What’s something that you wouldn’t expect to see on a city sidewalk? How about a brightly colored refrigerator? Might be a bit of a surprise to come across something like that – especially if it’s plugged in, working, and filled with fresh fruits and veggies. And how about if that good stuff is free for the taking? Sounds like magic, right? No, it’s not magic: it’s the result of the vision and hard work of Philadelphia business owner, Dr. Michelle Nelson, and the volunteers at the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project. They’ve made it their mission to make healthy food available to everyone, in every neighborhood of their city – and it all started with one bright yellow fridge.
Our Not-So-Hidden Hunger Problem
How’s your fridge looking right now? Is it stocked with fresh fruits and veggies, cheeses, maybe a few nice dips? Or is it time to hit the grocery store and restock? Take a moment, though, to think about how easy it is for you to do that: do you have easy access to fresh, healthy foods, and do you have enough money to fill your fridge when necessary? If not, you are one of millions of Americans living in a food desert, or struggling with food insecurity, two problems that continue to plague our country.
We’re only just started to see a bit of a bounce back from the terrible year that was 2020, but the truth is we’ve always had a “hidden” hunger problem. So before we get to Michelle Nelson’s solutions, let’s take a look at these problems. While there were images all over the news in 2020 of lines at food banks growing longer and longer, even before the pandemic hit, around 13.7 million households, or 10.5% of all U.S. households, experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That’s more than 35 million Americans who were either unable to get enough food, or who were uncertain of where their next meal might come from. For more than a third of these households, access to food was so limited that they were eating less, or less often, and the rest had to eat less healthy, varied diets or turn to food assistance programs. And African American and Hispanic Americans were more likely to be struggling: according to USDA data, 19.1% of Black households and 15.6% of Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2019. And during the pandemic? That 10.5% above doubled to as many as 23% of households in the U.S. dealing with food insecurity.
And how about households with kids? The numbers are heartbreaking: in 2019, the USDA reported that 13.6% of households with children experienced food insecurity. That meant more than 5 million children lived in these homes not getting enough to eat, or possibly not knowing where their next meal was coming from. And the Brookings Institution found that by late June 0f 2020, 27.5% of households with children were food insecure, meaning around 13.9 million children lived in a household struggling with child food insecurity.
And the problem is not just about having the money to access nutritious food: it’s also about actually having access to that food. In other words, many people struggling with food insecurity live in so-called “food deserts,” which is defined as living more than a mile away from a grocery store if you live in a city, or more than 10 miles away if you live in a rural area. Around 19 million people, or roughly 6% of the population, lived in a food desert and 2.1 million households both lived in a food desert and lacked access to a vehicle in 2015, according to the USDA. Not only that, but food in these areas is often more expensive than in other locations, making it even harder to get the nutritious food needed to fuel the lives of the residents.
While the numbers for 2021 and 2022 are likely to look better, since the worst of the pandemic seems to be behind us, these dire statistics should make us sit up and take notice. And that’s exactly what Michelle Nelson did.
“Food Is a Right, It’s Not a Privilege”
The Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project is not the first of Michelle Nelson’s projects targeting inequality and injustice. In May 2020, she launched Mama-Tee, a clothing company that offers graphic tees and more with messages highlighting racial equality and justice, and that donates portions of its proceeds to different charities. But that summer, as Nelson saw the suffering the pandemic was causing in Philadelphia, she decided to get more hands-on and take on another type of inequality: the unequal access to fresh, healthy food.
“One in five people suffer from food insecurity in Philadelphia. And COVID-19 has left millions unemployed…There’s a lot of persistence with food insecurity in Philadelphia, and so launching the Mama-Tee Community Fridge project here made sense,” Nelson told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020.
She knew she wanted to get involved in some sort of mutual aid-based community outreach: “Off of that brand [Mama-Tee clothing], we felt we wanted to add something that was on the ground, socially impactful,” Nelson told CBS. And when she saw a community fridge in her hometown of New York City, it seemed like exactly the thing she was looking for.
Her idea was as bright as the yellow fridges that she would eventually get set up all over Philly, but she first had to work out the logistics. Nelson and her team studied other community fridge programs in other cities, getting insight from other organizers on things like how to choose locations and protect the fridges from the elements. What she found most important, though, was being on the ground and communicating with the neighborhood about their wants and needs, and with the businesses she was partnering with who would supply the power for the fridges.
“Putting up the fridge is really the least of it,” Nelson told the Inquirer. “The main part is getting the community on board. You have to talk to the community, you have to be visible, they have to trust you. It’s part urban planning, part studying the neighborhood statistics.” And, as she told WHYY, “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, it’s not a privilege. Nobody should be hungry.”
“There’s Definitely Food Out There, and We’re Going to Rescue It”
The neighborhoods that the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project operates in are certainly on board. Khalil Mir, owner of the first restaurant to host a fridge outside, commented to the Inquirer: “There’s just not a ton of places to shop for fresh produce around here, so people that need it can use it, and people who have extra food can make sure it’s donated before it goes to waste. It really brings the community together in this nice, positive way.”
And, in addition to getting the neighborhoods on board, Nelson used the knowledge she had gained from other community fridge projects, and convinced local restaurants, as well as farms and vendors, to donate food. As she told ABC6, “There’s definitely food out there and we’re here to rescue it.” That’s part of the mission of the project: combatting the twin problems of food insecurity and food deserts AND helping to reduce food waste.
Locals can also donate food that they aren’t going to use before it goes to waste, and many have been excited to do so. Nelson shared with the Inquirer one Instagram post that seems to sum up the feeling of mutual benefit of a community project like hers: “When I get paid every other Friday, I could buy a few extra things to leave in there,” the message read. “I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck so sometimes a few days before I get paid things get tight, so this could benefit [me] to grab a few things when needed also. I really love and appreciate this.”
“Take What You Need, Leave What You Don’t”
The Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project found its first fridge on Facebook Marketplace and then set about “decorating it to [their] heart’s delight,” as she told WHYY, painting it bright yellow and prominently placing the words: “Free” and “Take what you need, leave what you don’t” on it. A year and a half later, and the project now has 18 fridges in operation in different Philly neighborhoods, meaning Nelson has almost reached her original goal of getting at least 20 fridges set up.
“We average about 12 to 15 people per fridge fill up so if we fill up the fridge maybe three times a day, you could feed 45 people,” Nelson told CBS. “If you take that 45 and multiply it by our goal of 20, you’re talking about almost 1,000 people that could be fed,” Nelson said.
That’s an amazing impact on a community for what started with just an idea and a banged-up old fridge. And it’s not just the nutritious food it’s bringing in, it’s also the spotlight on food insecurity and food waste, and the feeling of mutuality that comes from neighbors giving what they have and “taking what they need.” And now Mama-Tee has expanded, recently opening The Mama-Tee Pop-Up Grocery Store, born out of Nelson’s “vision for a development project that was socially impactful.” The store has partnered with Whole Foods, who will donate food on a monthly basis.