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Hunger Fighter Interview: The People's Fridge on 52nd St

“We’re just following in the footsteps of all the black leaders before us, who’ve been doing this [work] in Philly. We’re really new and are happy to do the work, and we definitely don’t need any attention or anything”, said Sonam Parikh, coordinator of The People’s Fridge on 52nd, conveniently anchored at the corner of its name given st and Larchwood Ave (511 S. 52nd street) in West Philadelphia. Humility, rhymes with and reflects the values of #HungerFighters like Sonam and her sister Sonia. Motivated by grief and an ambitious generosity that has to be genetic, the young business owners and West Philly residents established the Hulk sized adidition to the assembled Philly community fridges who are avenging the victims of hunger in the region. The Parikh sisters actively and proudly continue their father’s work in the fight against hunger and food insecurity.


What inspired you all to start the fridge?

My dad died of COVID in March, really early on. I know, We all know people of color especially black and brown folk get it more often especially if you [don’t] come from generational wealth or a lot of money and unfortunately my Dad just checked all the boxes.  It was a really grueling experience for me and my sister because we didn’t get to do any of the cultural or traditional things to say goodbye. Everything was so isolated and then after he passed we started getting all of these phone calls, it wasn’t just one or two. We got letters, phone calls,people left messages all of these random people and they were like, “hey you might not know me, but your husband[father] used to drop off diapers at my house on his way home from work”. His random acts of feeding people because for him feeding people is good. He was a mentally ill man with not alot of education, who has been through it in life, but he figured out what his version of spirituality was and it was making food for people and that’s how he expressed his love and his care. He was really righteous and we neer got to see that part of him because he was so sick for the last decade. I kind of got to meet my Dad after he died, so the fridge was kind of my way of being like my Dad. So me and my sister did that and it was a really great thing to focus on because we were all isolated, I couldn’t go back home with my family. Me and my sister lived a block away from each other. She’s been in Philly the last 10 years, I moved here six years ago, and we run a shop (Mina’s World) together, a little cafe that I just opened. We couldn’t have created something like the fridge without having this tool of white supremacy, which is having land or something. We don’t own the shop or the land, but because we get to dictate what goes on it we could have the fridge there. It’s a sad fact, but I wanted to use the leverage I had to do something. There's the cafe and the fridge across the street. We (sister Sonia) were like this is what we have to do because Papa kept doing it and it made us closer to him to have something productive to do because the whole world was locked down.


You and your family didn’t know that your father was doing these things for people before his passing?

No. Just the other day I read something “when you verbalize your act of charity does it really become an act of charity or self service?” and that’s something that my father really believed in, silently doing stuff and not waiting for any approval. Nobody in this life would have predicted that’s what he spent hours doing, he was very quiet. So it was a big nice thing for me and Sonia. So after that we were like if we’re giving away free food in a highly policed area and people of color walking around taking food out and then just walking away cops are going to come. So we went to [city hall], filed a permit to make sure the fridge could be there forever. When I leave, when the cafe leaves, that fridge structure is still gonna be there and we’re going to pay its electric [bill] forever and it's really important to us. 

Was it your fathers act of giving that helped you all decide on the fridge?

I think that helped, because during the time of the uprisings, my sister and I were seething with anger for so many reasons. People around us were getting hurt and in trouble all the time. We were like ‘what can we do that we don’t suck at? [laughs] what can we do that we know were good at?’ I know I’m good at running shit, Sonia is really good at organization and coordination, we both wanted so deeply to feed people because that’s how you love people or your community. So protesting is excellent, but we have people who train their bodies to protest. We wanted to make something that was always available, that somebody can’t take away from our block or neighborhood. That's why we ultimately chose the fridge. Also I have this cafe, so I can bug all these industry people to give me food because they need to do that regardless of where it goes, they need to be donating it, they need to be involved. 


What are your food sources for the fridge?

The food sources are the community. We get donations from all kinds of people. If folks don’t know what Venmo or CashApp are they come to the shop and drop in $5 on their way home from work. Even though the fridge is an online presence in a lot of ways, the on the ground work that’s geared towards folks that don’t have internet access or don’t care about social media, is the most important part of it. Some people who work at supermarkets say “I just talked to my manager, I can bring over two boxes of greens every week” we have a deeply organized system where we have different distributors like: Riverwards Produce, West Philly Bunnyhop, Food Not Bombs West Philly, Front Line Meals. We work with as many on the ground places as possible. We’re not down with a lot of corporate sponsorships or whatever because we’re not using the fridge to advertise someone else's business. Its people powered, or grass roots organization powered, more than often you see a lot of aunties coming with some food that they just cooked and it’s really beautiful. 


