by Ariana Bhargava, Sarah Feinberg & Lyanna Tran, Features Reporters, Features Editor
photo courtesy of Newton Food Pantry
The vibrantly colored fridge outside of Central Drapery and Dry Cleaning on Watertown Street might appear strange at first sight, but since its opening on March 14, the Newton Community “Freedge” has offered food to people in need at any hour of the day.
Union Church of Waban team captain Chanel Lobell, who coordinates volunteers from her church to help with the Freedge’s upkeep, said that there is a passionate team behind the Freedge Project that works hard to help feed others.
“It’s literally just a fridge in the community that goes off of the principle of ‘take what you need and leave what you can,’” she said. “It’s truly a community movement built to help the community’s support system.”
The Newton Food Pantry started the Freedge Project to provide easy access to fresh foods for those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Marla Olsberg, a long-time volunteer for the Newton Food Pantry, said that the Freedge has already left a mark on the community.
“All the action and activity around this new project is very heartwarming,” she said. “It’s just something you can see right away, that you’ve made a difference.”
Volunteer coordinator Sindy Wayne said that witnessing her community face the immense effects of COVID-19 inspired her to take initiative.
“COVID-19 has really stretched the limits of people’s resources. Even people who don’t need food on a regular basis from a food pantry are still in a difficult position,” she said. “If it’s the end of the month and they haven’t received their paycheck yet, at least they know that the Freedge is a resource to help supplement whatever they need.”
Lobell said that the Freedge’s unique system provides people with easy access to getting food.
“This fridge movement is so amazing because it offers the community a place where people can get help and the resources they need with such low barriers preventing them from getting it,” she said.
Newton Food Pantry board member Megan Russel said that fresh foods, including fruits, vegetables and dairy products, are crucial to people’s health, so it is important that they are readily available.
“People are taking all the fresh produce, all the healthy refrigerated items, and that makes me super happy,” she said.
As the Freedge enables people to receive food assistance anonymously at any time of the day, Wayne said that the Freedge is particularly valuable in that it can fight to overcome systemic inequities. It does not require any traditional food pantry registrations, which enables anyone to get food assistance at any time regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“It’s pushing against the stigma of what food insecurity could mean,” Wayne said. “It does depend a lot on people being honest and only taking what they really need, but it also fulfills a need that hasn’t been met.”
Olsberg said that the pandemic made food accessibility particularly difficult, so it was important to take action.
“When COVID-19 hit, I started to hear about the numbers of families who needed help in the food insecurity situation,” she said. “That’s a problem where I felt like it was going to be very long term, so I wanted to get involved.”
Wayne said that the function of the Freedge, like the food pantry, extends beyond the immediate organizers of the initiative, as it heavily depends on the community and its donations.
“We’re trying to really build community awareness that this is a community wide effort and that donations are needed,” she said. “We need people in the community to make it part of their daily or weekly lives when they go shopping to pick up some extra items and drop them off in the fridge.”
Olsberg said that students can also participate in the Freedge project to work towards diminishing food insecurities in the community.
“I want to encourage high schoolers and middle schoolers, especially if this might be something you’re passionate about, that you should definitely try to find a way to get involved,” she said.
Russel said that the efforts of all the project contributors and people who donate have made the Freedge Project possible.
“It’s the classic example of how many hands make light work, and so many hands of people in our community have spread the work. It’s not like it’s a few people at the top managing,” she said. “This is everyone bringing food and really feeding our community.”
The collaborative efforts have particularly made this project a special experience, Olsberg said.
“The community presence and enthusiasm around this has been the most rewarding part for me,” she said. “It’s amazing. I feel like it’s a living and breathing community project.”
Lobell said that the element of kindness, especially during a pandemic, was most gratifying for her.
“The most rewarding part for me has been seeing the community members’ generosity and their willingness to just give to the community with so much love and so much support. They give their time, they give their money, they give their resources and they’re just so willing to help,” she said. “With the past year that we’ve all dealt with, it’s really awesome to see that our community really does care and that they want the best for others.”