Mutual Aid Takes Aim at Food Insecurity

Community fridges, also known as solidarity fridges, are functioning refrigerators that anyone can take from or replenish with fresh fruits and vegetables. This mutual aid initiative fights hunger and at the same time, reduces food waste. If you’ve ever seen a community fridge and wondered how it got there and how word gets out that the fridge is ready for people to take or bring food, or even where to find a list of items that are and are not acceptable for donation, you’ll learn the answers to these questions and much more in the following interview conducted by East Fork Atlanta’s sales associate Donna Casellas-Banks with Latisha Springer, founder of Free99Fridge.

Free99Fridge gets its name from “free99,” which the group’s website describes as “an urban expression used to describe the price of an object or service that should‘ve cost you money, but you got it for free instead.” They go on to call the name a “no-brainer” because “our community fridges provide high-quality food for $free.99.” Read on to learn how it came together and how anyone can help or be helped by the project.

As East Fork's current Community Partner, 100% of money raised by our current raffle will go to Free99Fridge and in order to access our Seconds page, we're asking our customers to make a donation in the amount of their choice. Also, since October 2021, East Fork Atlanta has conducted a donation drive, offering those who give a discount on their purchase.

Inside one of the Free99Fridge fridges

Donna Casellas-Banks: So can you share with us what food disparity looks like in Atlanta, who it impacts, what resources are most needed and how Free99Fridge works to fill that gap?

Latisha Springer: I tell people: “Whatever you think need looks like right now—you’re wrong.” Through this work, I know food insecurity to be a complex and overlapping issue that has only worsened due to the global pandemic. You can’t talk about food insecurity without considering housing, healthcare, racism, mental health, employment and more. They’re all connected. These days, “regular, everyday people” are having to make difficult decisions between feeding their family or paying their rent. They need support from their community more than ever.

Free99Fridge has removed all the barriers to food assistance. There’s no hoops, no red tape—just FOOD free to anyone that needs it. Our neighbors self-identify as “needy,” go to any Free99Fridge anytime, and take what they need. Our neighbors blessed with abundance also have 24/7/365 access to our community fridges to share food with the community anytime. They simply go to a Free99Fridge and leave what they can (following our donation guidelines found here on our website). Currently, our fridges are filled and emptied every 1-2 hours every day, all day. The need in our city is overwhelming.

Food insecurity in Atlanta impacts all of us (whether we realize it yet or not) and we all have a role to play in resolving this. One person can’t fill in the many gaps and deficiencies in this incredibly flawed system we exist in, but if we all do the best we can with what we’ve got, it’ll be enough to help each other.

DC-B: What was the pivotal experience or aha moment that led you to invest your heart spirit into doing the care work of feeding the homies?

LS: In 2015, I left the U.S. in search of a life more LIVED. It was abroad that I saw what community looked like, felt love at new levels, and experienced the freedom of existing as just a woman—not a Black woman. I prefer to live outside the U.S. and had no intentions of being here, but the Universe had other plans.

At the end of 2019, I returned to the U.S. to visit my Grams who’d been diagnosed with cancer. I decided to stay a few months longer for her. Then, COVID happened and I was stuck here. In my mind, I was left with only two choices: do something to improve life in the U.S. or shut up.

I believe food to be the very most basic of human needs which should not be a privilege. Being hungry doesn’t make you less human. There was (and is) so much pain in the BIPOC community, but I didn’t feel like what I was doing was making a difference. I needed to do something that’d have an immediate impact on lives. And, logically, it didn’t make sense to me that hundreds of thousands of people are starving in the U.S. while we waste BILLIONS of tons of food each year. There is NOT a food shortage. It’s a lie. There’s a distribution problem buried beneath all the bureaucracy and bullshit that got us here. Free99Fridge is a vehicle for redistributing wealth and resources for our community. There’s enough of everything for everyone.

DC-B: There is no institutional hierarchy at Free99Fridge, no one seems to have a title or specific duties inherently assigned to them by a governing body, why so and why not? How has this non-traditional way of doing the work to feed folks enhanced outcomes?

LS: History has already shown us what traditional ways of doing things gets us. I’m not here to do things as they’ve always been done. We have a loose hierarchy, but this is a heart-centered initiative. We are an action-oriented collective driven by our shared goal of nourishing our city. There’s no “right way” to do something in our ever-changing and unpredictable community fridge world. Volunteers are empowered to trust their instincts and do what feels right in the moment. As long as our fridge friends are eating, it’s not a big deal and everything else will work itself out.

DC-B: Knowing that the work is never done, what do we have to do now and what can we save for later around the huge problem of food insecurity in Atlanta?

LS: For many people, the pandemic only exacerbated an already difficult existence while a lot of other people found themselves lower than they’ve ever been in their life. Our community has suffered long enough. They need us to get to work maintaining this critical community resource for our city. Our greatest challenge right now is keeping our fridges filled for our very hungry neighbors. We can have political debates around the issue and passionate discussions about our differences later. Less talk. More work. People are starving in our city on our watch. It’s time for action. We have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to do better.

