Take What You Need, Give What You Can

Community fridges cast a lifeline

Written and produced by Genevieve Vahl

There are a lot of double takes as passersby wonder at this anonymous fridge. Necks crank back as bodies continue onward. It sits out front of a baby blue house with white shutters and a side porch decorated like ornaments on a fir. The fridge is retro green, like something you would see in a 1950s kitchen. A droopy-eyed face is painted on the front with its mouth gaping open like it’s going to eat all the food inside. It has a four-fingered arm bent at the elbow and an ear of a mythical creature drawn on its side. A white board reading “Free Produce” sits between its blue eyes. 

Community fridges like this alien ice box located on East Johnson and Brearly streets in Madison have filled gaps this pandemic has exacerbated. The fridges are plugged in and stocked at the disposal of the community, providing aid in the fallout from the coronavirus. 

Wisconsin’s community fridges are a part of a national trend. A New World In Our Hearts, an anarchist network of autonomous collectives and projects in New York City, served as inspiration for many of these fledgling fridges. In an interview with The Cut, Thadeaus Umpster, a member of A New World In Our Hearts who spearheaded much of the work to get the 13 community fridges plugged in across the city, said, “We believe in organizing in a way where there is no hierarchy. I started the fridge, but that doesn’t put me in a position of power over anybody else. I think that’s the difference [between] charity and mutual aid.” 

Where charity can imply a wealthy savior allocating to those believed to be lesser, mutual aid exists on a community-based exchange of resources for mutual benefit.  

“Share the wealth, share what is coming from your kitchen, share what you would eat,” says Hataya Johnson, a co-founder of the Milwaukee Community Fridge, hosted at The Tandem restaurant on 18th and Fond Du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee’s Near North Side Lindsay Heights neighborhood. 

The free fridges are filled with a grocery-store quality selection of goods, including fresh produce, usually with an adjacent pantry holding shelf-stable items. 

“This isn’t just, ‘You cleaned out your fridge,’” Johnson says. “We don’t want to just give something that is already kind of accessible … We want to give new things to show that even if you don’t have the greatest income, you still deserve quality food.”

One woman perusing the fridge shared how she stops by on her way home from the store — the fridge supplements her grocery runs. Everything offered at community fridges is free for the taking. No questions asked. 

“That is the one thing that sets us apart,” says Sarah Tramonte, the other co-founder of the Milwaukee Community Fridge. At places like Feeding America, “you have to jump through so many hoops to be eligible, and if you’re just not eligible enough, ‘Ope, you can’t have it, sorry’ … At the Milwaukee Community Fridge, you can just walk up and take food and nobody is going to ask you … [to] prove to me that you deserve this food. Everybody deserves it, it is a basic human right.” 

Food insecurity — defined by The Journal of Nutrition as the inability to afford enough food for an active, healthy life — has left one in six children in southwestern Wisconsin hungry, according to Second Harvest Foodbank. Black and Hispanic people, as well as those with lower socioeconomic status, are those most affected by food insecurity, increasing their odds of developing mood, anxiety, behavior and substance disorders while fostering chronic disease, poor metabolic control, less healthful eating and decreased mental health and cognitive performance. 

Photos of the Milwaukee Community Fridge by Brian Huynh

And that was without a pandemic ravaging the globe. “The pandemic has laid plain how flawed a lot of our systems that we rely on are,” says Caitlin Cullen, the owner and chef of The Tandem. “It didn’t seem like anyone was going to come help. Anyone.”

Johnson and Tramonte both saw the potential for a community fridge in Milwaukee after separately encountering A New World In Our Hearts on social media. They acknowledged that communities of color are too often stranded in food deserts — lacking access to clean, fresh food, especially in Milwaukee — finding gaps they wanted to fill. 

Each sent the organization a direct message on Instagram, asking for suggestions or resources to start a fridge of their own. In Our Hearts connected the two instead, the best resource each other could have had, initiating a powerful collaboration operating through October. Supporters stock the fridge through food and monetary donations via their social media pages. 

“This project gives us both a way to channel … wanting to specifically help people who are food insecure in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., that is largely the Black community,” Tramonte says. 

Food insecurity’s consequential poorer health conditions are feeding ground for the coronavirus, threatening already vulnerable communities with a higher likelihood of contracting a potentially lethal virus. 

