When Todd Kaplan comes to restock the Somerville Community Fridge, it’s always bustling.
“It is busy all the time,” he said. “I’ve been there in the morning, I’ve been there at night, as late as 10 p.m. at night. I have never been there when somebody hasn’t been coming to look and see if there’s food in the fridge.”
Kaplan, a volunteer at the fridge, which opened in November, and a Somerville resident for more than 30 years, said the refrigerator empties as fast as he can fill it.
When Kaplan arrived at the fridge on Thursday afternoon bringing about 20 boxes of cereal, lettuce, rice, lentils, and potatoes, people were turning up on foot and in cars.
Community fridges began as a response to the growing food insecurity during the pandemic in communities across Greater Boston. They are run by volunteers, residents who opened them in sheds outside restaurants, businesses, and community centers. Inside the sheds are refrigerators for perishables and shelves for dried goods. Referred to as “fridges,” they typically have Instagram accounts associated with them to communicate announcements to the community. Most began as neighbors coalesced their resources and encouraged others to donate.
But even as COVID-19 cases subside in the state, organizers say these fridges aren’t going anywhere, and some are even expanding.
“There’s no question that there would be continuing need for a long, long time,” Kaplan said.
When the pandemic closed some businesses over the past year and prompted others to lay off employees, the number of people experiencing food insecurity quickly rose. According to an October report from Feeding America, Massachusetts saw a 59 percent rise in food insecurity since 2018, the greatest percentage increase in the United States. A recent survey from the Greater Boston Food Bank found that 1.6 million adults in Massachusetts are food-insecure.
One of the Boston area’s first fridges was started in September by Jamaica Plain residents who believed employers and the state were not providing enough support for people who had lost their jobs, according to volunteer Francesca Scaraggi.
“There was a movement to have neighbors supporting neighbors, just to prove to ourselves that as a collective, as people, we can take care of each other,” she said in a phone interview.
Scaraggi said the food is usually gone within a day.
“On one hand, it is wonderful that the fridge is super well utilized. On the other hand, it’s striking kind of just how much need there really is for food of all kinds,” she said.
Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said such groups were formed by people who were home more during the pandemic and started looking for ways to help their neighborhoods. Some families donated food they bought using the money that public school students received during the pandemic for school lunches, she said.
Jenny Nguyen said she started helping to organize the Roslindale Community Fridge after she was laid off from her job and began reflecting on her neighborhood’s needs.
“We’re still trying to understand the community on a local level and on a grass-roots organizational level too,” she said. “I think that all of us on our team have done a really great job at understanding that we’re not here to be someone’s savior at all. We’re here to meet people where they are. We’re here to provide a resource that might have not been there for them before.”
People in some communities have taken a simpler approach and just set up tables of food outside their homes for anyone to walk up and take.
Chris Matthews, 54, a landscape designer, started putting a table in front of his East Cambridge house in April 2020. On Wednesday, the table, sheltered by a blue beach umbrella, was filled with food including boxes of macaroni and cheese, canned beans, and baby food. He said he fills the table two or three times a day and the food goes at an “unbelievable” pace.
“It seemed like something my wife and I could do to help people,” he said. “You know, people were hurting, and we were lucky enough to be able to keep our jobs.”
And it was easy, he said.
“We got a piece of wood from Home Depot for about 20 bucks and a couple of sawhorses to put it on, so we set it up. It’s been nothing but rewarding for us and hopefully useful for people in East Cambridge.”
In Dedham, Pete Kane, the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, said a couple in his congregation approached him with the idea of opening a fridge at the church, and it was up and running earlier this month.
Kane said it was a simple way to give back.
“Sometimes you just need to see a need and fulfill it,” he said. “When it’s in your ability to do it, just do it. That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.”
For organizers of these neighborhood efforts, even if the pandemic has abated, it is clear that hunger insecurity has not, and some are launching new fridges.
The Somerville Community Fridge is opening another one within the next two weeks in Winter Hill, according to Kaplan.
Nathania Hartojo, 20, one of more than 30 volunteers at the Somerville fridge, said that the food’s leaving the shelves almost immediately after being stocked indicates that “there is still really a need for this.”
Laura Graham, a volunteer with the South End fridge, said the trend of setting up community fridges is “continuing full force.”
Graham, who said she has worked on food access through nonprofits for roughly 17 years, said she is hopeful that more such fridges can be started in the future, given that they are relatively easy for organizers to set up and for people to access.
Zach Goldhammer, 29, works at Cambridge Community Center, which was already running a food pantry when a few neighbors approached the center in December about hosting a fridge. He became an organizer of the Coast Community Fridge, located just outside the center in the Riverside neighborhood. The fridge, he said, represented a new way of addressing the rapidly increasing need.
Goldhammer, along with other organizers of community fridges, stressed that what they are doing is “mutual aid work,” which allows them more flexibility than more formal organizations.
“Small mutual aid groups can be a lot more nimble and faster in improvising and coming up with new structures, not waiting for major financial donors, not waiting for permission from the board to do certain things,” Goldhammer said.
He said he hopes volunteers will continue to contribute beyond the “honeymoon period” of service during the pandemic.
Community fridges offer a space that’s undiscriminating — free of surveillance and judgment — with a simple mission of feeding hungry people, something Scaraggi also said she hopes will continue after the pandemic ends.
“I think what’s great about community fridges, in general, is it’s meeting food insecurity needs, and it does it in a way that presumes nothing about the people using the fridge,” Scaraggi said.
“Something that can be really frustrating when you need help is having to jump through hoops,” she said. “And the goal is to make sure people don’t have to do that.”