People are putting stocked fridges on Philly sidewalks

The fridges live on city streets and offer free food to anyone willing to open the door.

The Mama-Tee community fridge has two locations in North Philadelphia, with a third on its way. (Courtesy of Michelle Nelson)

The Mama-Tee community fridge has two locations in North Philadelphia, with a third on its way. (Courtesy of Michelle Nelson)

Walking south on 7th Street right before hitting Girard Avenue, passersby may be stopped in their tracks by a bright yellow-painted fridge.

That’s what Michelle Nelson says happens when people see the Mama-Tee Community Fridge for the first time. But the real surprise might come when they open the fridge to find fresh kale, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and more fresh produce — all for free.

Nelson — a small business owner — set the fridge up on the sidewalk about two weeks ago. The fridge, which lives outside, has a motto of “take what you need, leave what you don’t.” It offers its bounty next to the outdoor dining set-up of the North Philly cocktail bar/restaurant Ambassador.

In the span of just a few weeks, several community fridges in Philly neighborhoods have popped up on Instagram: The People’s Fridge on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Community Fridge in South Philly, and the Germantown Community Fridge. Surprisingly, each icebox operates independently, without connections between the three. Yet they share similar goals: make fresh food more accessible, cut down on waste and create a more equitable city.

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The Mama-Tee Fridge is the first to open its cold doors while the others continue to prepare for their eventual launch dates.

Philly’s fridge movement takes inspiration from the dozen-plus fridges that have been plugged in across New York City’s boroughs — and elsewhere — this summer.

At first glance, the fridges might appear to be a form of charity, but instead, it’s part of a growing mutual aid movement gaining traction in a country on a collective journey toward healing during a pandemic, and after weeks of protests about racism and police violence. The fridges are stocked by volunteers, or anyone passing by with a perishable item they want to donate. Crews of volunteers clean and maintain them daily.

Their organizers say it helps alleviate food insecurity at a time when food banks and pantries are overwhelmed with an influx of need, and can help cut down on waste — no small thing for the Philadelphia sanitation workers struggling to keep up with a multi-ton increase of trash due to the pandemic.

Nelson, a former New Yorker, noticed a fridge outside a business while visiting her old hometown a month-and-a-half ago.

“I noticed that the neighborhood was very receptive to this fridge,” Nelson said. “What I observed was people actually going inside and getting water out of the fridge and I thought it was such a cool idea.”

The sighting stuck with her and she decided to give running a community fridge a try in Philly.

Once she began, Nelson discovered an abundance of free or low-cost refrigerators available on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, which is where she got the Mama-Tee fridge.

From there, it was just a matter of “decorating it to your heart’s delight” and finding a host or location that believes in the community fridge mission.

Nelson said the owner of Ambassador, Kahlil Mir, welcomed the fridge. He was “very gracious,” she said, when she explained the project. Her team of volunteers have also now unveiled a second Mama-Tee fridge in North Philadelphia: outside of coffee shop Franny Lou’s Porch in East Kensington. And coming soon: another Mama-Tee fridge outside Triple Bottom Brewing at Ninth and Spring Garden streets.

“When you are trying to get someone to understand what you’re doing, the main thing is that it might be a little scary at first, but if your intentions are good, people see that,” Nelson said. “And this is definitely something good. We should have fridges everywhere, because food is a right, it’s not a privilege. Nobody should be hungry.”

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Nelson said people have responded to the North Philly fridges with an outpouring of love. On the first Saturday in July that the Ambassador fridge was fully accessible to the community, lots of people came by and offered to help maintain the fridge as a volunteer.

“It was a very emotional day as well because we did get to see the first few residents in the neighborhood use the fridge and I just have great hopes for it,” Nelson said.

On the website for her T-shirt company, Nelson provides information on how people can host a community fridge or get a Mama-Tee fridge in their city. She’s also taking donations via GoFundMe for fridge upkeep costs.

Nelson said her goal is to get 20 fridges all across Philly, but if they can do more, “we’re gonna do it.”

Making time for mutual aid

Syona Arora found herself with some extra free time after getting laid off from her job at the Franklin Institute because of the pandemic. The Point Breeze resident kept busy with freelance work, helping small businesses create websites, and working with South Philly mutual aid projects, such as Mutual Aid Philly and Dipes ‘n’ Wipes. 

After realizing she enjoyed using her free time to help others and learning about community fridges from a relative in New York, she decided to spearhead her own in Philly.

She sourced a green and blue fridge on Facebook Marketplace and is working with a group of volunteers to get it up and running soon. They recently secured a location outside Radiance Medical Group’s office at 6th and Titan streets.

Arora said since setting up the South Philly fridge’s social media presence, people have been generous in their support. A mutual friend reached out and offered to cover the fridge’s electricity bill. Another person built a shelter to keep it safe from the elements.

Instagram, in particular, Arora said, has been helpful in getting the word out. She’s found it useful in the past for other mutual aid projects.

“I think it’s a great way to reach a wide audience,” Arora said.

But there are people who aren’t on Instagram, Arora notes, who might want to know about the fridge. So she is making flyers and plans to talk to nearby residents to make sure it’s accessible to as many people as possible.

Arora finds it exciting that community fridges are popping up in different parts of the city — spreading fresh food and connecting more people.

She suspects the pandemic and protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, have made many Philadelphians rethink the relationship they have with their neighborhood.

“I think there’s a huge number of people who are now saying, ‘I realize I need to do something and I realize I need to help my neighbors,’” Arora said. “Because by helping my neighbors and supporting the community I live in, we can strengthen, and we don’t need to rely any longer on systems that aren’t beneficial.”

Mama-Tee fridge operator Nelson added that as many Philadelphia neighborhoods deal with the ramifications of gentrification, a community fridge can be an equalizer.

“A system like a community fridge actually bridges that gap because you have people that need the food and the people who move in could provide the food, so that is an awesome relationship,” Nelson said. “And it gets defended by everyone because it’s like, ‘No, this is important for us to have. We’re proud of it.’”

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