In light of increased levels of food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two new community fridges, Providence Community Fridge and Refri PVD, both encourage people to donate whatever they are able and take whatever they need, according to Providence Community Fridge founder Sara Federici and Refri PVD founder Dana Heng.
Federici and Heng both felt compelled to take action and start fridges when they saw how the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity in Providence. “COVID has definitely totally exposed and increased all of the need (for food) around Providence,” Federici said. Still, Federici noted that “there's still so much need, and there's still not total access to food, so even once the pandemic’s over, that's not really going to change.”
The fridges take a variety of food donations. “Canned goods (and) non-perishable items are always accepted” by Providence Community Fridge, Federici said, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables and “ready-to-eat foods.” Federici also hopes that the fridge will expand to offer hand sanitizer, coats, blankets, masks, condoms, Naloxone and books.
Refri PVD also accepts “produce and pantry items,'' according to Heng. “In the past we had some prepared meals, but the Department of Health (is) … concerned about food safety,” Heng said.
Providence Community Fridge and Refri PVD receive electricity from their respective hosts: Project Weber/Renew, a harm reduction and recovery services organization, and New Urban Arts, an arts center for Providence high school students.
In order to support its fridge, Providence Community Fridge relies on fundraising. Federici was able to find “a cheap fridge on Facebook marketplace,” and “through the generosity of a little over 100 people, (they) collected about one thousand (dollars) in donations.” Both fridges currently rely on food donations from residents, local businesses and local organizations.
But overseeing these community fridges has not been without challenges.
"It's just hard to coordinate schedules, especially when COVID prevents us from meeting in-person a lot of the time and (prevents us from) getting a lot of action-oriented things accomplished because we have to do things mostly over text, emails (and) Zoom," Federici said. Although Providence Community Fridge has had their fridge since the end of November, it wasn’t fully functional until February of this year due to delays in building caused by snow, she added.
Refri PVD has struggled to keep the fridge stocked because "so many people need food constantly. It's not just a one-time thing,” Heng said.
Still, both fridges have seen a positive response from the Providence community.
“Sometimes I'll encounter people who are using the fridge in some way — either dropping food off or picking food up,” New Urban Arts Executive Director Daniel Shleifer ’03 said. “They're always really, really grateful and appreciative of the fact that it’s there.”
Federici expressed how overwhelmed and grateful she is for all of the community support. She expected to have to actively seek out donations and hosts but said that instead, she has been pleasantly surprised with the number of people reaching out to her. “We have a ton of people in every field (willing to help). We have scientists, engineers, artists, chefs ... people have been so generous with their money, with their time and their talent.”
Heng said she isn’t surprised at the positive response due to how tangible donating food to the fridge is as a means of partaking in movements to help address inequality. “It's easier to digest for people who are new to the cause (of fighting inequality and injustice). It's like, 'Oh, we can give food.' This is a kind gesture. It's not inherently political. It's a human right to have food, so I think that's why it's so positive across the board no matter what political beliefs you have,” Heng said.
Currently both Providence Community Fridge and Refri PVD host one fridge, but they hope to continue expanding as long as there is a need for it.
“Food insecurity is a really, really huge concern in general, and it's only been made worse by the economic downturn that has resulted from the pandemic,” Shleifer said. “Initiatives like this are just one small way of hopefully turning back some of the tide around food insecurity, at least in our small community.”
Injy El-Dib is a metro staff writer at The Brown Daily Herald. She has previously covered activism and public health in the Providence area. In her free time, Injy enjoys playing volleyball and crocheting stuffed animals.