In The Conquest of Bread, published in 1892, anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote about the imperative to move away from economic systems of feudalism and capitalism, and toward structures centered around mutual aid. In later essays (collected in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution), he criticized adherents of social Darwinism and their obsession with competition, as well as their commitment to political and economic systems built upon the assumption that only the fittest members of a society will thrive — or even survive. He pointed to examples of cooperation in nature that proved that competition, while existent, was not a precondition for the success of a given species.
As unfettered capitalism continues to manufacture scarcity and uphold economic hierarchies, allowing a very few to control the vast majority of wealth while countless others are forced to suffer the material indignities of poverty — a reality exacerbated and accelerated by the pandemic — Kropotkin’s message could not be more vital. Workers across the United States have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic while a small cohort of the nation’s wealthiest people have grown even richer. More than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of March; billionaire wealth has increased by $845 billion in that same time period. Whatever little aid the federal government did provide to individuals who qualified (many workers were left out for various reasons, including immigration status) has run out. Congress continues to put politics ahead of human lives, and people continue to struggle as a result.
In Massachusetts, where the unemployment rate remains among the highest in the nation, food insecurity is rampant. Eighteen percent of households in the state are struggling to put food on the table. One in five households with children in the state are experiencing food insecurity, a problem that is twice as likely to affect Black and Latinx households with children. As the pandemic continues to rage, and as legislators continue to be as useful as a paper umbrella in a hurricane, Kropotkin’s message feels increasingly crucial for a growing number of community organizers across the country.
One version of mutual aid that’s appearing in more and more cities across the country since the pandemic struck is community fridge projects. Community fridges are meant to help people fill gaps for their food-insecure neighbors that are not being addressed by the state. They’re stocked with groceries by members of the community and can be accessed at no cost by anyone who needs food. They operate on a “take what you need, give what you can” basis, but organizers stress that contributing food to a fridge is not a precondition for taking food.
A growing number of organizers in Greater Boston have launched community fridge projects in recent months, spreading the word on social media, especially Instagram. Many of the organizers in Greater Boston were inspired by a group of anarchist community organizers called A New World In Our Hearts, who launched a community fridge this year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. One of the first such community fridges to appear in Boston is situated at 366 Centre St. in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square neighborhood, in front of D’Friends Barber Shop.
Veronica Bettio, who got the ball rolling on the JP fridge, said she began to see various community fridge projects popping up on Instagram and felt inspired to start one near her home. Eventually, she reached out to A New World In Our Hearts, which provided her with a how-to guide. Bettio then created an Instagram account and began connecting with other organizers in the neighborhood, including Mutual Aid JP/Roxbury.
Similarly inspired by community fridge projects in New York City, Josiel Gonzalez began exploring the possibility of starting a fridge in JP. Gonzalez said he saw Bettio’s name circulating on social media as a key organizer on the then-nascent JP fridge project. So he got her contact information from an Instagram post and reached out. Not long after, the two set out to bring a community fridge to JP.
“Our intentions are to help those in need,” said Gonzalez. “We would like for this fridge to be a safe zone for the community and serve as an outlet to come together and uplift one another. The fridge is community driven and runs on help from volunteers, local business donations, as well as donations from members who live and work in the community. We encourage folks in need to utilize the fridge and feed their families. No one should go to sleep hungry.”
Bettio and Gonzalez — whose mother donated the fridge that now sits in front of D’Friends Barber Shop, which pays for the electricity costs — each have some organizing experience, though both said they’ve never been involved with an effort as far-reaching as the JP community fridge. But they saw a serious need in their community, and they decided to help plug gaps that legislators were ignoring.
“This country and this government have left so many people without the things that should be basic human rights: food, shelter, health care, a living wage, and more,” said Bettio. “We hope the fridge can serve to alleviate some of the burden that this country has placed on so many people.”
“Food has historically been used as an effective method to bring people closer together and cultivate connections, especially within different cultures or nationalities,” Gonzalez said. “Freedom and accessibility to healthy food is a human right and should not be incumbent upon class, race, gender, age, etc.”
Acceptable items include clean produce that is in good condition, bread, water bottles, frozen food, canned goods, and other essentials. Premade meals are okay too, as long as containers are labeled with ingredients, date made, and expiration dates.
