How Colourful Fridges are Fighting Hunger in America: an Interview with Melanie Romero

Colourfully painted fridges stocked full of free food began to crop up all across America last year, as the pandemic took its cruel toll. As the first wave of COVID-19 struck in 2020, the unemployment rate across the US jumped from 4.4% to a whopping 14.7% between March and April, leaving a vast population struggling to make ends meet. 

According to hunger crisis charity Feeding America, around 50 million people in the US are struggling with hunger because of COVID-19 and the number of people seeking help from food banks has increased by 55%. Covid threw gas on the flames of a preexistent hunger crisis and people wanted to help. Then along came the fridges.

This volunteer-driven wave of communal fridges continues to roll out across LA, New York, and many other American cities like Houston, San Francisco and Miami. Orange County-born writer and editor, Melanie Romero set up two beautiful fridges with some friends last year and gave us the inside scoop surrounding this revolutionary idea:

Did you and your friends pay through a charity or did you directly buy and stock the fridges yourselves?

“We actually directly bought the two fridges from donations from our peers, relatives, and even strangers! For a few months, we launched a massive social media campaign asking for monetary donations. My friends and I only had expectations to cover half or maybe all the expenses of one fridge, but luckily, we were able to raise enough money for two fridges. We decided to place one fridge in Downtown LA (1411 Newton Street) and the other in our home county, Orange County, in the city of Santa Ana.”

The art on the fridges, is it done by people who donate or are there designated fridge artists?

“Unfortunately, the art on the fridges is not painted on by me! However, friends of ours took on the artistic project of designing the two fridges. A student from the University of Southern California, the college I graduated from, who attended Roski School of Art and Design, painted the Arts District fridge! She illustrated the fridge with text in both English and Spanish, with “free food” and “take what you need, leave what you don’t” with imagery of fruits and a guardian angel. We then also hired a student, born and raised in Orange County, to paint our Orange County fridge with imagery of the local beaches, as well with text in both English and Spanish to serve our communities that co-exist but speak different languages!”

melanie fridges

Arts District Fridge // Photo taken by Melanie Romero // @melbellnyc

Does California have a big homelessness or poverty problem in your opinion?

“Yes, California has an outrageous poverty problem. And, when I say outrageous, I mean it’s outrageous how ignorant my own state has been in advocating for the homeless population. I was born and raised in a small town (Villa Park) in Orange County, a sector considered to be one of the most expensive in all of the United States. Unfortunately, because of its status, Orange County is incensed by any homeless people; there have been numerous incidents in which Orange County has been less than kind to the homeless, such as deconstructing a homeless encampment by a beloved baseball stadium, dumping the homeless from wealthy areas to locations that are impoverished and predominantly not white, and quietly shutting down its last walk-in homeless shelter without any public announcement. 

On the other hand, it seems that the homelessness issue has only exceedingly gotten worse in Los Angeles; I attended university a stone’s throw away from Downtown Los Angeles, most infamous for Skid Row, a 54-block area in downtown Los Angeles that has become synonymous with homelessness and poverty. The city council does absolutely nothing, and it is through the aid of local shelters and charities that some homeless people are able to pick up the pieces of their past life again.”

How did you hear about the fridges scheme initially?

“I heard about the fridges scheme initially through a Californian friend. She mentioned how there was a website that helped donors look for local fridges in Los Angeles based on designated items they were looking to give. I noticed there wasn’t a fridge by the Arts District, which is a few streets away from Skid Row, so my friends and I proceeded to campaign for monetary donations for the fridge! When we became stable with donations and had the option to buy another fridge, I advocated for one in Santa Ana, a predominantly Latinx community with a large homeless population. As a Mexican, I felt it essential to give back to my own roots in the form of food security to ease any burden that I could! In Santa Ana, many of the homeless population consist of undocumented immigrants. And with my parents, who also chose to do the same of coming to the United States from Mexico City for new opportunities and a better life for their children, I couldn’t help but give back.”

In California, can anyone donate food to the fridges? Can anyone take food from the fridges?

“Yes, anyone can donate food to the fridges; if anything, we encourage it. And, yes, absolutely anyone can take food from the fridges. Our fridges are not patrolled or locked, and anyone can come and take as they please. We do weekly drop-offs ourselves, but also have numerous friends and donors who visit as much as they can to ensure our fridges are never empty!”

What types of food do you think are the best to donate?

“The types of food I think are the best to donate are bottled drinks (when the hot weather becomes unbearable), small fruits (oranges, apples, peaches), and plastic containers with meals (salads, veggies, yogurt, etc.). As well, apart from having just a fridge, we also have a small pantry for non-perishable items (mostly cereals, granola bars, chips, etc.) and a cardboard box for hygienic items (face masks, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.).”

Do you think these fridges are easy to access for everyone or are they in specific targeted areas?

“I do believe these fridges are easy to access for everyone! However, I also think we need many more “freedges” (free fridges) across Los Angeles (and the surrounding areas and even the state) to make food insecurity less of an issue in a state embarrassingly considered to be one of the wealthiest.”

This aspect highlighted by Melanie, of poverty existing in the face of immense wealth could be seen as startlingly similar to the situation seen in Dublin, Ireland’s expensive capital city. The Dublin Simon Community reported last November that “almost six Dublin households became homeless each day since the pandemic began”. This figure appears upsettingly stark when held against The Sunday Times Irish Rich List of 2020, which revealed that 37% of the people in Ireland holding a fortune above €65m live in Dublin.

Maybe here in Ireland we could adopt this brilliant humanitarian idea. The introduction of these hunger-fighting “freedges” stocked by the local community like the wonderful volunteers in America, could help reduce the suffering felt by many homeless and impoverished families. 

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    Emma Monaghan

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