Meet Fridgeport, a community fridge helping neighbors feed neighbors
When Aida Rivera loads her car with food donations, it’s like a game of Tetris. In the parking lot of BJ’s Wholesale Club, Rivera tried to fit four superstore-sized shopping carts full of food into her midsize SUV.
“I put the meat on the bottom because it’s [in] sturdier boxes than the cakes,” Rivera said, running between the carts and her trunk in flip-flops, carrying bulk-sized boxes of frozen meat. She fits five sheet cakes, half a dozen pies, over 20 boxes of muffins and around 30 bags of rolls in her car — close to $1,000 in donations from BJ’s.
All this food is going to Fridgeport, a community fridge in Bridgeport. Rivera has worked out this stacking technique during her many trips to pick up food donations. She volunteers for the fridge over 40 hours a week.
Food prices have risen 10% in the U.S. in the last year, making groceries even harder to afford for low-income people. In Connecticut, 12% of residents don’t have access to adequate nutrition. Fridgeport is one of half a dozen community fridges run through mutual aid that have popped in the state in the last few years to help meet that need.
In the small front yard of Kingdom Builders Impact Ministries, there’s an orange and tan shed filled with shelves and two large refrigerators. The fridges are open 24 hours, seven days a week, and all the food is free.
Donations come from individuals, restaurants and grocery stores. Rivera first heard of the community fridge concept early in 2021. She connected with Reggy St. Fortcolin, a community organizer who’s helped start up fridges in New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury. In May 2021, Fridgeport opened.
“Here, you take what you want, leave what you can,” St. Fortcolin said.
The first fridge in the state opened just prior to the pandemic. St. Fortcolin said that after the murder of George Floyd, mutual aid work, like the fridges, became more defined. It differs greatly, he said, from charity or government assistance.
“Food banks, they see whatever your condition is: Do you have one kid, or two kids, or three kids or four kids? You are one entity, and you got one bread, one soup, one salad.” At the fridge, he said, there are no limits or questions asked or barriers like paperwork.
Rivera wished she had access to something like this when she was a young, single mother.
“I was the one eating out of pantries. When people look down on you, and you don't want to go back, it's embarrassing,” she said.
She estimates that 1,000 people visit every week, based on the number of notifications she gets on her phone from the smart doorbell posted outside the fridge. Rivera sometimes sees people pick up food in the middle of the night, which she thinks is because they feel ashamed to come during the day.
“Here, it’s not about that,” she said. “It’s about giving a helping hand up.”
Many people who land just above the cutoff for state benefits experience food emergencies. Close to half the households in Bridgeport struggle to afford their basic needs of housing, food and transportation, according to data from United for ALICE. This includes households that aren’t technically considered in poverty — 23% of Bridgeport residents fall into that category.
“Poverty in America is a structural problem, and asking individuals to mutually assist each other isn’t really how you solve that poverty,” said Nathan Fiala, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut who studies food insecurity in low-income populations.
Fiala thinks the fridge is an indicator that existing systems aren’t working. According to the USDA, 21% of low-income people who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program don’t use it in Connecticut.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity here to think about how to redesign policy in Connecticut around support for low-income households,” Fiala said. He’d like to see politicians take food insecurity more seriously. Services like affordable housing, mental health care and even universal basic income would help, he said.
Back at the fridge, Scarleth Janelle shows up with her two sons. Rivera surprises the boys with a box of cookies and gives Janelle a hug.
“It helps a lot. Because it’s a lot of people that don’t get food stamps, don’t get help from the state,” Janelle said. She comes here often for herself, but also to take food for those who can’t come by.
“I come get [food] for me and to help other people,” she said.
She takes a frozen turkey and on her walk home, she calls friends to let them know there are a few more.
But the good news, Rivera said, traveled fast.
“We just picked up 30 turkeys, and there’s four left in there.”