Originally published April 29 in our Heaping Helpings special section.
ALBANY – The idea sounds simple: Stock fridges full of fresh, free food in communities that need it.
Yet founding Free Food Fridge Albany wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for Jammella Anderson.
The Albany resident, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine earlier this year, started the project shortly after leaving her nonprofit job in early March of 2020.
“I quit, and then the next day we found out that they were shutting down everything. So obviously, panic ensued for me,” Anderson said.
Luckily, community members reached out and supported her. She began teaching virtual yoga classes, which also helped.
At the same time, the Clifton Park native started speaking out more about her experience as a Black woman in the Capital Region.
“People were starting to listen, which was really great, but … it was definitely like ‘OK, I’ve been saying this the whole time about all of the inequalities that we experience and the oppression that has been placed on me and the Black community, and how upstate is pretty segregated as much as people think it’s pretty diverse,’ ” Anderson said.
One keen listener was Brianne Baggetta, CEO and president of Mailworks, an Albany-based print shop. Anderson and Baggetta collaborated to create decals to sell in support of Black and brown businesses/organizations, including what eventually became Free Food Fridge Albany.
“This wasn’t a bailout of any sort, this was just, ‘Hey, let’s start doing reparations work.’ It all started with that,” Anderson said. “I’m so grateful to Bri. … Because of her, I was able to fund this project.”
After raising more than $30,000 through that collaboration and her own advocacy work, Anderson started hearing about more people becoming food insecure and not being able to get help through local programs, in part because of the pandemic.
“There’s so many factors that are starting to play into it. So you’re already speaking to a group of people who are food insecure in more marginalized communities and other communities, and folks with disabilities and things. Then on top of that, people have just lost their jobs that had secure jobs for years and years and years, or people have to dial back because they have kids at home and now their kids are remote learning,” Anderson said.
While she didn’t necessarily share that experience, she knows people who have, and remembers facing food insecurity as a child.
“We luckily had my grandparents to help fill in some gaps where my mother and father couldn’t but we lived in a pretty food-insecure home. We were on Section 8,” Anderson said. “I don’t understand it to the extent that some other people [do], but I do have a glimpse into what that feels like and what that’s like to be a kid, not knowing where food is coming from.”
When she started hearing about community fridges popping up in other cities, Anderson decided to manifest the idea in Albany.
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“It is pretty wild to just put a refrigerator outside on the sidewalk, but to me it’s also a testament to how bad the food crisis is in neighborhoods that are experiencing a food apartheid, specifically a lot of the neighborhoods in Albany,” Anderson said. “I live in Albany, so I see it and I see it in even the more affluent neighborhoods. There aren’t grocery stores, so it’s not just people who are in red-lined areas and marginalized areas and a lot of areas that have been hit with systemic oppression for years and years. Everybody is in this food desert, or rather, experiencing a food apartheid.”
She installed the first Albany fridge last summer and has since expanded to six, and there are plans in the works to install fridges in Troy and Schenectady, the latter at Tara Kitchen.
Each fridge is in a well-lit area where people can easily access it, including one in an alcove just outside Albany Center Gallery. Each has also been painted by a local artist.
“For me, it was how can we make this the most inviting? Because it is very weird to have a fridge out on the sidewalk. So making it as visible as possible, making sure it’s in a well-lit area, and then making sure that it’s bright and inviting, and that people are encouraged to actually take from it,” Anderson said.
It also brings more visibility and income to the local artists.
“There’s so many different levels and layers to the project that are changing the narrative for everybody involved. For me, I want to pay as many brown people as possible. I want to feed as many people as I can,” Anderson said.
The fridges are stocked daily with food from local farmers, restaurants, organizations and even individuals. Some fridges feature mostly prepared meals while others focus on fresh ingredients and snacks. It all depends on the needs of the neighborhood in which the fridge is located.
From Anderson’s viewpoint, the fridges aren’t meant to replace any assistance people might be getting from food pantries or other services.
“The fridge project, again, this is not to replace, this is not to take over. This is just another point of access for people to have anonymity. You don’t have to sign up. You don’t have to tell anybody. No one’s going to judge you,” Anderson said.
From Anderson’s experience, many people from all different groups and backgrounds are enduring food insecurity.
“So I think that was one of the bigger wake-up calls for the community,” she said, “that we have a lot more people who don’t know how to access public resources like SNAP or food stamps, or you might just be under the income bracket to be provided enough food stamps to use to get food.”
The project is also helping to make connections in the community between the growers/makers and consumers. Sometimes while stocking the fridges, farmers speak with community members about the food they grow and how best to cook it.
“We’re building these relationships with the community in a way that we didn’t have before. We’re really lessening the gap between the consumer and the people producing the food. So we’re eliminating some of these barriers, some of these disconnects,” Anderson said.
Her work with Free Food Fridge Albany was recognized in March by Time magazine in a cover story about how women are addressing hunger in their communities.
It put the project in the national spotlight, though Anderson remains focused on growing the project in the Capital Region. The next step is to connect with more farms that have Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to further tie the community to sources of fresh food.
“I think that it’s important that we continue to amplify organizations like myself and people who have been doing the work for years and years, who’ve paved the way for me to be able to do a project like this in the way that I have. So I thank all of those people and I can’t wait to see what people do with similar or different ideas because of what I’ve done,” Anderson said.
How to help
To donate funds or food, visit freefoodfridgealbany.com or connect on Instagram (@freefoodfridgealbany). Foods made in noncommercial kitchens cannot be accepted.
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