B’More Community Fridge, a popular outdoor pantry offering free refrigerated foods and other items to Baltimoreans in need, is getting a facelift before its first anniversary in November.
Installed earlier this month in the Greenmount West neighborhood, a new refrigerator features better temperature control than its predecessor — a hand-me-down from 1998 — as well as a colorful facade. On the mural, a vibrant yellow American goldfinch snacks on the seeds of sunflowers, a crop first cultivated by Indigenous tribes that now grows in a nearby garden. Shadows cast by the above trees become part of the mural, bringing it to life.
The mural — painted by local artist Jessy DeSantis, who draws inspiration from her Central American heritage — speaks to the Fridge’s roots in the ideas of activists of color.
People of color have had to build systems to meet their needs “because there’s not a system that shows up for them,” said Christina Calhoun, a co-organizer of the Fridge, which is meant to serve the elderly, people experiencing homelessness and anyone else in need.
“There’s this wonderful little old man right across the street who watches from his window and comes when he sees action at the Fridge,” she said. “That’s continuity. That’s stability.”
“People find Cheetos and Fruit Loops, and there’s squealing,” she added. “No one’s highlight of their day should be cereal, but they’re really excited. I love provisioning for joy — not just making sure everybody has tuna, peanut butter and toilet paper so they stay alive, but Popsicles, salty snacks and candy for kids.”
Community fridges like the one in Greenmount West have sprouted across the country since the dawn of COVID-19. They are a grassroots response to amplified food insecurity, which disproportionately affects predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. In Baltimore, where disparities in food access are prevalent, the number of people receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rose nearly a quarter during the first six months of the pandemic.
In July 2020, Clara Leverenz, then a student at Johns Hopkins University, saw community fridges popping up in her hometown of New York City, and shared a post on Instagram calling for volunteers interested in bringing the movement to Baltimore.
“My mom passed away when I was pretty young, so I’d watch out for my siblings. I’d always be the person who would make dinner,” she said. “Although that personal history has a lot of its own baggage, one of its good things is that I think a lot about how to bring people together over food.”
According to Leverenz, the Fridge was a “hard sell at first,” requiring space and electricity with no proven record of success in the city. However, in October 2020, Leverenz met Abbey Franklin, a fellow student-organizer at MICA, who introduced her to Kenya Miles, who in turn offered to host the Fridge at 209 McAllister Street — located in the alley between Miles’ natural dye studio, Blue Light Junction, and Hidden Harvest Farm, a community garden co-operative.
The Fridge officially opened to the public one month later, safely bringing not only food but a sense of community amid pronounced isolation.
“Food is our love language and something we can all share with each other to connect,” Franklin said. “It’s something that shouldn’t be earned. It should always be given, and it should be enjoyable.”
Calhoun — who began volunteering for the Fridge after moving to Baltimore from Wichita, Kan., in February — agreed, adding that the Fridge operates under the principle that “there should not be guilt for having basic human needs.”
“We don’t need to monitor or surveil each other,” she said. “If you say you need it, you need it. Take what you need, and give what you can.”
Calhoun became a co-organizer in May when Leverenz and Franklin graduated from college. The pair continue as co-organizers, working virtually from New York and Asheville, N.C., respectively, while Calhoun oversees the Fridge’s daily operations.
“It’s a fine line of letting people shop in private and also connecting with them,” Calhoun said. “I’ll often ask, ‘What would you take if you found it here? What would you like to see here?’”
At the end of September, the Fridge was hit by vandalism — “the only time something like that has happened,” according to Calhoun. However, after a hard reset, the organizers were able to bounce back quickly thanks to mutual aid, which included support from people involved with Hidden Harvest, “a co-op of co-ops” for chickens, community composting and a vegetable garden — as well as a natural dye garden, which accompanies Blue Light Junction and houses plants that can be used to produce fibers and dyes (including sunflowers, as depicted in the new mural).
Calhoun said the organizations that belong to Hidden Harvest, bring joy and solidarity to the Fridge, holding each other accountable and thriving collaboratively. For example, leftover herbs and produce from the vegetable garden sometimes go to the Fridge, and Calhoun helps maintain the farm.
If the Fridge is “the kitchen,” Calhoun said, then Hidden Harvest is the “living room,” making its visitors feel safe and welcome.
“In this space, people see problems, and they see possibilities. They know their own skills and gifts, and give those back to the community. Here it’s like, ‘We’re trying to solve huge systemic problems, but at least in our backyard, there’s free food,’” Calhoun said. “In our backyard, there’s a cooperative ecosystem that models the kind of decentralized power structure we want to see in the world.”
Arin Jayes, who is part of both the chickens and vegetable garden co-ops, observes that “since the Fridge was created, there’s definitely been more people coming through the alley.” They said that “more people are getting involved” in Hidden Harvest, a member of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, because more people are learning about it through the Fridge.
Going forward, Calhoun wants to encourage others to take additional responsibility in the Fridge. She underscored the importance of taking care of one another.
“As a major system, we’ll commodify food and create artificial scarcity and all that bullshit, but at the end of the day, everyone understands sharing a meal, having a first aid cabinet, having a paper goods cabinet — that feeling of safety,” she said. “If you can meet people’s basic human needs, then society can be a better place for everyone.”