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Michelle Nelson in front of Mama-Tee Community Fridge. Photo: Heather Khalifa
Michelle Nelson in front of Mama-Tee Community Fridge. Photo: Heather Khalifa

Philly catches the community fridge wave

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, mutual aid has grown as neighbors rely on one another to help with food.

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Philadelphia is now taking notes from New York’s experiment in mutual aid as several fridges have been set up to provide nutrition for the community.

Small business owner, Michelle Nelson, set up the “Mama-Tee Community Fridge” at the intersection of Seventh Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia’s Ludlow neighborhood.

The bright yellow fridge is stocked with fresh kale, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini and other fresh produce, and all of it is free. Mama-Tee’s motto is “take what you need, leave what you don’t.” 

In just a few weeks, several of these fridges have appeared on Instagram: The People’s Fridge on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Community Fridge in South Philly and the Germantown Community Fridge

Although these fridges are not connected to each other, they all share the same objectives: to reduce waste, to make fresh and healthy food more accessible, and to create a more equitable city. 

On the surface, these community fridges may seem like a form of charity, but they are part of a growing movement for mutual aid that has been gaining popularity during the pandemic and after weeks of protests for racial justice. 

The fridges are run by volunteers who clean and maintain them daily, and anyone passing by with a perishable item can donate it. 

Nelson, a former New Yorker, saw a fridge outside of a business a month and a half ago while visiting her hometown. 

“I noticed that the neighborhood was very receptive to this fridge,” she told WHYY. “What I observed was people actually going inside and getting water out of the fridge and I thought it was such a cool idea.” 

Nelson’s team of volunteers has now opened another fridge in North Philly, outside of Franny Lou’s Porch coffee shop in East Kensington, and there’s another coming soon outside Triple Bottom Brewing at Ninth and Spring Garden streets.

“When you are trying to get someone to understand what you’re doing, the main thing is that it might be a little scary at first, but if your intentions are good, people see that. And this is definitely something good. We should have fridges everywhere, because food is a right, not a privilege. Nobody should be hungry,” Nelson said. 

After Syona Arora lost her job at the Franklin Institute because of the pandemic, she found herself with a lot more free time than usual. She kept herself busy with freelance graphic design work and working with South Philly mutual aid projects, like Mutual Aid Philly and Dipes ‘n’ Wipes. 

Arora found a passion for helping people and learned about community fridges from a relative in New York, so she was inspired to create her own in her city. 

She said that after setting up the South Philly fridge’s social media pages, the support has poured in. Through this support she was able to cover the electricity bill and keep the fridge sheltered from bad weather. 

While Instagram is a good way to reach a wide audience, Arora knows there may be people that don’t use the site and still want to know about the fridge, so she is making flyers. 

“By helping my neighbors and supporting the community I live in, we can strengthen, and we don’t need to rely any longer on systems that aren’t beneficial,” she said. 

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations, focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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