Selma Raven and Sara Allen have picked up a new morning routine since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Out of the house before 9 a.m., they hop on a city bus to a local grocery.
They’re in a hurry -- Raven, a special educator; and Allen, an analyst, need to get back home in time for work. They rush to stock up on a variety of fruits and vegetables. Raven grabs jalapeños, onions, tomatoes -- foods popular with the many Mexican and Dominican residents of the neighborhood.
The couple isn’t throwing a dinner party. They’re shopping to stock a community refrigerator they set up in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.
“People ask us if we are the owners of the fridge. And we are like, ‘No, we just maintain and clean the fridge.’ We plugged it in. But really it's a community fridge, it belongs to everyone in the community,” Raven said.
Their so-called Friendly Fridge isn’t the only one. According to a map curated by activist collective A New World In Our Hearts, there are now more than 35 community fridges plugged in on the streets of New York City and in New Jersey. There are dozens more in cities all across America.
The movement has spread quickly across the country, fueled by social media.
Allen and Raven themselves discovered the idea on Instagram. Allen was scrolling when she stumbled upon a post about a community fridge in Harlem. It happened to be the seventh anniversary of the death of Raven’s son Michael Raven. He was an ardent food activist.
“She said, ‘Mike would have loved this.’ And I knew right away, I said, ‘We've got to try and do this,’” Raven said.
It took less than an hour for the two to decide that they wanted to set up their own fridge. Three days later, they’d acquired a fridge, a power source, and location (5977 Broadway outside The Last Stop bar and grill). The Friendly Fridge Bronx was in business.
“The very first day we said we were doing it, our neighbor thought we were crazy. Then, she came downstairs with a $100 bill. We bought food right away,” Raven said. “We packed it with great fruits and vegetables. It was the beginning: May 21.”
Organizers like Allen and Raven are getting more than just inspiration from social media platforms. Many find their fridges on Craigslist and their funding through Facebook groups. Instagram allows organizers to post updates about the fridge, like when they’ve gotten a particularly exciting donation or if the fridge is running low on food. Plus, it’s through social media that aspiring fridge caretakers connect with organizers who have more experience setting up and running a fridge.
One of those more experienced organizers is Thadeaus Umpster. An activist associated with A New World in Our Hearts, Umpster set up the group’s first fridge back in February outside of his apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Having watched the movement grow, along with the follower count on his group’s Instagram account, Umpster said the influence of social media has been “huge.” There are fridges on the streets of cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville, Austin, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and even Quito, Ecuador
“Social media definitely has its downsides and I don't want to say it's wonderful because it's not. We see lots of negativity and stuff as well on there -- people just looking for likes and attention,” Umpster said. “But by and large it has really helped spread this movement, and, as a result, people have more food to eat.”
This is by no means the first time activists have embraced new technology to further their goals. Nathan Schneider, a journalist and assistant professor at University of Colorado Boulder who examines the intersection of technology and collectivism, said this trend can be traced all the way back to mimeograph machines during the civil rights era. It clearly has more modern applications, as well.
“In recent times, the rise of Facebook and Twitter, for instance, were accompanied by the rise of protest movements like the Arab Spring. And now we are seeing the same thing happen with mutual aid efforts around COVID where tools like Slack and Instagram and TikTok and so forth are being used in the context of movements,” he said.
Still, not all tools are created equally. Instagram, for example, the medium by which the community fridge movement spread so rapidly, has substantial shortcomings when it comes to shifting from galvanizing activists to organizing in a meaningful and sustained way.
“Gone are all those other tools of organizing like building relationships through one-to-one conversations, knocking on doors, building robust lists of members and supporters, the sort of stuff that frankly have been part of older legacies of movement-building that we forget to do when mobilization appears really quick and easy through a viral image,” Schneider said.
Activists have also raised questions about the value of a platform that, as Umpster pointed out, places a premium on appearances, and whether community fridges are really a meaningful solution to a problem as extensive as hunger and food waste.
“Sometimes the important things that we need to talk about are not the kinds of things that tend to spread or go viral on instagram,” Schneider said.
For organizers in search of tools that can optimize their efforts -- without the sort of in-person contact a pandemic might preclude -- Schneider recommended tools like Loomio and Action Network. Both were built by Occupy Wall Street activists looking for capabilities that more commercial platforms didn’t allow.
Limitations aside, there’s no doubt social media has drummed up awareness for well-intentioned organizers as they do their part to learn about and push back against the momentous problem of food insecurity and food waste in America.
As for Raven and Allen, they know full well they are participating in a viral movement, but for them it’s no flash in the pan.
“Will this happen after COVID, after coronavirus is hopefully over? Yes. Because this problem was going on before and it's going to go on after,” Allen said.