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Inside Philadelphia’s Thriving Community Fridge Movement

Next City

October 27, 2021

Community fridges are a grassroots mutual aid effort to address food insecurity. Organizers usually work with hosts in the community to set up fridges and food pantries, stocked with fresh produce and nonperishables such as pasta and dried beans. There are now about 30 fridges citywide that provide easy and healthy food access to people in need — a number way higher than cities with similar populations, according to data compiled by Freedge, a non-profit networking platform for community fridge activists.

Kate Towson is the volunteer organizer at South Philadelphia Community Fridge. She’s not surprised that mutual aid efforts like community fridges would thrive in a city like Philadelphia.

“A lot of communities here have been taking care of one another for a very long time. It’s a long-standing tradition,” says Towson.

Towson adds that mutual aid has long been an integral part of the city, given the strong base of progressive leadership in Black and Brown communities. Projects like community fridges roll out quickly with support from established community organizations.

Another reason that fridges seem urgently needed in Philadelphia is the city’s high levels of food insecurity and economic hardship. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America, with a poverty rate of 23.3%, more than double the nationwide rate of 11.4% according to 2020 census data.

Mariana Chilton is the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University. She has been studying food insecurity in Philadelphia for more than 20 years. She explains that many people don’t want to participate in government assistance programs such as SNAP because of the stigma associated with doing so. “They would much rather work and make their own money,” says Chilton.

“There’s an enormous amount of stigma and discrimination that they experience at the cash register in the grocery store.”

She also cites as deterrents program restrictions and the often “humiliating” experience of applying at the county assistance office.

Chilton also applauds the mutual aid efforts like the community fridges but argues that they don’t address the root causes of poverty in the city.

“I love the community fridge idea…It’s an expression of community care and of mutuality. It does help some people and we need more of that community creativity and community care,” says Chilton. “It’s not going to make or break food insecurity rates, though. It’s going to do absolutely nothing to address poverty.”

Chilton explains that food security will not improve as long as nothing significant is done to address low wages, poor public assistance programs and lack of investment in schools and neighborhoods.

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