Most low-income folks cannot usually afford to buy goods for the immediate future, much less large shopping purchases for a quarantine. Most low-wage jobs cannot be performed at home, so workers are either losing wages or continuing to work at the cost of their health. For those who do continue to work with children at home due to school closures, child care costs arise, and children lose access to meals typically provided during the school day. 

The genesis of the Madison fridge drew inspiration from those in larger cities such as Milwaukee, New York and Los Angeles. An overgrown lawn serves as its backdrop. A makeshift bench made out of two 5-gallon buckets connected by a wooden plank holds squash of many varieties. A blue, three-level bookshelf used as a pantry mingles with the flowering bushes grasping their last bit of color before winter strikes. It’s stacked with canned green beans, pasta, a bag of red sauce and lentils. A case of plastic water bottles sits on the ground. 

Photos of the Madison Community Fridge by Brian Huynh

“I got some hamburger last time for Taco Tuesday,” a woman told me in her deep Midwestern accent. She was a middle-aged white woman with a cloth mask around her chin, exposing the vacant space where her front teeth would be, wearing a quilted fall jacket and backpack, smoking a cigarette as she perused the selection.

A social worker shared with the Milwaukee organizers how clients with mental disabilities have especially benefited from the community fridge model. 

“They don’t have to talk to people … they don’t have to show proof of who they are … because just interactions alone for some people is too much and will deter them from getting what they need,” Tramonte says.

The anxiety about seeking help is even more acute for underrepresented groups, Johnson says. “All that you have to do to prove yourself that you do need this [help] — it can make people not even accept the help that is there for them.” 

Hosting community meal and tutoring programs out of The Tandem, while also hosting the community fridge, has been Cullen’s attempt to help those in need more quickly, without any strings attached like the “clunky institutions.” It’s at this intersection of collaborative organizing that the two parties witnessed their impact in real time.

“We had these four young women under the age of 10, walking to the fridge to get food … completely by themselves, at all times of the day,” Cullen says. “Seeing that, and knowing that was what they were going through: They were hungry, they’re interested in some attention other than whatever the hell is happening wherever they are coming from, they’re clearly not engaging in school if I see them five or six times a day between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.”

“It was like three or four girls came up and grabbed a ton of strawberries,” Tramonte later says. “They were literally like, ‘Ooo, strawberries!’ So excited … We brought like six containers and they were like 7 years old, and these four girls grabbed all of them. One, I have never seen a kid that excited for fruit. Two, I have never seen a kid take that much fruit. It is because they don’t normally have access to it.”

Yet Julia Levine and Sam Douglass, facilitators of the Madison fridge, recognize they have never been food insecure themselves, so it’s hard to understand its impact.

“The reciprocity and the mutuality of mutual aid is something I am still working to understand,” Douglass says. “The shared livelihood that I would love to have is one of sharing resources that we have access to.” And how to do that ethically is a point of interest for the organizers. Douglass says there is a lot of power, and consequently disparity, when those running nonprofits — who are often white — dole out resources to others of varying identities with unique needs.  

“Every idea of food justice comes from … Black organizers, and they’re still and will always be at the cutting edge of the design of what the next step in this society should be,” Douglass says. 

“I am not saying we have done anything really particularly different with the community fridge,” Levine says. But Tramonte says the fear of doing something perfectly should not stop you from doing it.

Douglass supplies the Madison fridge twice a week with excess produce during harvest seasons from Troy Farm, a community garden on the north side of Madison. He also brings the excess industrial food waste donated to the farm from Healthy Food For All, a Madison grassroots project working to ensure all Dane County families have access to food for a better quality of life. Beyond that, the fridge relies on the community to function.  

“The food pantry just gives me so much that I bring a lot of it here,” says one donor, an already food-insecure person donating his limited excess to the community. He was off to deliver another box of food for his blind friend across the street. It’s exactly this cycle of reciprocity community fridges look to facilitate. 

“I have seen Festival [Foods] employees pull to the side of the road … and they put out turkey sandwiches, and whatever else they have, and then drive away,” Levine says. 

In a text message, Levine shared with me how she expressed her concern to a fridge regular that not enough people in the neighborhood know about the fridge. But he reassured her: “There is power in the word of mouth. If you were to advertise it and have a bunch of signs, maybe then people will come and take a lot of the food, and feel like there isn’t enough to go around. But when people get to discover it themselves, they feel a sense of responsibility to it.”