 25 minutes somebody came by with a case. “And those are all gone,” he said, “so we actually needed to get more water today."
Donors often drop off food after going to the grocery store, including pre-made meals and salads for people who might not have access to a kitchen. The fridge's freezer is busting with bread from the local bakery When Pigs Fly. Allendale Farm in nearby Brookline has been delivering fresh produce regularly.
Volunteer Haithem Abdella said the biggest challenge to launching a community fridge is finding a host. “And then also making sure that any food that's old this is removed,” the 31-year-old explained as a skateboarder glided by.
Abdella said he typically encounters more food-leavers than takers whenever he stops by. Like in New York, this Boston fridge operates on trust through an honor system. Abdella contrasted its very low-key exchange to traditional food aid organizations that might ask the people who are seeking help personal questions.
“I think that human beings do have a certain degree of pride – that's not like an unhealthy sense of the word of pride – because we are beings of dignity,” he said.
For Gonzalez the "no questions asked" atmosphere around the fridge is important because it should feel like a safe zone. “We really just want it to be another resource – another outlet – for people in need,” he said, “And also, it's another outlet for people who want to help to be able to help.”
Jessica Ernst is one of them. She lives around the corner and read about this fridge on the Everything Free JP Facebook page. So she swung by to donate a quart of homemade tomato sauce. “Because I only know how to make that in enormous quantities,” Ernst said. “It's nice to feel like there is actually something concrete and tangible that you can do to help on a very hyper local scale.”
Ernst followed the fridge's rules and labeled her container with the ingredients and an estimated expiration date. She thinks the spray-painted sidewalk refrigerator is like a cheerful piece of street art that's also bringing together people who want to lend a hand in challenging times.
Gonzalez understands how it can be hard for individuals to find ways to make a difference during the enduring pandemic.
“But there's a lot of strength in numbers, right? If you have one hundred members in the community that want to help out, and they each put in 1%, that's 100%,” he said.
Gonzalez's enthusiasm and faith in the fridge is infectious and now he's collaborating with a growing network of community fridge teams in Dorchester, Allston, Roslindale, Somerville and Cambridge. He hopes their work inspires more people to create mini-movements of all kinds in their own neighborhoods.
This segment aired on September 17, 2020.
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