I’m sweating under the full weight of the South Florida sun. I’m unloading box after box from my truck, each full of fresh, donated vegetables. Part of my job is to stock 10 community fridges all over Miami with free, take-what-you-need food. Today, it’s the fridge in Little Haiti, the blue and purple paint making the fridge visible from the street.
The community fridge operation started during the pandemic ― three out-of-work people bringing food to home-bound people lacking support and unable to visit a grocery store on their own. A year and a half later, the Miami Community Fridge is now a nonprofit called Buddy System MIA, with six paid employees, including myself, who are learning how to organize against food inequality.
For me, it’s the opportunity to not only learn to care for my community, but also myself.
The fridges in our charge span all across Miami-Dade County, but there have been community fridges popping up all over the country ― 136 fridges in New York, upward of 50 fridges in California, four in New Orleans, Louisiana, and many more showing up in cities and towns all over the United States. Many of these fridges are mutual aid efforts meant to fight food insecurity in local communities.
Fridges are placed and maintained by individuals or small groups, relying on the generosity of neighbors to keep them stocked and clean. What unifies all these different community projects is the belief that people in community can care for one another better and on a more personal level than the government can or will. Food is free to take, and encouraged to give. People are emboldened to communicate their needs and to offer support when able.
The global pandemic has exposed the already-crumbling foundation of the American food system ― 1 in 8 people are subject to food insecurity, a number that is higher in minority populations. One in 5 Black people are projected to deal with food insecurity in 2021, compared to 1 in 9 white people. Coupled with the lack of government support during the pandemic and small, inconsistent stimulus payments, communities are relying on each other more than ever.
I started sharing food during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. A small group of Miami leftists started distributing meals as Food Not Bombs, a vegan and vegetable food-sharing collective begun in 1980. Originally an initiative to protest nuclear power and discrimination against the houseless population, Food Not Bombs now has chapters all across the globe.
My friends and I ran through protests with wagons full of water and snacks, making sure our comrades were hydrated and safe in the 90-degree heat. We spent full days cooking together and nights distributing meals to the encampments of homeless folks sheltering under highway overpasses.
I became someone that people knew to bring food to. Boxes of cucumbers showed up at my door. Friends of friends called to say that they had extra, and could I please share it with someone in need. I would be called to pick up trash bags full of prepared meals to redistribute them. Eventually, I found Miami Community Fridges.
When I started this job nearly six months ago, I was freshly unemployed after quitting my desk job. I doubted my decision ― in a pandemic where so many are laid off and unemployed, was I doing the right thing by leaving my tiresome (but reliable) job? I had lined up several temporary gigs and was going to be delivering food to fridges weekly, but had no plan for the long-term. I was taking a big leap. I wanted it to work.
While at these fridges, I met the folks that frequented them. I learned what neighborhoods preferred prepared meals because they had no kitchens to cook on their own. I learned which vegetables were preferred where. When I pulled up in my truck, I knew there would be folks waiting.
Working with the community fridges can get complicated. The fridges get filthy in five minutes, food gets left out to rot, the Florida heat damages the fridges in more ways than I can count.
Part of the job is combating issue after issue while making sure that the communities that have come to rely on these fridges are still supported in a tangible way. The gasket that lines the fridge doors melted, so the doors no longer shut? No problem. Trash can after trash can gets stolen? Totally fine, that just means someone else needs them, too.
What I’ve learned is that if you ask for help, people will come. We have over 900 volunteers that will come clean a fridge at a moment’s notice. People who spend their evenings bringing hundreds of pounds of rescued food from grocery store to fridge. When I volunteer for a task in a team meeting, there is always someone there to offer support if I need it.
The fridges also taught me about boundaries. I can’t jump in at every moment, even though I’d like to. I can’t help everyone who asks for it all at once. I’ve learned that I have to slow down and take a moment to figure out the best way to continue, not the quickest. I’ve started to carry that into everything else in my life. I’m no longer overbooking myself, pushing my body until I am too exhausted to continue. I am no longer burning out.
I refuse to.
I recognize the signs now. I’ve learned the signs for when a certain fridge needs more from me than others, and the same goes for me personally. I know now when I need to stop so that I can continue.
I’ve also learned that so much of our scarcity mindset is conditioned. The reality is that there is plenty to go around. This goes for food, money, even emotional capacity. The key is finding it and then sharing it.
We rescue food faster than we can give it away. When we ask for funds to place a new fridge, or to pay an artist to paint it, or even to keep the organization alive, it comes. Support comes in handfuls, until everyone has what they need.
The same exists in my community. When I am sick, friends bring soup. When I see a friend crowdfunding for rent on Instagram, I give. When a neighbor asks for sugar, the cup always overflows.
As a first-born child of immigrants, I feel grateful to be building a world where I don’t have to pull myself up by any bootstraps. I don’t have to stand on my own and fight for scraps.
All I have to do is ask.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.