NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A brightly decorated refrigerator sits on the sidewalk outside of an old white shotgun house in New Orleans’ 7th ward neighborhood.
Covered in delicately painted cherubs, doves and alligators, this “community fridge” is stocked with frozen meals, fresh produce and cold water.
It’s all available for free to anyone who needs it 24/7. When the refrigerator needs to be cleaned or supplies run out, willing volunteers take on the task.
The fridge, painted by local artist Sydney Valeria Calderon, is one eight “community fridges” that have recently popped up on front yards and sidewalks across the city. Each fridge is hosted by a home, business, or organization that provides the electricity to keep the tethered appliance running. People are free to take what they need and encouraged to leave what they can.
New Orleans is the latest in a roster of cities across the U.S. that are experimenting with community supported outdoor refrigerators. New Orleans Community Fridges, which spearheaded the local effort, is heavily inspired by similar efforts in New York City and Los Angeles. Recently in Nashville, Tenn., a group of volunteers stocked two community fridges and have plans to expand.
“If you are hungry or thirsty, there is an autonomous space in your neighborhood where you have direct access to the things you may need. If you have access to food, water, groceries, or money, it means that the same free space is available for you to directly make an impact for your community,” the organization stated in an e-mail.
The local effort is aimed at addressing food security issues, as much of the city still contends with high unemployment rates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The larger goal is to provide an avenue for neighbors to support each other through difficult times, according to organizers with the NOLA Community Fridges group.
‘ THIS IS ESSENTIALLY A FOOD DESERT’
The Trinity Community Center in New Orleans’ Hollygrove neighborhood started hosting a refrigerator in their front yard in late July. It functions as an extension of the community support the center provides, said external affairs director Morgan Clark.
The center normally operates a summer camp and an after-school program that provides free meals for kids.
When schools closed and moved to virtual learning at the height of COVID-19, Clark worried about how students would access free meals.
“The pandemic has highlighted all the things we knew were problematic. This is essentially a food desert,” she said describing the neighborhood.
In recent weeks, Clark has seen neighbors address the growing needs in the city. Some residents come by to clean and restock the fridge. A local produce vendor restocks the shelves twice a week with fresh vegetables and fruit. Residents are aware of the needs and so “people are taking ownership of it,” Clark said.
NEW ORLEANS HIT HARD BY COVID-19
New Orleans was heavily impacted by COVID-19 in the early weeks of the pandemic, becoming one of the largest hot spots for the virus in the South.
The outbreak in March prompted health officials to impose a stay-at-home order and require the closure of non-essential businesses such as restaurants and bars.
Since then, New Orleans has reported close to 11,000 COVID-19 cases, according to state health authorities.
The economic toll in New Orleans has been substantial, with nearly 44,000 people filing weekly unemployment claims the week of June 6, according to an economic analysis compiled by The Data Center in New Orleans.
“Things are pretty bad, I can’t lie. You can’t have that huge amount of economic displacement without seeing the impact,” said Natalie Jayroe, the president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank.
The organization supplies meals to 700 local partners across South Louisiana. They have supplied more than 20 million meals across the region from April to July. It’s more than double the amount supplied for the same time period last year, Jayroe said.
‘LINES GET LONGER’ AS PANDEMIC PERSISTS
She worries that circumstances will get worse as unemployment rates in the city remain high, with much of the hospitality sector remaining either closed or operating at limited capacity. Additionally, federal unemployment assistance stopped on July 31, she said.
“In March we spent several weeks trying to keep people fed as they waited for those benefits. Now we are just seeing lines get longer for help,” she said.
In the Broadmoor neighborhood, Keoka Leach-Zeno said many of her neighbors are still out of work. Those who did qualify for unemployment benefits were making too much to qualify for food stamps.
The fridge outside Leach-Zeno’s snowball stand in the neighborhood doesn’t stay stocked for long. It’s another source for fresh food for many people.
This includes many of Leach-Zeno’s customers at Captain C’s Snowballs & Nach.
“We have been truly blessed with donations,” she said. “That’s a good thing ’cause as soon as we stock it up, it’s gone by the night.”
HOW TO HELP
For more information about New Orleans community fridges, follow nolacommunityfridges on Instagram or on Facebook.
Details on fridge locations, needed donations and how to host a fridge are available on either platform.