In April, when New York City was the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Mayor Bill De Blasio disclosed a troubling statistic underscoring the deep inequalities laid bare by coronavirus: one out of every four New Yorkers did not have access to adequate food.
Not long after the mayor’s pronouncement, the city government allocated $25m in emergency funds to social agencies assisting in pandemic response. But the supplement was not nearly enough.
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Roughly a third of the city’s food banks and soup kitchens reported the number of people accessing their programmes had nearly doubled in April from pre-pandemic levels, said hunger-relief organisation Food Bank for New York City.
Queues of people in need of food aid are still spanning blocks in neighbourhoods across New York City.
I saw more and more people going hungry
For Anika Forbes, an activist and dental hygienist, that is unacceptable. For the last few years, Forbes has been involved with the Brooklyn chapter of #Hashtag Lunchbag, a non-profit dedicated to feeding the hungry.
“I saw more and more people going hungry and the government, which already wasn’t looking out for us, was doing less and less,” Forbes told Al Jazeera. “I had to do something more to help.”
Aware of the stress on the city’s traditional food banks and kitchens, Forbes suggested that ‘#HashtagLunchbag‘ volunteers install a “community fridge” in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn where local residents could donate food to help their neighbours in need.
“I saw community fridges popping up around New York City the last few months,” said Forbes. “It seemed like a good way to get food out there without worrying about breaking social distancing guidelines.”
I saw community fridges popping up around New York City
No limits, no stigma
Community fridges are becoming more common across the US as people struggle to make ends meet and afford healthy, nutritious foods during the coronavirus pandemic.
Placed outside of apartment buildings, community centres and bodegas, the refrigerators are stocked by the goodness of those who have, and accessed by those who do not have enough who can take what they need, no questions asked.
“In February, there were 5-6 community fridges in the United States. Now, there are close to 100,” Ernst Bertone Oehninger, founder of Freedge, a non-profit networking platform for community fridge activists, told Al Jazeera.
While community fridges are relatively new to the US, they have been gaining traction across the globe for a decade.
Unlike food banks, community fridges can be operated by anyone including aid organisations, or even just an individual activist.
Groups like Freedge allow fridge operators to connect, share resources, ideas and help spread the word.
Their growing popularity stems in part from the advantages they offer over more formal food bank operations. Small, local and beholden to only human generosity and the honour system, there is no limit on how much or how often people can access them.
Drawing on the success of community fridges in New York and Los Angeles, New Orleans has grown one of the biggest networks of community fridges in the US, according to Freege.
“NOCF (New Orleans Community Fridges) has been adapting existing models, heavily inspired by NYC and Los Angeles, to create networks that specifically support our New Orleans communities,” an NOCF spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “The work we do is grounded in supporting and empowering our communities by getting the power back into the hands of them.”
Forbes believes community fridges are also less intimidating for people who find themselves food insecure for the first time, thanks to the pandemic.
“From what I’ve seen, many of those who are going hungry never had food security issues in the past and are afraid of the stigma of a food bank,” she said.
Building political community during an election year
The fridges have become a vital lifeline for undocumented individuals who are ineligible for most federal assistance, including federally funded pandemic relief aid.
Some 192,000 undocumented workers across New York City lost their jobs when lockdowns were ordered in March, the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs estimates. The number of undocumented people accessing New York’s food banks and soup kitchens soared nearly 60 percent in April over February levels, according to Food Bank for New York City.
“Job losses through the pandemic hit the service industry the hardest and disproportionately in immigrant communities,” Eli Dvorkin, policy director for a Center For An Urban Future, tells Al Jazeera.
When disenfranchised communities feel able to focus on changing those are the moments when we see progress
Beyond helping to ameliorate food insecurity, activists are also finding that community fridges are creating more political awareness during a crucial election year in the US.
The pandemic and its economic fallout have disproportionately affected communities of colour and gridlock in Washington about another round of virus relief aid is only intensifying the pain. Activists said community fridges like the one established by #HashtagLunchbag are a rendezvous point for catalysing low-income citizens to vote.
“I do think that when people don’t have to worry as much about getting their basic needs met like food, and shelter they can focus more on changing their political situation,” said Thadeaus Umpster, an activist with In Our Hearts NYC – a group that helps operate community fridges across the city.
“When disenfranchised communities feel able to focus on changing, those are the moments when we see progress,” he told Al Jazeera.
Jose M, who asked Al Jazeera to withhold his surname to protect his privacy, is a newly invigorated voter. The father of three lost his job during the pandemic and now makes use of a community fridge in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood.
“My community is looking out for my family,” he told Al Jazeera. “I want to vote for someone who has the needs of immigrant communities at heart,” he said, declining to specify which candidate he intends to vote for.
This November will be the first time Jose – a naturalised citizen – will cast a vote in a US election.
According to a Pew Research study, some 10 percent of eligible voters this year are naturalised citizens – a record high. That voting power is not lost on Forbes.
“I am confident that if we are looking out for each other and building trust, voter turnout will follow,” she said.