The JP community fridge isn’t the only one of its kind in Greater Boston. The Dorchester community fridge began operating at 1471 Dorchester Ave. on September 22 with the same goal as its JP counterpart.
Jamison Cloud, who spearheaded the organization effort in Dorchester, said he works in arts administration and has no previous background in organizing around food insecurity. But he was inspired by various community fridge projects he saw on Instagram — including the fridge in JP — as well as the fact that America’s Food Basket, which was one of the neighborhood’s more affordable grocery stores, recently closed and was replaced with a Target, driving up food costs. So he decided to put a call out on the social media platform to artists and community organizers in his neighborhood, and the response he got was overwhelming.
The organizing effort quickly grew into a community fridge project that includes three separate teams of volunteers overseeing donations, social media outreach, and the day-to-day operations of the fridge, including checking to see if it’s well-stocked and clean. Like the community fridge in JP, the Dorchester community fridge accepts clean produce in good condition and pantry staples such as cereal, rice, grains, beans, and bread. Cloud also said that foods that represent Dorchester’s broad demographic tapestry — the neighborhood has significant Vietnamese, Haitian, Jamaican, West Indian, Sub-Saharan African, Cape Verdean, and Puerto Rican populations — are vital to the success of the fridge.
In Dorchester, community fridge organizers made a point to plan for the future, acknowledging that food insecurity will not magically disappear, especially not as the pandemic continues apace. They built an insulated shed around the fridge that includes shelves, which protects it from the elements and allows it to double as a pantry. “This way, it will still be able to run and function as a resource to the community during the winter,” said Cloud.
Organizers in Allston and Somerville are also in the process of setting up community fridges in their neighborhoods. Sarah Ribeiro said that the forthcoming Allston community fridge has been a “community effort of grassroots organizations, nonprofits, restaurants, grocery stores, and individuals” including “BU students who are providing food via a campus food rescue project, and Allston-Brighton residents who are ready to start contributing to the community.” Other members “are well-versed in community organizing alongside initiatives like Allston-Brighton Mutual Aid, the Soup Kitchen at Brighton Allston United Church Of Christ, and Lovin’ Spoonfuls.”
The Allston group hasn’t secured a host for its fridge just yet — Ribeiro says that the group intends to cover the electricity costs, which she estimates will be $30 per month, for the first six to 12 months — but they plan to set up in Union Square (at the intersection of Cambridge Street and Brighton Avenue) or near the Harvard Street MBTA stop, two areas that are accessible by public transportation and that have high foot traffic. Each location is within close proximity to local restaurants, markets, and grocery stores.
“We know and understand that food and finances are in high demand right now, and we want to provide aid to anyone who needs it, regardless of their circumstances,” Ribeiro said. “We’ve had people ask, ‘Well, what if someone comes and takes it all?’ That only proves to us the need for a fridge like this — if someone does take it all, they clearly need it. We will replenish and provide for others.”
In Somerville, a group of organizers are on the verge of launching a community fridge at 35 Prospect St. in Union Square. Like so many others involved in community fridge projects in Greater Boston, F. DeSousa, who, along with roughly 30 volunteers, helped jumpstart the Somerville initiative, didn’t have any previous experience as an organizer. She said she was inspired by other community fridge projects — including the one launched by A New World In Our Hearts — and recognized a need in her community, especially for people who are undocumented.
“My family and I are undocumented, which during this pandemic means we did not receive any stimulus money from the government,” said DeSousa. “While many love to only blame the atrocious current administration, things in America have been difficult for BIPOC, undocumented, low-income, LGBTQIA+, and unhoused folks for a very long time. Community efforts are a great and crucial way to try and fill in some of these gaps.”
The Somerville community fridge’s policy will be a bit different than others in Greater Boston: “Take what you need, leave what you don’t, give what you can.” It will accept nonperishables; canned goods; clean produce that is in good shape; pantry staples such as rice, pasta, and peanut butter; and sanitary products such as pads and tampons, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and masks.
“I am not trying to discourage anyone from voting or getting involved in politics, but this year in particular has shown me how much we cannot rely on the government and electoral politics to help us out if we are not rich and white,” said DeSousa. “Mutual aid projects are essential for so many things right now, and always.”