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Grassroots Effort Fights Food Insecurity With Free Food Refrigerators

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More Americans are finding it hard to get enough to eat during the pandemic. The nation's largest food bank network is serving 60% more people. Forty percent of them are looking for food aid for the first time. One grassroots effort to fight food insecurity is growing in several cities. It's all about free food refrigerators. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Thadeaus Umpster just finished transporting perilously heavy loads of donated food stacked high on his three-wheel cargo bike when I reached him. The activist was delivering donated produce to outdoor free food refrigerators in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn where he lives.

THADEAUS UMPSTER: About 15 cases of food, mostly sweet potatoes, lots of apples, some corn, some broccoli. And I did, like, four trips.

WESTERVELT: A self-described anarchist with the New York City collective called A New World In Our Hearts, Umpster helped set up the city's first free food refrigerator back in February. That was right before the pandemic sucker-punched the city. But that knockdown blow also spurred people to action. Armed with thick extension cords and refrigerators some picked up free on Craigslist, they got to work. There are now almost 60 free food fridges - or freedges, as they're often called - across the greater New York City area. The honor system rules are written on the front - take what you need, leave what you don't. Umpster says the people using these modern-day bread lines aren't necessarily the folks you'd expect would be in need.

UMPSTER: A lot of them are people who prior to the pandemic had good jobs and didn't have to worry about stuff like that, people from other places that don't qualify for unemployment. Now they've been relying on the fridges to help them sustain themselves.

WESTERVELT: So far, local health departments and inspectors have mostly looked the other way as this grassroots effort has spread from New York to Nashville, Boston to California. With help from the New York collective, Marina Vergara in LA linked up with others interested and dove right in.

MARINA VERGARA: Let's try it. And, you know, within a few days, basically, I had a location. And I already had food donations.

WESTERVELT: More donations and a few used refrigerators poured in. As the pandemic grew, so did the need for more food. Scarcity is a myth, Vergara says. Americans waste so much food. And the food fridges, she says, just makes sense. By her count, activists have now set up at least a dozen across Greater LA, stocked with fresh and canned items, basics like milk and eggs, veggies and fruit. For Vergara, the speed and growing support for the freedge movement offers a reason for optimism in an otherwise dark year.

VERGARA: It's incredible how fast this has all happened. I mean, I can't even explain how much hope this gives me. You know, it's really nice to know that we're here for one another.

WESTERVELT: The group Feeding America projects that by year's end, food insecurity will hit some 54 million Americans. That's a 46% increase since the pandemic hit.

BRANDI MACK: Mother Nature never ever, ever stops. She just keeps giving you. Look at this.

WESTERVELT: Several freedges have been set up in Oakland, Calif., as well. And some here wonder if those running them are in it for the long haul or connected deeply enough to the local community.

MACK: My name is Brandi Mack. Most people call me Mama B or Sista B.

WESTERVELT: Mack helped create a freedge here several years ago. But she put it inside Castlemont, a high-poverty high school in east Oakland that's 94% Latinx and African American. And she stocked it with fresh fruit as well as some veggies grown on site.

MACK: I was excited when I heard more people were doing it because they thought I was nuts when I said we're going to have a fridge in the hallway of the school. And the kids can go get what they want when they want it because the issue is they're hungry.

WESTERVELT: The bigger picture - Mack connected the fridge to an ongoing program. She and others turned an old basketball court into a thriving, working farm. And today, part of the school's sustainable urban design academy teaches young people how to cultivate, process and distribute healthy food in the area.

MACK: You go deeper over there. There are peppers in the bed. You know, it's just plethora of food.

WESTERVELT: Brandi Mack worries these pandemic fridges, in contrast, could turn out to be fleeting, feel-good footnotes to a deadly virus.

MACK: As we watch this whole United States crumble, we cannot keep employing the savior model. It's yet another Band-Aid. So I will urge for folks who are, you know, excited to offer a distribution model to really think about the sustainability of it, that we no longer can do Superman designs helping communities that have been traumatized.

WESTERVELT: Still, Mack says she welcomes the make-it-happen innovation of plugging in a fridge and getting the Instagram generation involved. Just think it through, map the local food systems, she urges, noting that hunger will still be a scourge long after the virus isn't.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.