On a sidewalk, in a corner of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, there sits a fridge. It hums quietly—indicating it’s working, and not abandoned. The fridge is painted purple and sports a face with arched green eyebrows and a playful curl down its forehead. Beneath the face, a written message: “Free food for all! Take some, leave some, keep it clean!” Inside, on its shelves, is fresh produce, left there by caring neighbors, supportive passersby, or bought with donations made to Playground Coffee Shop, a community-minded cafe run by Zenat Begum. Everything inside the fridge is free.
In a little over a week, Begum and her team of Playground employees, volunteers, and friends have set up three such fridges—with the hope to install more in the coming weeks. The premise is simple: functioning fridges, usually sourced through Craigslist, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables for the taking. “We’re only encouraging people to give fresh produce because that’s what the war is on,” Begum tells me over the phone. Most of the fridges are also set up near local independent businesses, in the hopes that they’ll also receive some of the attention the fridges attract. “We’re using our own sidewalks to do this because that’s where the people are at.”
Community fridges in public spaces rose to prominence in Germany, when an organization called Foodsharing set up the first ones in 2014. Since then, these curbside fridges have spurred on a culture and spirit of their own: they can be found on every continent save Antarctica.
Recently, they’ve emerged all over New York City. The timing is no coincidence: Over the last few months, the disproportionate ramifications of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities have thrown the city’s pervasive racial and class disparities into even harsher relief. As swathes of people found themselves newly unemployed, and entire communities grew food insecure, a slew of community organizers like A New World in Our Hearts started setting up fridges across the city and organizing food drives and giveaways. Using A New World's help, community organizer Sade Boyewa plugged a fridge into a Harlem bodega. Since, the fridge has been filled with pizza dough, potatoes, butternut squash and fennel bulbs. Others, like the Friendly Fridge, followed suit in Brooklyn and the Bronx. When the Black Lives Matter protests surged in early June, Begum and her team decided it was time to address their neighborhood's needs, and provide support and assistance to vulnerable populations.
“I think it's important that we’re responding and being able to create solution-based activism for our community, especially when social welfare reform is few and far between,” said Begum.
This outwardly focused mentality has been a trademark of Playground’s ethos since the coffee shop first opened. They’re a symbol of hope in Bed-Stuy, a historically Black neighborhood whose identity is being rapidly reconfigured by a wave of gentrifying residents, businesses, and developers. “Restaurants in general are very wasteful, but for the last four years we’ve been trying to encourage a different narrative," she says. Begum and her team host readings, pop-ups, and workshops; and offer sliding scale brunches as part of programming. And since the start of the recent protests, they’ve been providing PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) kits and water bottles for protesters. Now, they’re setting up fridges.
Begum had been toying with the idea of offering free produce for a while, but it wasn’t until Priscilla Aguilar, a friend, offered an extra fridge that the idea started to take form. From there, the Playground team and its volunteers scoured the web for other fridges, called for produce on Instagram, and sought out friends with cars to move their nascent project, literally. “The next thing we knew we had produce coming in that same day. People were helping us clean. It’s almost organic and such a synthesis of people coming together that it doesn’t feel like any work. Except for the fact that we just have to keep this going—the maintenance is definitely going to be the hardest part,” said Begum.
The Playground team takes care to keep the fridges clean and replenish its shelves with produce they buy using donations. Begum made sure to mention that they are working to keep the system as sanitized as possible, and handle all the produce with necessary precautions. “City regulations can often become a roadblock, but it’s something that we are working within to ensure the safety of patrons,” Begum told me. While in other countries public fridges have undergone legal pushback (Germany passed strict restrictions in 2018), there has yet to be any in New York.
The work coming out of Playground is part of a larger groundswell of activists mobilizing around food. Devonn Francis of Yardy is raising money to support a free meal program in Crown Heights. Chef Kia Damon is starting Kia Feeds The People Program, a non-profit that will provide communities in Brooklyn suffering from food insecurity with well-stocked boxes of produce and pantry staples. In the Bronx, Full Heart Full Bellies is stepping in to feed children whose summer meal programs will be limited or suspended due to Covid-19.
And support is coming in. Begum and her team have been receiving monetary donations from people who don’t even live in the city, while neighborhood residents will stop by and drop something in the fridge. Sometimes it’s someone on their way home from the grocery store leaving behind surplus produce. Other times it’s a neighbor who will swing by to leave a donation. “We have to commit to helping our neighbors until social reform offers us the radical shifts we need around food sovereignty. Especially when there is capital in our communities and networks that can be redistributed to stock fridges and feed folks,” she says.
As for those who partake of the produce, Begum chooses to give them space: “We do meet a few people a day who go through the fridges, but I also know that there are going to be people who’d prefer to do it at later hours, privately. That’s why these fridges are outside 24/7.”