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In Harvard Square, a community fridge warms up Church Street

The Fridge in the Square provides food and fellowship to an evolving neighborhood.

A community fridge has been regularly stocked with food at its Church Street location in Harvard Square. Volunteer Denise Jillson unpacks bags of groceries.
A community fridge has been regularly stocked with food at its Church Street location in Harvard Square. Volunteer Denise Jillson unpacks bags of groceries.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The streets are often empty. Restaurants are deserted; shops are quiet and hotels are, too. There are no throngs of students; no hums of activity. But here in Harvard Square, a new gathering place has emerged, completely of its time: the Fridge in the Square.

It’s adjacent to the Sinclair nightclub at 52 Church St., which in normal times hosts concerts but has been rendered temporarily soundless. Now, it provides electricity for the refrigerator. Instead of bands passing through, neighbors in need can grab items ranging from Eggo waffles to produce.

Community fridges have sprung up throughout Greater Boston, largely in response to the pandemic but fueled by the broader problem of food access and food insecurity. Volunteers say this one, built in December, evokes the spirit of the neighborhood, which has often been muted with longtime businesses closing and upscale chains moving in.

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“Harvard Square is such an interesting location for our fridge, because it’s known as this place of such wealth and privilege. One of the most expensive and exclusive institutions in the world is just around the corner from us, but over the years, we’ve seen those local businesses being replaced by chains and other companies, and the other impacts of gentrification,” says fridge volunteer Hannah Milnes. “Our effort is really to encourage folks in Cambridge that there are local residents who will look out for you, who will care for you, no matter your background or level of need.”

The premise is simple: Anyone can visit the fridge and take what they need, no questions asked, night or day. Volunteers, community members, and local businesses regularly replenish it with commonly needed items: milk, cheese, eggs, produce, rice, beans, spices, condiments, and prepackaged meals. There is a focus on grab-and-go foods, such as applesauce and yogurt, which are easier for transient visitors to eat. Organizers maintain a regular restocking schedule, and a grant from the Cambridge Community Foundation helped to fund the grocery shopping.

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The fridge is different from a food pantry or shelter because it focuses on mutual aid: members of the community getting needs met by their neighbors.

“We’re trying to remove the emphasis on institutions and focus[on] being responsible for the care of people, and focus more on the responsibility of all of us, as people, to care for each other. We all have a responsibility to care for our neighbor … I think with that being the driving principle of the fridge, it simplifies the ask. It creates that very common ground to appeal to everybody,” Milnes says.

This is the philosophy behind fridges throughout the area. Small in stature, they symbolize a larger ethos of mutual aid and inclusivity, as those in need struggle with food access and stigma.

The community fridge has been regularly stocked with food that volunteers buy using money donated to combat hunger.
The community fridge has been regularly stocked with food that volunteers buy using money donated to combat hunger. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“Fridges, at their best, require people in the community to talk about needs and be vulnerable. You can’t create those bonds with a higher kind of service that might be more rooted in nonprofit, or charity, or these savior mentalities, rather than solidarity,” says Queen-Cheyenne Wade, who was instrumental in co-launching the new Bridge Fridge at Goree House on 157 Windsor St. in Cambridge’s Port section. With fridges, she says, “Everyone has their own autonomy and self-determination.”

Wade is an organizer with Community For Us, By Us, a collective comprising BIPOC, which is a driving force behind the effort. Like the Fridge in the Square, Bridge is a community collaboration. For example, BlackYard, a Cambridge-based arts and education co-op, provides volunteers to stock the fridge; members of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s Black Students Union helped with the build.

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“We wanted it to be a collaborative process, coming from the community, not from saviors who might not have ties to folks. We know our needs best,” Wade says.

As such, fridges also respond to and reflect the culinary needs of the community, she says. This is done through grass-roots efforts by volunteers, talking to neighbors and asking what they want.

“What makes it so special is the collaboration, the ability for us to create the deeper bonds in the community and feelings of trust while we continue in a country and state where we see violence, et cetera,” Wade says. “We’re asking people in the community: ‘What type of food do you need? What are you looking for?’ We have many different needs, from halal to kosher to certain deli meats. This is us building stronger relationship bonds in the community.”

Similarly, the Fridge in the Square was built by Cambridge resident George Pereira and installed in partnership with Harvard Square Business Association (Pereira’s wife, Denise Jillson, is the HSBA’s executive director); the Sinclair; Trinity Property Management; and Y2Y, a shelter for young adults at 1 Church St.

The fridge offers easier access to nourishment for them, right in their own neighborhood, particularly during the day. It allows them to make their own food choices, too.

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“I think it provides the folks who will be using it with autonomy and decision-making power in terms of what appeals to them in the fridge. There’s a variety of different foods that folks can choose from. It’s also accessible to people who might not have access to food pantries, et cetera. It’s walkable,” says Cameron Van Fossen, Y2Y’s executive director.

Plus, it’s not rationed: Visitors can take as much as they need, whenever they need it, offering a sense of empowerment, reassurance, and privacy.

“The beautiful thing about the fridge is that the philosophy is not centered around monitoring or deciding who needs food and who doesn’t. If someone comes to the fridge at 3 a.m. and they need all the food in it, they’re welcome to it. it’s antithetical to a monitoring system,” Van Fossen says.

Volunteer Bill Manley checks on the dry goods.
Volunteer Bill Manley checks on the dry goods.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Volunteers say that fridges will continue after the pandemic ends. Food insecurity and income gaps will persist long after a vaccine takes hold.

“There’s a huge wealth gap in Cambridge, so this is an opportunity for people to redistribute their wealth and care for their neighbors,” says volunteer Evie Hartenstein. “In Cambridge, there are so many grocery stores, so many restaurants. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food. The food is available, but it’s just not accessible to people, and it’s not affordable to people. The idea of the fridge is to be able to fill in that gap.”

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To learn more, visit www.instagram.com/cambridgefridge.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.