How an overnight response grew into neighborhood brigades fighting food insecurity and monitoring safety.
Zach Shea pulls into the parking lot of 35 Prospect St. in Somerville almost every afternoon.
Soon after showing up, he checks on the inventory of a fridge kept in a colorful wooden structure with “FREE FOOD” painted on it in four different languages. Inside are milk, vegetables, and packed meals.
“We have so much pride with the fridge,” Shea says. “We want to make sure everything is OK.”
There are currently around a dozen community fridges in the Greater Boston area. Most opened over the past year to help fight the food insecurity caused by the pandemic. And while some may have considered these supplies to be a temporary solution, one year into the coronavirus crisis, they’re still running and serving an immediate need.
According to Feeding America, Eastern Massachusetts is projected to experience a 66% increase in food insecurity in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic. One in eight people in Eastern Massachusetts is food insecure.
Shea’s wife, Flavia DeSousa, started the initiative of the Somerville community fridge in August 2020. She was inspired by similar projects in many other cities, including New York. Their fridge opened in 2020 on Thanksgiving Day, and now they’re looking forward to opening the second fridge within three to four months.
“This is a learning experience for us,” Shea says, reflecting on his months working on the fridge. “There are so many people who are using this resource and lots of people may depend on us.”
Now, the Somerville community fridge has more than a hundred volunteers. They check in the fridge at least two times a day, making sure it is stocked and getting rid of food that is expired or not sealed.
For Shea, the challenge of running the fridge lies in regulating the donations, which come from local residents.
“Somebody dropped off like hundreds of Greek yogurts,” Shea recalls. “They towered above the shed, and they expired in like three days.”
Unfortunately, quite a bit went to waste.
“Lots of people are going to need that yogurt, but how can we get two hundred boxes of them out? That’s impossible.”
Still, Shea praises the good intention of the donors. For one, their effort differs from some others in that the Somerville community fridge accepts pre-packed meals (they require people to label the ingredients and date on the food).
“People don’t have access to microwaves if they’re homeless,” Shea explains.
In the adjacent city of Cambridge, the Fridge in the Square team opened up a resource there on Jan. 2.
“I just walked by and thought it was a really good advert to get engaged with the community,” says Megan Diamond. An associate director at Harvard’s Global Health Institute, Diamond volunteers with the Cambridge Fridge team. She continues, “We’ve been so isolated being at home, and it’s hard thinking of ways to volunteer that feel safe.”
Diamond introduced that volunteers will check in the Cambridge fridge at least three times a day, wiping down the fridge with Clorox and making sure the food is fresh and properly labeled with ingredients, allergens, and date of expiration.
The volunteer says that food security is the priority of her team, and the risk of the fridge spreading COVID-19 is low.
“What we have learned of the COVID is that the risk from getting it from [touching the surfaces of] items is quite low,” Diamond adds, noting that the fridge is outside and that people wait patiently at a distance while others grab food from the fridge.
Unlike in Somerville, the Fridge in the Square team avoids pre-packed meals.
“We cannot control the home environment,” Diamond says. “We don’t know how clean it is. We don’t know if they wear gloves.”
Like volunteers behind similar projects in other Mass cities, the Cambridge fridge crew tries to educate people on the importance of wearing masks through posters and by offering people free masks, two at a time.
Having watched the Cambridge fridge run for two months at this point, Diamond says that she has noticed some community members donating and picking up food. She describes it as a “circle of taking and giving.”
Neither the operators of the Somerville nor the Cambridge fridge keep detailed inventories of how much food they distribute weekly, citing that it would be impossible to document the incoming community donations in particular. But considering the steady stream of contributions, boxes and bags made, and the number of people these resources continue to help in brutal times, it’s a considerable amount.
“People can take as much as they want,” Shea says. “That means they are hungry.”
Diamond believes that the community fridge will continue to thrive after the pandemic.
“It’s not just about food,” she says. “It allows people to spend money on other things—education, or going out getting coffee, which will reduce their stress.”