COMMUNITY FRIDGE COMBATS LOCAL FOOD INSECURITY



Hunger is often discounted as a foreign issue––instilled in Americans by commercial imagery of suffering children in third world countries.

In reality, it is an issue plaguing local communities, even in cities as developed as Boston. Irene Li and Ari Gonçalves are working to combat food insecurity through community fridges in Boston.

In November of 2020, Mei Mei owner and chef Irene Li connected with independent organizer Ari Gonçalves to establish a community fridge outside of the restaurant located at 506 Park Drive. Community fridges are built and maintained by volunteers and are open 24/7 with the goal of allowing people who face food insecurity to get what they need.

“Anyone can need help at any point in their life,” Gonçalves said. “I don’t want people to think that because they make a certain amount that they don’t need help and I hope that they feel comfortable to reach out.”

While the community fridge is new to Mei Mei, this is not its first experience with community outreach. Li is also a co-founder of Project Restore Us, an organization of restaurants that utilizes fundraisers and grants to purchase, package and deliver food to undocumented immigrant families and essential workers across Boston. Li said that the organization has already distributed approximately 400,000 lb of food to the community. Project Restore Us often supplies meals that are culturally relevant and familiar to their often Hispanic and Asian donees, allowing them to maintain some semblance of normalcy and cultural tie while accepting donations.

“We think that’s important because at food pantries, you kind of get what you get and that’s not always going to be familiar, so we made a big effort in that regard,” Li said.

The need for community fridges grows during the colder months. People strapped for cash are often forced to choose between paying higher utility bills or paying for food––and in a Boston winter, giving up heat is not an option. When forced to forgo groceries, resources like the community fridge allow for people to still have access to warm meals when they need it most, reducing the stress they are already under.

COVID-19 also exaggerated the need for aid. While many at the beginning of the pandemic were waiting on long lines outside of grocery stores that had already been emptied by panic hoarding, restaurants still had access to thousands of pounds of food despite not being able to open. This inspired Li to bridge this gap by beginning to sell groceries from the restaurant. Although she faced backlash from local government, they fought back to ensure the well-being of their community in such a perilous time.

Organizers have faced some hesitancy with the community fridges, as many may worry about the COVID-exposure risk from taking and leaving food. With this in mind, the fridge has established many rules and guidelines to ensure safety, with volunteers checking in at multiple times per day to clean and ensure all guidelines are met.

Although some businesses may be hesitant to establish a community fridge, Li takes pride in it as an expression of her values.

“It’s so important for small businesses to be so deeply rooted in the community to remind people that we’re from here,” Li said. “You always see small businesses sponsoring a little league team or finding ways to give back and to keep the community going. That is really special and hopefully a reminder as to why main streets and small business really matters, even if you can get everything from Walmart and Amazon,” Li said.

Food insecurity does not always look like sleeping on the sidewalk of Methadone Mile. Li and Gonçalves say it could be anyone––your classmate, your TA or your friend.

Gonçalves said that working on this project has shown her the “magnitude” of food insecurity in a city as gentrified as Boston. Fenway made a perfect location for the fridge as it is the intersection between the student and homeless population.

“Nobody likes to think of gentrified areas as having [food insecure] individuals,” Gonçalves said. “I’m glad that the community fridge has brought two different communities together and they both have the same common goal of ending that.”