As Philadelphians face shrinking SNAP benefits, a Mount Airy community fridge is helping fill the gap

You can “laugh, enjoy, and shop for free” at Mount Airy’s community fridge and pantry located on Stenton Avenue.

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Nicole Williams smiles, posing for a photo next to the open door of the community fridge.

Nicole Williams, co-managing directer of the Mt. Airy food pantry, shows off the squash, green beans and peppers in their community fridge at the Unitarian Universalists of Mt. Airy Church on Stenton Ave. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

All across Philadelphia, community fridges exist to help provide food to neighbors in need. This long-standing tradition, rooted in mutual aid, gained momentum during the beginning of the pandemic and has been going strong ever since. There are fridges located everywhere from Hunting Park and Germantown to Fairmount and Point Breeze and beyond.

Now, there’s a new one to add to the list: the Mt. Airy Community Fridge and Pantry located at the neighborhood’s Unitarian Universalists church.

Like many of the other fridges, the mission of this neighborhood project is to reduce food insecurity, minimize food waste and offer necessities to people, at no cost and without any barriers.

A close-up of boxes of cookies and produce in a refrigerator.
An anonymous donor stocked the Mt. Airy food pantry with Girl Scout Cookies. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Food justice is environmental justice, which is racial justice, which is what I believe in,” said pantry co-founder Nicole Williams. “As a Black person, a nonbinary person and Mount Airy resident who has grown up and seen many racial injustices … being able to be a part of the solution in the ways that I can is really important.”

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Courtney Heinerici, who shares the role of managing director with Williams and is also a co-founder, came up with the idea after volunteering at two different pantries during the Thanksgiving holiday. She pitched it to her church, where the pantry is now located, and got Rev. McKinley Sims and her husband, Augusto, in on the plan.

“Our faith community believes in paying reparations to the community,” said Heinerici, who aims to do the “best that I can to do what I can with my privilege.”

Courtney Heinerici and Nicole Williams pose for a photo, standing next to the doorway of a stone building.
Managing directors of the Mt. Airy food pantry, Courtney Heinerici (left) and Nicole Williams (right), say the need for food and hygiene products in the community is great. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Heinerici, Williams, and their fellow co-founders wanted to “build a space where everyone felt welcome and destigmatize this idea of need.” The goal was to create a “safe, clean space where people could come and have their needs met, have a pleasant experience, and feel a part of the community.”

The pantry was launched in January, followed by the fridge installation in February. The opening of this Mount Airy location comes at an ideal time for the city.

In Philadelphia, about 485,000 residents are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and receive benefits to buy groceries and food. But this month, additional benefits put in place early in the pandemic will expire, which means families will have on average $90 less per person to spend on groceries each month.

“We estimate that our service area of folks who live under the federal poverty level, that can walk here, to be about 560 people,” said Heinerici, who works in data analytics. “It would take 14,000 pounds of food a week to meet all of their nutritional needs.” The pantry currently distributes 7,000 pounds of food a week.

Courtney Heinerici opens the cabinet door of the community pantry.
Courtney Heinerici, co-managing directer of the Mt. Airy food panty, checks the stock of dried goods and hygiene products in the pantry donated by the Mt. Airy Candle Co. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Heinerici says that other community fridges are already experiencing the higher demand due to the SNAP benefit expiration.

“It’s not a small thing. It’s a pretty big crisis that we’re about to have,” she said. Pantries, fridges, and other food resources are “going to be a huge hit” when people start to feel the reality of the loss of benefits.

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For now, Williams, Heinerici, and a team of 25 volunteers are holding down the fort and doing the best they can to make sure that they are stocked with all kinds of food — dry goods, meat and cheese, fresh produce, as well as hygiene products and pet food. To maintain inventory, the pantry works with local nonprofits and small businesses who are also working to minimize food waste and feed people. The pantry and fridge gets restocked every other day.

The project is a true community collaboration.

Mount Airy Candle Co. donated the pantry and Northwest Mutual Aid Collective donated the fridge. The pantry receives donations from residents and also from Jackie’s Garden, Sharing Excess, Share Food Program, Food Connect, and Double Trellis Food Initiative.

By working together, “it’s uplifting these organizations that are just doing a lot of the same work that we’re doing,” said Williams.

Nicole Williams leans over to place something in the community fridge.
Nicole Williams, co-managing directer of the Mt. Airy food pantry, checks items in their community fridge that was installed at the Unitarian Universalists of Mt. Airy Church on Stenton Ave. on February 18, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But there are challenges in managing a community fridge and pantry, too. In February, one was stolen from Hunting Park and was recently replaced. Williams said it was upsetting, but is thankful that the community was able to get a replacement. She’s not concerning herself with hypotheticals.

“If a fridge is taken, we’ll get a new fridge and we’ll be able to feed our people and our people will come through for us,” said Williams.

The most important thing is that the pantry is helping residents. The response to the Mount Airy fridge has been overwhelmingly positive, sprinkled with some helpful feedback and requests for items, said Williams.

It’s wonderful to be able to “give back to a community that gives back so much to us people,” said Williams.

A bright green sign hung on a stone wall displays the words "Free Pantry."
The Mt. Airy food pantry at the Unitarian Universalists of Mt. Airy Church on Stenton Ave. is a place where anyone in need can grab produce or hygiene products. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The fridge and pantry is open 24/7 to the public.

“It’s a place where people can laugh, enjoy, shop for free,” said Williams.

“You can take whatever you like as much as what you would like,” said Heinerici. “That’s really it. There’s nobody here watching you. There’s no checkout process. You really just come and take whatever you want.”

A sign outside of a church reads Unitarian Universalists of Mount Airy.
The Mt. Airy food pantry at the Unitarian Universalists of Mt. Airy Church on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia is a place where anyone in need can grab produce or hygiene products. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Mt. Airy Community Fridge and Pantry accepts monetary donations. Food and hygiene donations can be dropped off at 6900 Stenton Ave., and the organization also has a wishlist available if people want to buy directly. Those interested can also volunteer to help stock donations and do pick-ups.

For residents seeking additional food resources in the Delaware Valley, here’s a breakdown by area.

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