How One Love Community Fridge Provides So Much More Than Just Food

Whether it’s at home with your family around the dining room table or out at a restaurant with friends, a good meal is one of the best ways to connect with the people in your life. But not everyone has that opportunity, as food insecurity in the United States is more common than ever. That’s why Asmeret Berhe-Lumax founded One Love Community Fridge in Brooklyn, New York.

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    The rise of food insecurity during the pandemic

    At the beginning of the pandemic, Berhe-Lumax volunteered with a couple of local organizations that addressed food insecurity in New York City. “I saw them getting overwhelmed,” she recalls. “There were issues with getting deliveries and there were overwhelming amounts of families that needed help. One time there were more than 400 families standing in line. We had more families than ever experiencing food insecurity. Last year, it’s estimated 60 million Americans had to seek help to get food on the table.”

    A friend of Berhe-Lumax’s set up a community fridge, which gave her the idea to do the same. A community fridge is a refrigerator located in a public space where anyone can drop off or take food; often there is also an area for non-perishable food. The food can be sourced from a range of places, such as individuals and restaurants, and a group of volunteers oversees it. “Community fridges were an amazing solution that already existed,” Berhe-Lumax says. “It also minimizes food wastage because that in itself is just crazy, that we have so many people going hungry at the same time. We provide a place for people to be able to seek food or have access to food without any stigma of having to stand in line, especially during a time when families that never had to seek help were forced to do so.”

    Asmeret Berhe-Lumax, founder of One Love Community Fridge

    As an immigrant from East Africa who grew up in Sweden, Berhe-Lumax was aware of the stigma that can come with asking for a hand up. “We were taught very early not to seek help—you always figure it out,” she says. “You put your head down, you work hard, and you work it out. But I think what we all experienced last year was something that many families never thought they were going to experience, even if they’ve worked hard or they might be well-educated.”

    One Love Community Fridge’s goals perfectly align with Prose’s ongoing mission to give back. “Prose believes in elevating the individual and empowering them to be their best selves and in doing [so] they are able to unleash their passions and work toward achieving goals,” says Helen Nwosu, Prose’s VP of Social Impact. “Prose has also made a pledge to donate $100k a year to community organizations. We continue this pledge and are even happier to support women-led nonprofits that have immediate impact in our communities here in Brooklyn. At One Love Community Fridge, we are seeing what just a small organization with one fridge working to make a difference in their community [can do].”

    The lasting impact consistent, healthy meals can have

    Providing healthy, nutritious food to those who need it is a cornerstone of One Love Community Fridge’s mission. “Unfortunately, due to logistical issues, it’s very difficult for many pantries to provide fresh and healthy food and that’s also part of this problem,” Berhe-Lumax says. “Yes, there’s an immediate need to address hunger, but it has to go beyond putting a bandage on a problem. If you actually want to create change, which is what we want to do, we also have to provide opportunities for people to be able to have access to food that’s going to benefit the body. Food is the foundation of our health. That’s where it starts. Basic access to healthy food is a human right and shouldn’t be a privilege.” 

    Berhe-Lumax adds that it’s hard for kids to concentrate in school if they don’t eat healthy meals, which has a ripple effect on their entire lives. And if parents don’t have enough to feed their children, many food pantries have specific times where you have to stand in line, so they may have to take time off from work, which creates a vicious cycle. “I had a very specific face in mind in terms of who would use the fridges and I now realize that was incorrect—there’s not a specific face,” Berhe-Lumax says. “We have elderly seniors that worked their whole lives that maybe didn’t save up enough for retirement. I met a couple who suddenly had to shut down their catering company; they never expected to be in that situation. We have students that can’t make ends meet. It’s everyone in the community. At the end of the day, we’re all the same; the only thing that separates us is whatever opportunity we were afforded early on in life. This kind of movement really allows for everyone to participate and engage.”

    Fresh produce donations are always welcome.

    The expansion of One Love Community Fridge

    One Love Community Fridge started with one permanent fridge in June 2020 and is currently adding a second one. Additionally, they support and work with 12 other fridges run by the community, all based in Brooklyn. As the nonprofit has grown, so has Berhe-Lumax’s commitment, as it is now more than a full-time job for her. Her two daughters, ages 11 and 13, also volunteer their time with her. At first, Berhe-Lumax would buy the produce and deliver it to the fridge every day. It has since grown organically to include friends, family members, and the community at large, receiving up to 20,000 pounds of groceries per week, all picked up and distributed by volunteers. One Love Community Fridge has mostly grown through word of mouth, with some help from social media, as they’re trying to grow their digital presence. 

    Especially during this time of year, it’s important to give back to the food insecure. “We are coming out of the most challenging year on record for food pantries and local nonprofits focused on hunger,” Nwosu says. “The need for this type of food support did not wane with the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine. There is still a need, and especially during the holiday season. Giving sustained support allows nonprofits and community groups to consistently achieve their mission and build programming that extends beyond reactionary needs, and help individuals establish paths to food security and nutritional education is very important.”

    How to get involved with One Love Community Fridge

    Berhe-Lumax is working on fundraising to cover smaller expenses. One of their goals is to be able to buy a van to pick up and drop off larger food donations. Berhe-Lumax says donating time or money to One Love Community Fridge is always welcome and appreciated. “Spreading awareness is also important because last year a lot of people didn’t understand the concept of community fridges,” she says. “We’re in a position where the country is opening up and a lot of people are going back to work, so many people that were able to volunteer last year are not able to do so now. As the economy bounces back it’s important to be aware that 42 million Americans still don’t have access to food or are food insecure, and 1.3 million of those are New Yorkers. About 20% of New York City children rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. It’s dangerous because you have beautiful and amazing restaurants in our neighborhood, but so many of our neighbors cannot afford to eat there.”

    A community fridge stocked with fresh fruits and veggies.

    Anyone is welcome to drop off food at the community fridges, but Berhe-Lumax asks that the food is in good condition and something that you would eat yourself. There are a few local restaurants who donate produce boxes. “The beauty of this is there is space for everyone to help in different ways,” she says. “Meaning even if you are a smaller restaurant and you’re not in a position to donate something every night, you can still put together a produce box. That might not seem like a huge thing, but that could be enough to feed two families fresh produce the whole week that they might not have had access to otherwise. There’s nothing that’s too small.” Making a donation can be as simple as bringing over last night’s leftovers.

    How to give back to your community during the holidays

    There are a few easy yet impactful ways that people can give back to their communities this holiday season, either through volunteering, spreading the message, or financial support. “Many organizations have donation matching programs (we do here at Prose), so your financial support will be doubled,” Nwosu says. “In addition, the programming for the holidays usually incorporates external volunteers to help give out food packages, or coordination of food pantries. Lastly, just attending and listening to the abundance of activities that are being planned by community organizations help spread the message and their mission. One Love Community Fridge is always looking for volunteers around this season. Reach out to them on their website to see how you can help. It’s lots of fun and you’ll meet the most interesting and lovely people and have a productive morning of engagement and connection.”

    An amazing group of volunteers.

    Berhe-Lumax dedicates most of her days to  One Love Community Fridge and the hard work is well worth it. “The most rewarding thing has been that I get to do this with friends and family,” she says. “I’ve gotten to know my community in a different light. This experience, like everything that we do, has such a direct impact. We are all doing something in these very, very small steps that are leading to big changes, and toward a more sustainable future. Working on something that’s such a grassroots effort and has such a direct and immense positive impact on our communities is the most rewarding and the fact that my kids can be a part of this, too. The real beauty of this is seeing how it’s gone beyond just providing food—it’s really about community building and community engagement.”