Bronx-based sixth-grade teacher Daniel Zauderer knew his students and their families were suffering from the unintended impact of the pandemic, both rising unemployment and a lack of access to healthier food options. “Most of my student’s families are undocumented, and they work in front-line jobs,” Daniel said. “The pandemic made them lose employment, and most of them didn't qualify for federal aid because they were undocumented.” He surveyed over 200 sixth-grade families and learned that many were skipping meals a few times a week because they didn’t have enough money to pay for food. He also found that food pantries in the area were experiencing closures, reducing the likelihood of families obtaining free food.
Fortunately, Daniel learned about the idea of community fridges, refrigerators in public spaces offering free food that are often run by a volunteer or mutual aid group. He quickly moved to make the idea a reality in the Mott Haven neighborhood. He and fellow teacher Charlotte Alvarez connected with the Bronx Community Foundation and a local Assembly Member to set up the community fridge on 141st Street and Saint Ann’s Avenue. Shortly after, they set up a second refrigerator in the same neighborhood. They also connected with a larger network of over 100 community fridges helping families in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan.
And thus Mott Haven Fridge was born. The fridges have provided families access to free, healthier food options and led the community to continue the efforts. “My students' families are the ones that help distribute the food. They’re the ones that help clean the fridges every day. But they also use the fridges to help feed their families. It upends the hierarchy between giver and receiver, which helps level the playing field,” Daniel said. After the launch of the refrigerators, the food supply dwindled quickly due to overwhelming need. Daniel learned that this was a common thread in the network of community fridges. “There doesn't seem to be enough food to feed the communities where these fridges are located. The issue is not that food doesn't exist; the issue is getting the food from point A, where there's an excess, to point B, where there are people in need.”
To help bridge the gap, Daniel is focusing on increasing volunteer drivers that pick up donated food from local warehouses. “There are large sources of donated food on the one hand, and community-based organizations, like the community refrigerators, on the other hand, and you have this gap in the middle. We’re building an army of volunteer drivers to help fill in that missing middle and make sure the available food that would otherwise waste and rot in warehouses is making its way to people who need it.”
How You Can Help
Mott Haven Fridge is looking for volunteers with vehicles to pick up donated food from warehouses and deliver them to their fridges and other community fridges in the Bronx and Manhattan. To help with this amazing initiative in this and other ways, click here.
If your neighborhood is in need of a community resource like this, here are some steps you can take to start:
- Do your research. Look up neighboring community fridge networks that may help provide you with start-up information, volunteers, and resources. Also, look up legal guidelines for hosting a fridge in your area.
- Connect to community-based groups. Getting connected to other community-based organizations and groups can help with promoting solidarity and community buy-in. Daniel says, "Most times, people really want to create alliances, and they want to keep helping and pushing forward. People realize that by working together, you can accomplish so much more. It just takes time, staying power, commitment, and dedication. And, once people see that you're for real, most of them come around."
- Find a host. Finding a business that is willing to provide space and donate electricity is crucial. This will involve reaching out to neighborhood businesses such as cafes, bakeries, and churches, and pinpointing one interested in partnering with you. Daniel and Charlotte were fortunate to connect with local bodegas that are well known to residents in the neighborhood.
- Connect with regular food donors. Food donations can come from local businesses offering recurring food donations. Every Friday, Daniel and his team are able to rescue thousands of pounds of food from the Hunts Point Produce Market.
- Fundraise. Seek out funding through donations and micro-grants such as this one from Freedge.
- Build a social media presence. Creating an Instagram page such as this one or using other social media platforms will help promote your impactful work, serve as a way for you to share information within your network, and allow other interested individuals, potential partners, and businesses to contact you.
Explore Mott Haven Fridge or other mutual aid groups in your area on idealist.org.
As Program Manager of the Idealist Action Incubator, Carol offers guidance and support to our community of action-takers.