West Side Community Fridge Offers Free Food
Aid comes in many forms during tumultuous times of need. One of our most basic and constant needs is to eat, but sometimes that’s just not something we can provide by ourselves and requires a little help from our neighbors and some selfless strangers. We interviewed Tatiana Smith, founder of the West Side Community Fridge, located at 214 Delaware Ave, who saw the negative effects happening in her community from her neighbors going hungry and jumped into action.
First, Tatiana tried to drum up support on Facebook groups and from local businesses for starting a community fridge after being inspired by seeing the success Brooklyn’s In Our Hearts NYC had with theirs. After not receiving the outside support she needed right away, though, Tatiana decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I got frustrated because I’m a woman of my word and I’m a woman of action,” said Tatiana. “I don’t like to just talk about it, I like to do it. So after a while when I didn’t see things happening the way I wanted to, I just kind of took things into my own hands and started the fridge.”
She bought a glass-front fridge, filled it up with fresh produce, and hung a sign that said, “Take what you need, leave what you can.” By the next morning, it was empty. Tatiana started an Instagram page for the fridge to get the word out, which to her, felt like it made the whole thing real. From inception to reality, it only took Tatiana two weeks to change her community and the lives of her neighbors for the better. Early every morning, Tatiana picks up fresh fruits and vegetables from local markets, like Bergen Ave Fruit Stand, as well as milk, toiletries, and other basic necessities, to make sure she’s supplying those stopping by the fridge with the same food she would feed herself and her child. She also makes sure it stays stocked so people know it’s open 24/7, unlike pantries with set hours.
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The point of the fridge is to feed anyone in need but also destigmatize the perception of being “needy.” For Tatiana, the fridge represents the idea of mutual aid and equalizes the act of giving between neighbor to neighbor, and not about looking down on those we perceive as “less fortunate.” It’s all about normalizing need and having those needs met without judgement. As a doula, Tatiana knows first-hand what humans truly need not only to survive but to thrive, and it’s as simple as food and love.
“I want to equalize and destigmatize what it means to need something,” said Tatiana. “I want people to know this fridge is for everyone … It’s not for a person who you think is less than you because truth be told, you don’t know what person needs what. You don’t know how close somebody is to the precipice of a person who you think is needy. I need people to rearrange how they think about the needy. When people think about helping the needy, I want people to think about how everybody needs love and everybody needs food, so if everybody needs food and everybody needs love, that makes us all needy.”
Thanks to her Instagram page and news spreading rapidly through word of mouth, there has been a constant stream of donations throughout the day with people encouraged to bring their best because “what’s good for you is good for the community.” In fact, during the three-hour interview with Tatiana, the fridge was stocked and refilled multiple times, with one neighbor even staying to sweep up after picking up a donation. While these donations are more than appreciated by the single mother with a full-time job outside of voluntarily hosting a community fridge, she also mentions what her community can do to help lighten her load.
“The best thing people can do is to continue bringing food,” said Tatiana. “I love to get the donations, but when you bring the food, don’t drop it on the ground. Don’t just leave it because there’s no magic elves doing the work. It’s just me or a few volunteers.” When donating, place items on top of the fridge or on a shelf if there’s room, rearranging things if needed. Tatiana also recommends giving the fridge a quick wipe with a disinfectant cloth to keep everything and everyone healthy and safe. The best rule of thumb: treat it the same way you treat your food and fridge at home.
Examples of what to donate: Fresh produce, shelf stable items, reusable bags, cans, applesauce, bread, soups, diapers, formula, baby food, pasta, pregnancy tests, menstrual aids, drug tests, toothbrushes, soap, deodorant, other necessities that you might not need right away but are good to have on hand; inedible goods are welcome, however Tatiana wants the focus to remain on food to combat food deserts and residents going hungry – all non-food items should be marked with “FREE” prior to donating.
Examples of what NOT to donate: Raw and frozen meat (illegal) including hamburger patties, chicken, hot dogs; no frozen foods in general: it is a fridge, not a freezer; expired, rotting, or very obviously damaged food; overly processed foods – these will not be thrown away, but the spirit of the fridge is to provide free and healthy food whenever possible.
Barely a week after the fridge went live, our city’s own selfless Superwoman is already inspiring others to follow her lead. Greenville now has its own community fridge at 57 Rose Ave while another is opening in Union City. Tatiana hopes this is a trend that catches fire and snowballs into something led by others who want to make a positive change, just like her.
“I just want people to take it upon themselves to build for their community,” said Tatiana. “Don’t wait for me. I’m not the manager. I can help you and guide you on what to do, but I want people to empower themselves to do this for themselves and their communities.”
For anyone interested in starting your own, please note that community fridges are protected under the Federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (public law 104-210) and the NJ Food Bank Good Samaritan Act of 1982. Tatiana has the print out of the law taped to the fridge to ensure its continued success and avoid any questions of legality.
Please make all donations and pick-ups directly at the fridge in front 214 Delaware Ave (no need to knock or contact Tatiana ahead of time!). Monetary donations for Tatiana’s morning shopping runs and operating costs are also welcome: Venmo @westsidecommunityyfridge or CashApp $westsidefridge.