Many speculate that the Great Depression triggered an innate gathering instinct that’s led to the hoarding behaviors we see today, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we’re seeing many people joyously giving things away.

Update: The Utica Fridge was removed from Oneida Square for clean-up and repairs. It’s slated to reopen at a different location, and AV will keep you posted.

It’s natural for people to stock their fridge and hold onto food, continually imagining a time at which they’ll eat it, but oftentimes, people eventually toss it in the trash. Meanwhile, there are people who couldn’t afford to let food sit in their fridge for very long, nonetheless let it go to waste. To clean out the fridges of wishful thinkers and to feed those facing food insecurity, local do-gooder Hana Selimovic placed a Community Fridge in front of the Oneida Mini Mart at the corner of Oneida and Kemble St. in Utica, NY. This Fridge is open 24/7, there’s no intake process nor eligibility requirements, and everyone is encouraged to take what they need or donate what they can. 

Why? Food insecurity doubled during the pandemic, hitting 23% of households; meanwhile, 30-40% of the US food supply is wasted by consumers and retailers (sources: NPR and USDA). 

Hana spoke with Ardent Vox about the philosophy of giving that inspired her mission: “It’s an inherent principle that all human beings should live unashamedly free from hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. The right to food is not about charity but about ensuring that all people have the capacity to feed themselves with dignity.”

This principle is part of what makes the Community Fridge different from other forms of food service. As vital as conventional food pantries are, when people need to call, set appointments, fill out paperwork, and be surrounded by strangers, it can be hard for them to muster and keep the motivation to get help. Some people have gone without food because they feel too embarrassed to be seen at the local food pantry and to admit to themselves that they’ve reached that point. Some people think they don’t even deserve help. 

Beyond that, both donors and those in need may face transportation barriers, so having as many food resources as possible makes it easier for people to give and take. Food pantries also have limited hours, so it’s common for someone to reach out only to find that they’ve just missed the open hours of their nearby food pantry (food pantry eligibility is often limited to people who live in close proximity). The caller could be a senior who’s unexpectedly taken in their grandson or a single woman who’s just relieved of a 12-hour shift. For those callers and everyone in between, the Community Fridge offers a discreet and convenient solution that’s on the recipient’s own terms.

Some people might be skeptical of this practice, wanting to see exactly where donations have gone. How can donors feel good about the worth of their contributions without verifying the desperation of the recipient’s circumstances?

To this concern, Hana has a refreshing take: “It’s not up to us to decide who gets to eat and who doesn’t … [Any] margin of error [would be] worth it, but really, I wouldn’t expect someone who doesn’t need food to walk up to a local Fridge … We maintain an atmosphere of anonymity, and we don’t want to publicize anyone’s need for the time being. I hope that, as we grow, folks can share their journey, but we want to elaborate that we cannot exploit anyone’s struggle for media purposes, with respect to the righteous news source channels we have had shed a light on us.”

To remind those who frequent the fridge of their worth, one Community Fridge team member packaged to-go bags with notes that said, “Made with love”. Some donors have whipped up fresh, homemade dinners just for the Community Fridge. “I haven’t had lasagna in forever,” someone said, smiling as they walked away from the Community Fridge with their aluminum-wrapped parting gift.

Regarding those food items that have had a long journey to the Community Fridge, recipients are advised to use their own best judgment. The dates on food items are often labeled with great precaution, and they’re used as an indicator of freshness rather than safety, Hana explained. To combat food waste, people have begun opening their hearts to “ugly” (misshapen) fruits and well-preserved goods that have passed their prime. This resourceful approach has been adopted by Utica’s affordable non-profit-run grocery store, Bargain Grocer, as well.

When Hana reflected on her journey of giving, she had this to say: “I started working on community aid at our Refugee Center. My heart is with the refugee plight, being one myself. It’s opened my eyes to how – no matter how specific our individual struggle – we all seem to have more in common than we think.”

Now, Hana has rallied a team who share in her compassion and unwavering dedication: “I am floored on a daily basis with [our volunteers’] nonchalant commitment to such an enormous effort. Surrounding myself with righteous people has been my greatest accomplishment and biggest motivation. … I have a really fond memory of a few of us doing our best to build a protective shed for the fridge. None of us had any carpentry experience, but we were so determined. It must’ve been a comical sight to see when my dad came into his garage to discover four of us trying to work his table saw. He ended up taking over completely and did what we would’ve done for hours in maybe half of one.”

Locals have been moved by this mission, henceforth being inspired to share in the accountability of the wellness of our community. One such person is Troy Lockwood, and he’ll be expanding the mission to his own county of Herkimer.

“Once [the fridge opened], I found myself there helping out, stocking, cleaning, etc. sometimes up to 3-4 times a week,” said Troy. “These projects really do build a community, which is why Brandin Smalls and I decided we wanted to do this in our own hometown. Herkimer has some very underserved areas, especially on Main Street and the South side. Food insecurity should not be an issue anywhere, especially in the ‘richest country in the world’. We believe real change happens when organizing is done at the grassroots level by the people. The most drastic change, I believe, happens from the bottom up, not the other way around. It’s projects like these that bring the best qualities out of all human beings.”

Troy also touched on many of the points that Hana expressed: “The idea is, of course, to feed people who need to be fed but also to end the stigma around free food. This isn’t charity. This is mutual aid. This is for everyone. … I feel like many already-established food resources emphasize ‘charity’ so much that it makes people feel ashamed to take. It shouldn’t be like that, which is why we don’t call this charity.”

So how can all of us take part in this initiative?

While the Community Fridge doesn’t have any formal partnerships with local businesses, many have made contributions. Hope House has been a consistent donor for the past month. Individuals are welcome to donate money, food items, or time to clean the fridge and collect food donations. While any involvement is valuable, there has been a significant need for baby food/formula and for ready-to-eat/microwavable food, as many recipients don’t have kitchen access. It also helps to spread the word and bridge the technology gap; the Fridges are advertised on Facebook, but team members are also circulating flyers and conducting in-person meetings throughout the community.

The Community Fridge team members hope to see their model continue to spread. This is visionary in itself, but what’s Hana’s wildest dream for mutual aid? 

“My biggest dream is to be alive to see a world in which we can do everything by ourselves and for each other,” said Hana. “We have the ability to make things with our own hands, grow our own food, raise our own kids, and be each other’s friends. We can become completely self-sustainable. We don’t need to rely on exploitation and systems of money to barely survive when we can thrive if we nurture each other.” 

Utica Fridge: https://www.facebook.com/UticaFridge
Herkimer Fridge: https://www.facebook.com/Herkimer-Community-Fridge-104713011635990 

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