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Hunger Fighter Interview: Philadelphia Community Fridge

Philadelphia Community Fridge

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March altered every aspect of life across the world. In Philadelphia, the rapid increase in unemployment resulted in an even greater need of food assistance resources. Community members like Syona Arora reacted to the needs of their neighbors by setting up community fridges throughout the city. Philadelphia Community Fridges provide immediate access to fresh food to neighbors in the South Philly area. Coalition Against Hunger Communications Coordinator Antonio Boone reached out to Arora to learn more about her program and how she joined the anti-hunger movement. 


Q: What inspired the Community Fridge? 

A: Community Fridges have existed and been around for a long time, but because of the pandemic, they have definitely been popping up in cities all over the country. In July, I saw that there were lots of them opening up in New York. My cousin actually opened one [in New York]. I said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool! If there’s one in Philly, I wanna help out with it.’ But when I did my research, I found that one hadn’t opened up in Philly yet, so I went ahead and gathered the volunteers and set up those logistics. While I was doing that in South Philly, there were actually several other community members across the city doing that as well. Now we have two fridges in South Philly; there's a fridge in West Philly; there's a fridge in Germantown. There are so many locations for people to access food. Our two locations are east of Broad Street. We are hoping to open one west of Broad [Street] or further south near Snyder [Ave.]  We’re doing everything we can to make sure the two fridges that we have are stocked regularly. 

Q: How did you coordinate the volunteers?

A: I think that there were a lot of people looking to help and I think that's why it was a little bit easier for us to get some volunteers. I was laid-off because of COVID all the way back in March, and the first thing I wanted to do was turn back to the community and say ‘what can I do to support other people who are in the same situation that I am?’  I was already getting involved with other mutual-aid organizations and when I started the fridge, something that I found was [that] people really like being able to do something that's pretty low-stakes, like cleaning the fridge. It doesn’t take a long time. [It’s] not a super difficult task, but it’s still a really important way to give back to the community. Presenting volunteer opportunities like that really helps to get a lot of people on board. It's something that a lot of people are passionate about and it is pretty different from a lot of other [volunteer] opportunities in the city. In terms of food distribution, it’s really hands on. You might be serving food to other people and I think there was a lot of wariness around that especially because of the pandemic. So, you're still giving food back to the community, but in a more hands-off way. 


Q:How did you decide on the fridge locations?

A: I have lived in Point Breeze for about two years now, so South Philly just because I live here [laughs]. Obviously, fridges can and should be in every neighborhood in Philadelphia, but for me personally I said, ‘I live here, I’ll just do one here.’  I cold called and cold emailed a lot of businesses and that's why we ended up with two locations east of Broad Street. The Bok Building (1901 S. 9th St, 19148) [was chosen] because it’s hosted so many different events and there are so many vendors. I really thought that this was something that Bok could get behind; they’ve been really amazing hosts. Then our other fridge, which is actually our first fridge, is located at Radiance Medical Group (1229 S. 6th St, 19147).  [RMG is] a small practice that [provides] direct care [on] a sliding scale. Dr. [Vicky] Borgia, MD [at RMG] has always been really supportive of the community. When I called her at 8 pm, intending to leave a voicemail one day, she answered the phone. I said ‘Oh, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m reaching out to see if you would be interested in hosting a community refrigerator at your location and she was like ‘Yeah.’ I asked if she wanted more details or information and she said ‘Yeah you can email it to me, but yeah that sounds really cool, I want to do it.’

Q: What has been the community's response to the fridges?

A: People have been really, really excited about it. I know that there were a couple of people who were a little concerned. They would ask ‘aren't people just going to open the fridge and take all the food from it?’ And that hasn’t really happened. You’ll occasionally see people at different events go in and take a bunch of stuff that you think they may not need, but you never know what people are looking for or what they need. People really stick to the idea of taking what you need. They may go, ‘I see two containers of milk, but I only need one, so I’m going to leave the other for someone else to take.’ People really like it. It’s definitely been really helpful. We’ve gotten some community feedback about what food people want to see. That’s really important to us. There were a bunch of kids who live near the location on 6th Street and they were like, ‘We want more cookies’ and we were like, ‘Ok, yeah, why not? We’ll put some more cookies in the fridge’ [laughs]. We originally did not allow meat in the fridge for sanitary, diet and religious reasons, but then we got a lot of feedback from the community that they did want meat options in the fridge. So we revised that guideline to accept cooked sausage or chicken salad, so there are meat options for people in the fridge. We don't want to say here’s some food, take what you can get. We want to make sure we are getting food that people want to eat or need to stock up their pantries and fridges at home. 


Q: What are the food sources for the fridges? 

A: Right now we shop for food everyday.  We do work with Sharing Excess. We work with several different locations [like] V Marks the Shop, which is a vegan-grocer in South Philly, [that gives] us some of what they have left over. Rowhouse Grocer has an option to purchase a donated meal that goes to the fridge; [also] The Bagel Place, whenever they have leftovers. We always get a ton of those and then we get tons of peanut butter and jelly to go with [leftovers]. The biggest thing [of importance to us]: we shop for the fridges everyday. We want to make sure that they’re always stocked, that there's enough food for everyone who wants it. The turnover is really high. That's why we’re constantly stocking it. 


Q: Are you planning on opening future sites?

A: That's what we’re hoping for. We’re reaching out to businesses for potential hosts. If anyone has any recommendations, please send them our way. There are a couple [of] businesses that are interested. I understand why some [businesses] might be hesitant, but we provide a lot of information about the involvement and liability of the businesses. Which there really isn’t any [information and liability], but we provide that information upfront. So right now, I’m reaching out to businesses west of Broad Street and farther south of Snyder [Ave.]  We’re always looking for people to recommend businesses. We’re happy to have a chat about what it would be like to open a fridge at a new location. 


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

A: Don’t ever assume that your neighbors are food secure. Food insecurity affects a lot more people and a lot more families than people realize. When thinking about opening these types of resources, I would say these [resources] are needed everywhere. That charity mindset, we try to shy away from. There are people who live next to me who are my friends and my family, people around me who are experiencing this. We want to put out those resources for everyone to share.