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“FRIDGES. IMPACT. PEOPLE. PEOPLE. IMPACT. FRIDGES.” Those words adorn a refrigerator inside The Village D.C., a cafe on 5th Street NE near Union Market. The mini fridge’s purpose is much larger than its volume.
While the concept of community fridges isn’t new in a world grappling with a global pandemic, the need to address hunger remains present. “What’s most important is that we’re responsive to the community,” says Nikki Brown, a D.C. resident and volunteer organizer of the D.C. Fridge Collective. “We’re not undermining the need to address food insecurity at its root too, but we can’t ignore that people are hungry now.”
As City Paper has previously reported, COVID-19 is exacerbating hunger in the District. A D.C. Food Policy Council report projects that the pandemic has rendered 28.6 percent of children and 16.7 percent of adults in the District—150,000 people total—food insecure.
Even before the pandemic, D.C. had the highest senior food insecurity rate in the country in 2018 at 14.3 percent. This past April, surveys completed by the DC Food Policy Council revealed that Latinx and Black households were four and 13.5 times more likely than White households to report they didn’t have enough to eat, respectively.
In some pockets of the city, residents have to trek outside of District borders to buy groceries. By taking lead in providing healthier options, The D.C. Fridge Collective aims to ultimately create a cycle of sustainable food options within a closer striking distance. The grassroots organization provides access to free meals and produce to anyone who needs it. “At bare minimum, the fridges are stocked twice per week,” Brown says.
Over the past six months, the Collective has placed four fridges and pantries in wards 1, 2, 5, and 8 that are cleaned, restocked, and maintained at least twice a week. Over this time period, The Collective has distributed 6,500 pounds of fresh produce and served more than 500 prepared meals to the public.
The Village D.C. is just one of the businesses working in collaboration with the Collective, which also receives donations of produce, dry goods, and prepared meals throughout the week from partnering nonprofit organizations like Food Rescue US-DC. Brown says the Collective is aiming to place a total of 10 fridges in the city by the end of June.
Operating the Collective calls for collaboration when it comes to logistics. Each fridge has a “fridge owner” who takes the lead in managing upkeep, Brown says. “We collectively maintain them with volunteers restocking whenever we receive donations and checking in for cleaning and maintenance periodically throughout the week,” she explains.
Community members also help restock each fridge, according to Brown. To ensure they’re not emptied out, locations hosting the fridges keep an eye on stock levels. “It’s been so beautiful to see new items added by the neighbors,” she says. “The fridges are a ‘take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can’ vibe, so the community also pitches in to keep the fridges stocked.”
The Collective doesn’t name a single founder. It’s always been about teamwork. “A pretty big diverse group of us connected and coalesced around this concept and all just worked really hard to make it happen. If I had to identify ‘founders,’ there would be at least 10 to 15 of us,” Brown says.
They’re all on board with connecting vulnerable Washingtonians with nourishment. D.C. resident Christen Whitaker, who grew up in Prince George’s County, believes that responsibility is shared, but also her own life’s charge. As an experienced organizer in the nonprofit world, Whitaker brings institutional knowledge to the Collective and works to amplify the Collective’s mission.
“My want to continue to explore these spaces of social justice stems from me being a part of all of these marginalized groups,” Whitaker says. “Not only am I a Black woman, but I’m also a queer Black woman. Not only am I a queer Black woman, but I’m also masc[uline]-presenting. And with that, I think, my life’s mission is to serve people that look like me. Because if I don’t, who will?”
Whitaker likes that The D.C. Fridge Collective is action-oriented. “We can create more tangible outcomes instead of just talking around it or posting things on Twitter or Instagram,” she says.
“Sustainability is thinking about who it [the food apartheid] affects the most—Black babies, Black older people, Black mothers, Black families, Black pregnant women. So we [The D.C. Fridge Collective] have to be sustainable because what do [people] build with nothing? That’s where we come in.”
Sheakima Moore, a volunteer who currently lives in California, says living in Ward 8 as a child with her grandmother impacted the work she does today. “As a kid growing up, I honestly never realized that my family lived in a food desert,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was able to get out of that environment and experience new things that I saw just how impoverished my environment was.”
Moore is best friends with Charnequa Greene, the director of FAN, which works to provide safe spaces for D.C. youth. As part of The Collective, Greene and Moore host a community pantry outside of FAN’s D.C. headquarters. It contains nonperishables items for community members to take. “I hope to continue to bring these resources to the community of people that reside in Ward 8, [and] for my grandmother,” Moore says.
The Collective hopes their efforts serve anyone who needs them. They’re dedicated to centering their work around community needs and want to embolden communities to take full control of what, when, and how they eat.
For nearly a year, essential workers have been at risk of contracting COVID-19. Young QTBIPOC workers have had to work in risky environments or try their luck with the District’s unemployment system.
“We have shown up for each other simply because we have no one else doing it,” says Steph Niaupar, founder of Plantita Power. “For QTBIPOC people, most of us have retail or food industry jobs or rely on freelance gigs. Quality food is something beyond reach.”
Their organization, which seeks to “build a movement of food and body liberation to reach individual and community healing of QTBIPOC people,” sought to get involved with the Collective. They’ve distributed 15 to 20 seedlings to the fridges and plan to continue to do so on a monthly basis so that Washingtonians can try their hand at growing vegetables at home. Niaupar says Plantita Power has expanded its reach during the pandemic.
“We are able to connect and build trust necessary to have the hard conversations about food,” Niaupar says. “COVID has impacted us by not being able to come together to share skills in garden spaces, however we are beginning to build more content online that is multilingual and accessible.”
The D.C. Fridge Collective isn’t the first of its kind. The initiative was inspired by a similar effort out of Playground Coffee Shop in Brooklyn, New York. The cafe hosted a fridge stocked with free produce and other groceries. An informal coalition formed between the Collective and Playground Coffee to develop programming that addresses needs during a time when essentials have been more difficult to obtain.
Then there’s Feed the Fridge in D.C., founded by Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher. Feed The Fridge places fridges throughout the region and pays restaurants like Chaia and Duke’s Grocery to supply healthy meals each day, which has been a lifeline to restaurants struggling to see the other side of the pandemic.
Brown acknowledges initiatives like this won’t solve food injustice on their own. Some critics question the effectiveness of such programs and whether they’re tapping into what a community wants and needs and whether they’re distracting from larger scale food justice initiatives run by organizations like Bread for the City or DC Greens. But Brown says the fridges do meet the most immediate needs of underserved communities.
“We believe that no one should have to leave their neighborhood to access fresh food, so for now we’re bringing fresh produce directly to people who might not be able to access it otherwise, but our long term aim is to build up communities’ ability to grow what they need within their own neighborhoods,” Brown says.
The Collective is hoping to involve more Washingtonians in its efforts, particularly anyone questioning whether they can make an impact in their communities during the public health crisis. Anyone interested in getting involved can reach the Collective on Instagram. The Collective frequently posts announcements about events and team meetings. “Equally important, if you have a location that would like to host a fridge, hit us up,” Brown says. “All it requires is a space that’s accessible to the community and a power source.”