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To combat hunger, neighbors are stocking community fridges on Boston’s streets

As food insecurity grows amid the pandemic, ‘freedges’ are helping out

Ernesto Serrano,who picked up items from the pantry, checked out the refrigerator's offerings at the Dorchester Community Fridge, an outdoor refrigerator and pantry,  which has been set up in Fields Corner.
Ernesto Serrano,who picked up items from the pantry, checked out the refrigerator's offerings at the Dorchester Community Fridge, an outdoor refrigerator and pantry, which has been set up in Fields Corner.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

On Wednesday morning, Nicole Foy carried a brown paper bag filled with apples, oranges, and other groceries she’d just purchased at Trader Joe’s to a small shed-like building in Fields Corner. Inside the shed was a white refrigerator and several pantry shelves filled with peanut butter tubs and cans of tuna and beans. On her shoulder, Foy carried a yellow tote bag with the slogan: Food is a Right, Not a Privilege.

Standing at 1471 Dorchester Ave., just steps from the T stop, Foy pulled open the door to the fridge, which had been installed just the day before. A poster taped to its front announced: “Take what you need. Leave what you can” in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole.

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As she began filling its shelves, she got a few curious looks from passers-by.

“What is this?” they wondered out loud. “Is it free?”

Foy is a volunteer with the new Dorchester Community Fridge, which opened on Tuesday. Both the fridge and its contents are donated, and the groceries are indeed free to anyone in need. Volunteers plan to ensure the fridge is constantly stocked, partnering with local farms and purveyors to receive donations. It’s one of several pop-up fridges that have been installed in neighborhoods in and around Boston, as locals look to supplement emergency food efforts during the pandemic.

As the economic fallout of COVID-19 stretches into its seventh month, one in seven people in Eastern Massachusetts — and one in five children — are now experiencing food insecurity, according to Feeding America. Area food pantries have seen a huge growth in need as food insecurity has risen 53 percent in Massachusetts since before the pandemic. They recently experienced another surge in demand as enhanced unemployment benefits ran out in July.

In response, free community fridges have cropped up at 366 Center St. in Jamaica Plain and in Dorchester, and more are being planned for Allston, Roslindale, Somerville, and Cambridge in the coming weeks. A network of dozens of like-minded volunteers throughout the region, most of whom connected through social media, has been corresponding over the Signal chat app for the last few months as the plans for the fridges have come together.

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“We really felt this is an opportunity to really show up for our community, recognize our common humanity, and provide for people who really need help,” said Mike Murphy, one of the volunteers who helped to organize the Dorchester fridge.

 Volunteer Nicole Foy added items to the community fridge.
Volunteer Nicole Foy added items to the community fridge. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Community fridges, or “freedges,” have been around since before the pandemic; the original conceit was to help combat hunger and reduce food waste at the same time. But as food insecurity has grown, the idea has taken off in cities throughout the United States. A New World in Our Hearts, a New York City-based anarchist collective, has helped install over 40 fridges in New York City since February. Seventeen more can be found in Los Angeles, and they’re cropping up in Nashville, Oakland, Houston, Chicago, and other cities and towns throughout the country and around the world.

Many people compare the idea to the Little Free Library movement, a network of volunteer bibliophiles who construct small bookshelves in public spaces to distribute free books and promote literacy.

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Getting a community fridge up and running, however, is a bit more challenging. Beyond securing the appliance, there’s also a need to find a power source that can keep it going. Volunteer groups say the electricity bill runs about $30 a month. The other main challenge is keeping the fridge stocked.

Volunteers with the Dorchester fridge said the Fields Corner Main Street nonprofit provided a power source, and they are now working to create partnerships with Brookwood Community Farm and Thatcher Farm Dairy for milk, produce, and dry goods.

A Boston Community Fridge was placed outside a Dorchester barber shop.
A Boston Community Fridge was placed outside a Dorchester barber shop. Josiel Gonzalez

In Jamaica Plain, where a fridge has been up and running since the first week in September, volunteers get their power supply from D’Friends barber shop and have received donations from local bakery When Pigs Fly and Allandale Farm.

The fridges also take donations from neighborhood residents, and community members have already gotten into the habit of stocking it, said Joseil Gonzales, one of the volunteers in Jamaica Plain. “The community has received it really well, both people taking and donating," he said. "It’s been overwhelming, the number of people who want to help and give. Most people say, ‘Why hasn’t this been a thing before?’ ”

The fridges do have some basic rules. Food that’s donated should be properly labeled and checked regularly for spoilage. Volunteers typically take shifts three times a day to check on the fridge, ensuring it stays full and wiping it down, Gonzales said. And the fridges have signage and contact info in multiple languages.

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There has been some pushback on the fridges from policy makers in other cities. In California, the city of Compton shut down a free fridge for violating fire code regulations. And the health bureau in Bethlehem, Pa., temporarily shut down a fridge over contamination concerns. Some food policy advocates have argued that free fridges, with their colorful designs and feel-good messages, do little to combat the underlying causes of hunger.

But on Wednesday morning, the Dorchester volunteers were pleased to find the fridge and its adjacent pantry shelves, which they’d built and stocked the night before, largely empty. As they placed boxes of pasta on shelves, people wandering by paused to grab bags of rice and cans of beans. Reggie Talbert, head of advocacy with Inner City Weightlifting, stopped by to see if he could offer food donations from the gym. And as two women who worked at the nearby Dorchester House health center strolled by, they peered into the fridge, curious about the new addition to the neighborhood.

Charo Montrond, a Dorchester House employee, said she thought the fridge was a great idea, as she’d seen the popularity of the health center’s food pantry as the pandemic has gone on. . “It’s twice a week, the lines are unbelievable,” she said.

The goal for the fridge, said Murphy, the volunteer, is to allow people to get what they need, at any time.

“I think there is an accessibility factor here, in terms of being able to walk by," he said. "You can kind of go in and take what you need without judgment.”

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Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.