If you walk by 116th Street and Manhattan Avenue in Harlem, you will stumble upon a tall metal refrigerator. Written in bold white paint on the door are the words “FREE FOOD.” Look inside and one day, there might be fresh turnips and cantaloupe, the next day, containers of cooked pasta and chicken. Those that fill the fridge provide it with new food regularly and those that leave it do so with a meal to fill their stomachs. 

The Harlem Community Fridge is open to anyone and everyone. Families, individuals, nonprofits and businesses have donated bagels, canned goods, vegetables, and fruits. In turn, anyone can freely take what they need. Volunteers can sign up to help out with tasks such as cleaning or organizing the fridge, reaching out to businesses for donations, and picking up and dropping off food.

Harlem Community Fridge in front of Nash deliThe Harlem Community Fridge is located right outside Ralph & Nash Deli Market.

Sade Boyewa, a long-time Harlem resident, first started the fridge after finding inspiration from Thadeus Umpster’s free food fridge in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Similarly, other fridges have popped up in New York.There are currently 33 fridges across New York City, in addition to Jersey City. Many of the fridges were set up with the help of In Our Hearts, a network of activists who have organized similar initiatives through community shares where people can freely give and take belongings. Although each fridge might be taken care of by different individuals, they all stand for the same values of mutual aid and solidarity. 

According to the Food Bank for New York City, over 2.4 million New Yorkers suffer from food insecurity as of 2018. With the onset of the pandemic this past April, three quarters of food pantries surveyed by Food Bank for New York City reported serving more people since the start of the pandemic. With increased unemployment and closed food pantries, community fridges have been valuable in helping fight food insecurity. 

Free Food at Harlem Community Fridge

Community fridges have also been expressions of social activism. The Harlem Community Fridge has supported the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental justice through its Instagram account. The Peoples Peoples Fridge on 908 St. and Nicholas Avenue, in partnership with cook Jade Golden, has held Black Lives Matter mental health barbecues. The Instagram account for the Sovereign Earth Community Fridge has promoted back to school supply giveaways, grants for undocumented students, and cleanups at parks. 

Food pantries may be open for limited hours and grocery stores may be too expensive, but the Harlem Community Fridge is open 24/7 to all. If you’re walking across 116th street and you bump into a refrigerator, stop and take a look, open the door, and peer inside as you may do with your refrigerator at home. The only difference is that this fridge has its home on the streets of Harlem and is open to everyone. As the fridge reads, “Take What You Need! Leave What You Can!”

Next, check out 25 Things to Do in Harlem.