Public Health & Recreation

Sidewalk Refrigerator Provides Providence with Needed Food

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This community refrigerator and pantry on Westminster Street in Providence provides food for those in need of help. (Grace Kelly/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Purple potatoes. That’s what’s left in the refrigerator on the sidewalk at 705 Westminster St. Six bags filled with bagels and a box of mac and cheese sit in the attached pantry.

“It empties out pretty quick,” said Dana Heng, who manages the refrigerator. “There’s almost no waste.”

The colorfully decorated appliance, which Heng calls “RefriPVD” — Refri is short for the Spanish word for fridge: refrigerador — made its debut on the pavement outside of New Urban Arts on Oct. 9 of last year.

The community refrigerator, which is encased by a wooden shelter that also houses a pantry for non-perishable food items, is a local iteration of a nationwide movement to put free food in the hands of those who need it most — no questions asked.

The appearance of community fridges started in major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, with a few springing up on curbs around Boston this past summer and fall.

RefriPVD was one of the first to appear in Providence.

“I thought about starting one during the summer when I saw a bunch of other cities doing the same thing,” said Heng, resident artist mentor for New Urban Arts.

And as Rhode Island hits record numbers of food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear that it’s needed.

According to the Rhode Island Food Bank’s recently released Status Report on Hunger, one in four Rhode Islanders is food insecure, the state’s highest level of food insecurity in 20 years.

“Before the pandemic, food insecurity was on the decline, from a high point of 14.7 percent in 2010 down to 9.1 percent in 2019, decreasing gradually as the economy recovered from the Great Recession,” according to the report. “The pandemic drastically reversed this positive trend.”

As of last July and August, 25 percent of all households in Rhode Island were food insecure. Of that percentage, 36 percent were Black households and 40 percent were Latino.

“It’s always been an issue,” Heng said, “and COVID is just making it a lot worse.”

The way RefriPVD operates is simple: Heng stocks the fridge two times a week with fresh produce and food items donated by Farm Fresh Rhode Island, restaurants, and other donors. The electricity to keep the refrigerator on is provided by New Urban Arts.

Anyone can stop by any time to pick up a box of noodles, a loaf of bread, or a bag of kale.

“It’s interesting to see how supportive people are across the board,” Heng said.

The local activist has heard mostly positive things about the community refrigerator. She also has had to quell the fears of some people that others are taking more than they should.

“Some folks are even protective of it, they’ll say, ‘I’ve been watching out for it,’” Heng said. “They’ll say, ‘I think people are taking too much,’ and I’m like you don’t really know what their need is, so thank you so much for looking out and being concerned, but at the same time, don’t worry about it.”

Heng hopes that as word spreads about the refrigerator, and as other community fridges pop up around the city — there is one called Community Freedge on Wickenden Street and a pending fridge project called Providence Community Fridge — that RefriPVD will become less about her and more about the help it provides.

“I don’t want to be the face of the fridge,” she said. “I’m the conductor, telling people what to do, but it’s becoming an autonomous being, which is what I kind of hoped for it to be.”

To donate to help stock the refrigerator or to volunteer, visit @refri_pvd on Instagram or linktr.ee/refripvd.

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