DC-B: Can you share a recent experience or encounter that inspires you to be action- and hope-based, truly cemented in showing up for the work at your brightest and darkest moments?

LS: Despite the fact that I’m often unsure, sometimes resentful, and never not tired, it’s the everyday encounters with our neighbors in-need that keep me going. They know this project to be an act of love. They feel it every time they go to a Free99Fridge and find something for them to eat. They depend on us. Seeing how transformative and meaningful the seemingly small act of sharing food has been for them, is reason to keep going. One meal from one stranger to another has been known to change everything…because this is so much bigger than food.

DC-S: How do you practice self care and what actions or rituals restore and reconstitute you in your continued activism and commitment to Free99Fridge and the mission?

LS: Self care has been a foreign concept since starting Free99Fridge. I’ve gotten so consumed by the depth + enormity of this issue, that I’ve lost sight of my own needs. I’m actively working to rectify this and look forward to spending a lot of time alone, off the grid and out the country, with my feet in the soil.

January 2022 Update

We caught up with Latisha to see what's happened since September 2021, when we first published this interview.

East Fork: Since September, when East Fork's Donna Casellas-Banks interviewed you, here in the United States, we've seen the cost of everything increase and like the rest of the world, have been enduring another covid spike from the Omicron variant. How have these situations affected Free99Fridge?

Latisha Springer: Through this work, I know food insecurity to be a complex and overlapping issue that has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic. I’ve experienced a seemingly unending and intense need since launching Free99Fridge in July 2020. I haven’t noticed any recent changes, but I expect the need for our community fridges will surely increase in the coming months.  

EF: What impact do you see Free99Fridge having in the community in recent months?

LS: The impact our grassroots initiative is having on our city is undeniable. We encourage everyone in the community to take ownership of these solidarity fridges and make regular food contributions as a part of their daily lives—no amount is too small. Members of our community and volunteer team have confided that they suffer from depression and anxiety and our fridges give them a reason to get out of bed everyday. We’re also connected with local growers who share their produce abundance in our community fridge network. And, lastly, a big part of what we do is partnering with local businesses to rescue leftover food to share with our neighbors in-need while eliminating food waste. We’re all in this together and everyone has a role to play. 

Shoppers, or “fridge friends” as we like to call them, express extreme gratitude for the way we care for them and credit us with improving their lives. I’ll never forget the man who shared that if it wasn’t for us, he would’ve already killed himself or the woman who told me her neighbor was in jail so she comes to our fridges to get food for the kids that were left behind or the unhoused man who confessed that sometimes he’s not even hungry, he just comes to the fridges because we’re so nice and always talk to him. The famed revolutionary Che once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” These feelings of love are a driving force in the revolutionary movement that is Free99Fridge. Our community fridges transform these loving feelings into concrete actions not just expressed to a few people, but rather towards humanity. Our daily, collective activism exemplifies radical humanism. Free99Fridge is a food fight for justice in our city.

EF: When it comes to the logistics of finding good places to set up sites and spread the word about the fridges, what advice do you have for people reading this who want to replicate what Free99Fridge does, in their communities? What should be done upfront to ensure long-term success?

LS: Need is everywhere. So, when you’re considering “where’s a ‘good place’ to put a community fridge?,” need cannot be the only or main determinant. The ugly truth about this work is that people in-need WILL find your community fridge and go WHEREVER it is. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those in a position of privilege to help support your community fridge. The great majority of donors and volunteers require helping others be convenient for them. In order for a community fridge to be sustainably supported by donors and volunteers, it must be located near them, easily accessible, and in an area where they feel safe. In short, your community fridge placement and operations must center on the needs of the donors and volunteers for the benefit of the communities you’re wanting to serve. In my experience, people have good intentions and want to help, but not at the expense of their own comfort. I’m often frustrated by this reality, but choose to reserve my energy for my mission rather than constantly checking people’s privilege. Eye on the prize.

With this in mind, all of your upfront efforts should be focused on donors and volunteers. They require a lot of attention and will be necessary for successfully sustaining your project. If you’re going to maximize and maintain your efforts to help your community, you’ll need their resources - time, money, and connections. 

EF: Last question! In September, Donna asked you about your self-care practices and you said you were trying to find more time for yourself. Has it happened? If so, are you willing to talk about what changes you've made? 

LS: I have made more time for myself, but not enough. Truthfully, I struggle with this and it’s still very much a work in progress. I have committed to at least 1 day each week that I do not go to a community fridge for any reason. On this day, I also try not to schedule any meetings to allow my day to be a more free-form and silent workday. I usually work the same amount of hours (too many), but at least it’s from home and I’m giving my body a rest from the daily physical exertion required of this work. 

This year, I gave up cellphone service to honor my personal journey of needing less and being less connected/accessible. The people around me are more bothered by me not having a cellphone than I am. We’re halfway through my first month without a cellphone, but I don’t miss it. I’m enjoying the boundaries, simplicity, and quiet that have been a natural result. I’m looking forward to more of that.

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