Are you planning on opening more fridges sites in the future?

We’re not planning on it, we wanted to make sure that the fridge was running and not break down in a couple months, we wanted to make it a perfect system. Recently we were approached by the Friends of Malcolm X Park, that organization of elders. They asked ‘if we would like to put a pantry in the park and said “if you put that in the park we’ll make sure you don’t get into trouble”. We get so many pantry items, but a fridge is for stuff that needs to be fridged, it helps us keep more fresh food in there. Now with a pantry we’re so excited because we can put cans, hygienic products, harm-reduction products, all kinds of PPE, period pads, over the counter medications. I know there is an herbal group that does herbal mixes and soup blends. This shit should be available. It’s infuriating. It's so anger inducing that this isn’t available for our communities. Everything that we are asked by Friends of Malcolm X Park and our friends of the fridge, we have so many fridge friends and we ask them “what do you want there?” and they tell us. We’re gonna put everything there, we’re gonna find the hugest pantry that we can, that doesn't attract too much attention. We’ll keep it stocked, keep it clean and hopefully the goal is that the folks from the park that really like the pantry, we can create jobs and  hire them to tend to the pantry, but that's a far off thing.


How do you coordinate volunteers?

Fridge friends are frequent users of the fridge who care for it and love it. They’ve become our friends through them utilizing the fringe. For volunteers, the first couple of months we did a huge online sign-up sheet and we were like what are you interested in helping out with. The jobs are deep cleaning, we need to sanitize the fridge every two hours, deeply because a lot of folks don’t have masks. After that we put out a call for people to be shoppers, for people to be transporters, packers and we made all different jobs so that each engagement would be less than an hour and a half so people will hopefully keep volunteering. Recently we narrowed our team to people who keep coming back, did the tasks and took some ownership and derived a lot of joy from it. Our core team of volunteers who reinforce and check on the fridge. There’s 17 of us now, we have monthly meetings, everything is decided together, but mostly we just came together by accident. 


What has been the community response to the fridge?

A lot of beautiful older people come up and say thank you. A lot of friends of the park say nice things and I say ‘thank you’ [laughs]. It’s humbling to be able to coordinate these things. Me and Sonia want to do so much and help so much, but we might not have generational wealth or basically any money to do that, but we have our brains, our ability to fundraise and the ability to get people moving, so we really just try to work with that. If somebody doesn’t like the fridge I doubt they would tell me about it, but we’ve only received love for it. We have a lot of friends with different abilities who have to use the fridge and we meet people from everywhere. The one thing people have asked us is “are you gonna do another fridge? I walk here from 40th St. because this is the only free fridge that doesn’t have a time for pickup”. Mostly people comment on the need for more, asking for more food, more fill ups and more fridges. Otherwise they’re like this is really cool. Is it free?, is the recurring question. 


Has it been difficult to meet that demand, the request for more? 

Yeah. Hands down yeah. It's astonishing how quickly this thing gets filled up and how quickly it gets depleted. It speaks to how necessary it is. 


How did you get the fridge?

Me and Sonia were like we need to do something. After my Dad passed from COVID my Mom got it and she almost died too. We were freaking out saying “we need something to concentrate on” so we concentrated on finding a free fridge for our project. Actually some really amazing florists from Snap Dragon Flowers on 51st St (store location closed, moved online) - it’s a black and indigenous flower shop. They just literally gave us their old fridge. We would never be able to do this without them. They really provided something for us that has helped us provide for so many, we’re forever indebted to them. 


What should people know about hunger and food insecurity in Philadelphia? 

Every single person, no matter what they have done in this life deserves access to food and water and shelter. Those are things, if you’re in the Philadelphia community networks, you know those things. It’s really, really hard. Maybe in this lifetime we won’t see the liberation we hope for, but we are all working toward the next lifetime and enjoying that liberation, freedom, joy and belonging in this world that’s what we can hope for.