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By JENNIFER COLLAO

NEW YORK – On  a street corner  Washington Heights  in northwestern New York City,  stand two lonely  refrigerators. Spray painted in bright, bold pinks, blues and greens, the word community takes center stage. The fridge offers a chance for a mutually beneficial relationship: take food if you need it, leave food if you can.

In front of the Serie 53 deli in a neighborhood where  a third of the residents are food insecure, the Uptown Fridge provides fresh, free produce for those in need. Behind the graffiti-laden doors are strawberries, carrots, milk and  meals donated by neighbors and local businesses hoping to contribute to the cause and minimize food waste.

“A lot of people in the community are very happy with the fridge because they don’t have work and are in need of food,” says Serie 54 store manager Tony Alverez. “It’s amazing what they’re doing.”

The Uptown Fridge is part of a growing network of over 50 fridges across the city’s sprawling five boroughs. In Our Hearts, a New York City-based anarchist group, is leading the charge by distributing resources to local organizers looking to replicate the “friendly fridge” project in their own neighborhoods.

“We understand the importance of mutual aid, which is why we wanted to start this because we are aware that no one is going to create the change we want to see in the world,” said Grace, a lead organizer for the Queensbridge Community Fridge. “The government is not serving these underserved and overpoliced communities, so we realized we have to take care of each other.”

The surge in mutual aid projects is fueled by the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic that exacerbated social and economic inequalities, causing a rise in racial protests, unemployment rates and food and housing insecurity. Latino and Black residents in the U.S. are three times more likely to contract the virus and nearly twice as likely to die from it than their white neighbors, the New York Times reported in July.

Witnessing the health and racial disparities in the wake of the pandemic motivated community-driven groups such as the organizers at the Uptown Fridge, to mobilize and fill those unmet social needs.

“It’s better to act out of love than fear,” one of the lead organizers of Uptown Fridge, Aditi Varshneya, told E! News in August. “We are stronger and better prepared when we practice mutual aid and build community than when we work alone or worse compete with our neighbors.”

For most of the day, the Uptown Fridge sits alone, patiently waiting for someone to come along and take what they need or feed it donations. In the afternoon  local volunteers who signed up for a maintenance shift clean, restock and organize. Sporadically throughout the day it’s visited by volunteer drivers dropping off produce and meals from local businesses looking to redirect their food excess.

Although the fridge spends most of its time on the sidewalk alone, it still requires daily contributions from volunteers, leading skeptics to ask if the project is sustainable and  whether members will continue to care for the fridge after the pandemic. Lead organizer  LastNameTK hopes so.

“One important component when creating the fridge is to allow the community to appropriate the fridge and make it their own,” she  said. “Our job as organizers is done when the fridge is fully adopted and cared? for by the community, for the people by the people. Then we can move on and support another neighborhood.”

(Written and reported by Jennifer Collao; Oct. 8, 2020)

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