Here's how community fridges are fighting hunger in the Boston area

Community fridges can offer an easy and anonymous way for those in need to access food 24 hours a day

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Community fridges have popped up all around the Boston area in recent years. But keeping them running 24/7 and stocked up with healthy food is no easy feat - it takes a dedicated team.



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"We recognize that during pandemic, the need for food was huge and that we were just scratching the surface and, really wanted to break down any barriers of access," explained Regina Wu, president of the Newton Food Pantry.

The Newton Food Pantry is in charge of the Newton Community Freedge. Located in the parking lot of a dry cleaning business on Watertown Street, it's a colorful beacon to those in need. One side of the structure holds the fridge, and the other is a set of shelves full of pantry staples.

Bernarda Montes de Oca, a volunteer who works at the food pantry once a week, says the great thing about the Freedge is that anyone can come at any time of day, independent of food pantry hours.

Now celebrating its third anniversary, the Freedge is one of many programs that started in the Boston area during the pandemic, as job loss and economic disruption created a food insecurity crisis.

"We opened our community fridge in November of 2021. In response, in part due to the pandemic, but also we've maintain the program, understand that the need is pretty great still," explained Vin Scibelli, CEO of NEW Health.

NEW Health is a federally qualified health care center focused on patients who live in Charlestown and the North End.

"We certainly see the lines, for people lining up at, local food pantry, and we get a lot of requests, on a regular basis, in house from our patients. Please help us with food," Nutritionist Luisa Siniscalchi said.

Siniscalchi runs the NEW Health food access program. She says in their target areas, a lack of healthy food is a major health issue.

"It's hard to get healthy food. There's lack of transportation. And the high cost of food is really hurting people," she explained.

A recent Hunger Free America National Hunger Survey Report found that Massachusetts saw a 47% increase in the number of people who did not have enough to eat between 2021 and 2023.

"It doesn't matter if you have a home or you don't have a home. A lot of the children around here, based on their income levels, are not getting access to fresh fruit, vegetables and sometimes the basic food necessities," said Craig Spadafora, a city councillor in Malden.

In Malden, they have multiple community fridges to tackle the problem. They're cleaned out and restocked by groups of dedicated volunteers, with updates posted on social media after each fill. The city councilors who started it all say it's an endless commitment, but a worthwhile one.

"Once I make the post within an hour, the food is probably gone," explained Jadeane Sica, city councillor for Ward 8.

The team in Newton has a similar experience. Despite being filled in the morning we visited, by early afternoon the shelves were already nearly empty.

"We're counting the numbers of people coming. And that has grown from 11 people an hour back in 2021 to 15 on hour in 2022. And it looks like from today I'm at 18 an hour," Wu said.

Part of the freedge’s appeal is that it’s easy and anonymous. All you have to do is show up, open the door, and take your pick from what’s inside. But that anonymity can create a challenge for organizers.

"I try to tell everybody not to judge. You know, when you see somebody at the fridge, if they take more than you think that they should take, then they may need it. You don't know how many people they're feeding at that house," Sica said.

That's one reason that setting up a public fridge takes a lot of planning and a positive mindset.

"If somebody is looking to start up a community fridge program, I think that blocking out the noise of the negativity is is key, Sica said. " "We weren't sure if this was going to last two weeks, we weren't sure how this was going to be. So I think that in order to help people, you've got to want to help people."

You'll need electricity to power the fridge. Volunteers to keep it clean. A set of guidelines to keep the food safe. And of course funds and food to keep it stocked.

"When we first started almost three years ago, in March of 2021, we were spending about $1,000 a week. And that covers both the food and the electricity, that our host pays the snow removal. And now we're paying about $1,500," Wu said.

The Newton Food Pantry, like many nonprofits, relies on volunteers like Montes de Oca to get the work done. She says she gets a sense of satisfaction helping people, especially in her role as a Spanish-language interpreter.

"A mí me causa mucha satisfacción poder ayudar, sobre todo a la gente que habla español como yo. Yo les digo me siento que estoy en casa y creo que eso también los hace sentir a ellos que están en casa," she said.

And in Malden, organizers say their success boils down to the willingness of the community to give back.

"I donated the first one, and then we've had companies and private individuals donate the additional ones and replacements. All the boxes were built and painted by the by the city, donated the lumber. The teen center, did all the artwork and put it together. And then some people have donated the paint,"  Spadafora said.

The programs also rely on community partners and donations from local businesses.

"We have about 13 teams of community groups," Wu explained. "They take, direction from one of our board members who's a fridge coordinator, and they pick up donations that are, scheduled for different times of the day, different days of the week.  

"You need to have a support mechanism because you can't have two people doing multiple fridges. It's too much work," Sica added.

To learn more about the Newton Food Pantry, click here. Bernarda Montes de Oca will be running the Boston Marathon to benefit the organization - learn more about her journey here.

To learn more about the Malden Community Fridge program, click here.

To learn more about the NEW Health Food Access program, click here.

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