I am sweating under all the weight of the South Florida sun. I unload box after box from my truck, each one full of donated fresh vegetables. Part of my job is stocking 10 community fridges all over Miami with free food to take out. Today, it’s Little Haiti’s fridge, the blue and purple paint makes the fridge visible from the street.
The community refrigerator operation began during the pandemic – three unemployed people bringing food to homebound people lacking support and unable to get to a grocery store on their own. A year and a half later, the Miami Community Fridge is now a nonprofit called Buddy System MIA, with six paid staff, including myself, learning to organize against food inequalities.
For me, this is the opportunity not only to learn to take care of my community, but also of myself.
The refrigerators we charge are spreading all over Miami-Dade County, but community refrigerators have sprung up all over the country – 136 refrigerators in New York, more than 50 refrigerators in California, four in New Orleans, Louisiana and many more in cities and towns across the United States. Many of these refrigerators are self-help efforts aimed at addressing food insecurity in local communities.
Refrigerators are placed and maintained by individuals or small groups, relying on the generosity of neighbors to keep them well stocked and clean. What unifies all these different community projects is the belief that community members can take better care of each other and on a more personal level than government can or will. Food is free to take and encouraged to give. People are encouraged to communicate their needs and offer support when possible.
The global pandemic has laid bare the already collapsed foundations of the US food system – 1 in 8 people are food insecure, a higher number in minority populations. One in 5 blacks is expected to face food insecurity in 2021, compared to 1 in 9 whites. Coupled with the lack of government support during the pandemic and modest and inconsistent stimulus payments, communities are relying on each other more than ever.
I started sharing food at the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. A small group of leftists in Miami started handing out meals like Food not bombs, a vegan and vegetable food sharing collective started in 1980. Originally an initiative to protest nuclear power and discrimination against the homeless population, Food Not Bombs now has chapters all over the world.
My friends and I ran through protests with wagons full of water and snacks, making sure our comrades were hydrated and safe in the 90 degree heat. We spent whole days cooking together and nights distributing meals to the homeless camps sheltering under highway overpasses.
I became someone that people knew how to bring food to. Boxes of cucumbers showed up at my door. Friends of friends called to say they had more, and may I share it with someone in need. I would be called upon to pick up trash bags filled with prepared meals to redistribute them. Eventually I found Miami Community Fridges.
When I started this job almost six months ago, I was fresh out of work after quitting my office job. I doubted my decision in a pandemic where so many people are made redundant and unemployed, did I do the right thing by quitting my tedious (but reliable) job? I had planned several temporary concerts and was going to deliver food to the refrigerators every week, but had no long term plans. I was taking a big leap. I wanted it to work.
While I was in these refrigerators, I met the people who frequented them. I learned which neighborhoods preferred ready meals because they didn’t have a kitchen to cook for themselves. I learned which vegetables were preferred where. When I got in my truck, I knew there would be people waiting.
Working with community refrigerators can get complicated. Refrigerators get dirty in five minutes, food is left to rot, the Florida heat is damaging refrigerators in more ways than I can count.
Part of the job is to tackle problem after problem while ensuring that the communities that have come to rely on these refrigerators are still being supported in a tangible way. The gasket covering the refrigerator doors has melted, so the doors do not close anymore? No problem. Trash after the theft of the trash? Absolutely good, that just means someone else needs it too.
What I learned is that if you ask for help, people will come. We have over 900 volunteers who will come and clean a refrigerator at any time. People who spend their evenings bringing hundreds of pounds of food from the grocery store to the refrigerator. When I volunteer for a task at a team meeting, there is always someone to help me if I need it.
Refrigerators also taught me limits. I cannot intervene every moment, even if I would like to. I can’t help everyone who asks all at once. I’ve learned that I have to slow down and take a moment to find the best way to continue, not the fastest. I started to wear this throughout the rest of my life. I don’t overbook myself anymore, pushing my body until I’m too exhausted to continue. I don’t burn anymore.
I recognize the signs now. I have learned the signs that a certain refrigerator needs more from me than others, and the same goes for me personally. I now know when to stop so that I can continue.
I have also learned that much of our scarcity mentality is conditioned. The reality is that there is a lot to do. This goes for food, money, and even emotional capacity. The key is to find it and then share it.
We are collecting food faster than we can give it away. When you ask for funds to install a new fridge, or to pay an artist to paint it, or even to keep the association alive, it comes. Support comes in handfuls, until everyone has what they need.
The same thing exists in my community. When I’m sick, friends bring soup. When I see a friend crowdfunding for rent on Instagram, I give. When a neighbor asks for sugar, the cup always overflows.
As the first born of immigrants, I feel grateful for building a world where I don’t have to get out of the woods. I don’t have to fend for myself and fight for crumbs.
All I have to do is ask.
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