Community fridges battle food insecurity in Boston neighborhoods

The+community+fridge+in+Jamaica+Plain+sits+outside+D%27Friends+Barber+Shop.

Photo courtesy Veronica Bettio

The community fridge in Jamaica Plain sits outside D’Friends Barber Shop.

Maggie Scales, news correspondent

Flavia DeSousa, Zachary Shea and Veronica Bettio have made strides in developing community fridges — refrigerators on the street filled with donated food for locals in need — across Jamaica Plain and Somerville.

Communities all across the U.S. have taken massive economic hits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering many families unable to sufficiently put food on the table. In fact, one in eight people in eastern Massachusetts are projected to suffer from insecurity this year.

“People are starving,” Shea said.

In 2012, community fridges arose as a worldwide trend, beginning in countries including Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand and Israel, to combat food waste and reduce the world’s accumulated trash. This past February, New York-based activist group In Our Hearts NYC brought the trend to the United States with “Friendly Fridges.”

In starting the Boston fridge initiative, Bettio — the main organizer of the Jamaica Plain fridge — is pursuing both the original intention of the fridges, combating food waste, and helping the abundance of hungry locals who are not receiving the help they need from the government. 

“Number one, there’s a lot of food waste and number two, there’s a lot of food [needed],” Bettio said. “We wanted to help shift some resources and just look out for our communities. Community efforts and mutual aid are also very important during this pandemic and more generally since the government isn’t looking out for most people in this country.”

Having recognized the global phenomenon of community fridges, the three decided to get involved in helping local underprivileged families. Following a tweet DeSousa posted expressing her interest in getting involved, city councilman of Somerville, J.T. Scott replied, offering to host the community fridge in Somerville, adding to the already existing fridges in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. 

Since DeSousa and Shea began working with Scott, they have been successful in getting the fridge up and running, receiving an abundance of food donations from members of the community, which is the effort’s sole source of funding. Locals are able drop off food, and others can retrieve as much as they want, with no questions asked or background checks required. 

“80 people have signed up to help as of last week, and we’ve got $3,200 donated,” DeSousa said.

Likewise, Bettio also found community members more than willing to help out with the fridge, donating a wealth of food for those in need.

“We get massive food donations that disappear in one to two days. It’s amazing,” Bettio said. “All groceries are saved from grocery stores or other businesses or purchased by volunteers … We fill it up regularly, and it gets emptied regularly. It’s working just like it should.”

Shea said the work they do is not charity work, but rather a mutual aid effort. Their drive is simply to help their community for the sake of doing so, with no monetary gain involved. DeSousa and Shea have only had to contribute $200 out of pocket for the fridge, still leaving them with $3,000 of donations. The D’Friends Barber Shop, which hosts the Jamaica Plains site, even covers the electricity bills of the donated fridge.

 “We’re not looking for money for us,” Shea said. “We’re just looking for food for people.”

Shea and DeSousa emphasized the simplicity of the community fridges. Many people who may not qualify for government benefits do not feel comfortable dealing with the extensive paperwork required to apply for assistance, yet they have these fridges to fall back on.

“[For] people who may not feel comfortable going to organizations,” DeSousa said, “it’s just a fridge, they can just go.” 

Together, DeSousa, Shea and Bettio believe it is not just about feeding the community, but also bringing it together.

“Food insecurity is an important aspect, but half of it is showing community love. It’s about telling your community that there are people around that are there for support. I’ve met so many new people working on this and it’s been amazing,” Bettio said. “People are really eager to make connections and offer kindness in a time that has been truly isolating and scary.”