When money is running low and temperatures are running hot, Brittany Ratliff visits the community fridge down the block from her grandma’s house in Central City. Perched in front of the 135-year-old progressive Black church Bethlehem Lutheran, the solar-powered Washington Avenue fridge sits inside a wooden birdhouse-like structure, created by a group of high school students in shop class.
Ratliff will take what she and her four children need from the fridge and the pantry shelf next to it, setting aside extras for her grandmother and a neighbor named Bobby. “I get my little stamps or whatever, but when it gets down to the middle, to the end of the month, and I’m running out of this and I’m running out of that, I might go down and see, do they have anything that me and my children could use?” she said.
And this summer, Ratliff is keeping an eye out for cold drinks in particular. “Cold drinks [are] like $13 a case,” she said. “If me and Bobby was to go there and they got a case of cold drinks in there, I’m not about to take no one or two cold drinks, to be honest.”
The fridge in front of Bethlehem Lutheran is one of about 16 outdoor community fridges across the city, part of a mutual aid effort that began in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Orleans Community Fridges uses a simple honor code: take what you need, leave what you can. This means that anyone can donate some extra groceries or a home-cooked meal. And anyone can grab a sandwich, some fresh fruit or what is perhaps most coveted this summer — a bottle of water.
In the excessive heat the city has experienced this summer, these fridges are becoming vital tools for people who are unhoused or food-insecure, but the rising temperatures that heighten the need for the fridges also creates new challenges for keeping them stocked and functioning properly.
Tenaj Jackson, who operates a fridge on Touro Street, said that this summer, people who use it have been asking her more frequently for water and other cold beverages. Recently, she’s been filling individual Ziploc bags full of ice and putting them in the freezer, where they’re almost immediately claimed. “It’s not gonna last long, but it’s a little bit of relief,” Jackson said.
Phillip Diaz, a community resilience coordinator at Bethlehem Lutheran who helps oversee the fridge, noted that food donations are usually taken within fifteen minutes as well.
But water, Diaz said, is most needed right now.
On a recent afternoon this month, a couple of people walked by the fridge and opened the door, only to find it full of food but devoid of water. The residents lingered empty-handed next to the wooden structure, until Diaz handed them some cold water bottles from inside the church.
Two weeks ago, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued an emergency declaration and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency due to excessive heat. Fridge operators and donors alike have already been feeling the effects of the heat on this community-driven effort.
Sheri Myers oversees a group of volunteer cooks at three community fridges in Central City and the Irish Channel, including the one on Washington Avenue. Her group feeds around 200 people each week using restaurant-scale donations from the free grocery nonprofit Culture Aid, and was recently able to distribute pallets of water using gift cards donated by Winn-Dixie.
Still, keeping the fridges fully stocked with water remains difficult. And volunteers are also struggling in the heat. “We had cooks who couldn’t go out because the heat just kills,” Myers said.
On top of those challenges, the heat strains the fridges, which may not be equipped to run outside in heat indexes approaching 120 degrees. Michael Richard, who operates another community fridge in Central City outside of the urban farm where he works, said the refrigerator he runs was probably built in the 90s.
“What I’ve heard from other community fridge operators as well is that these things poop out on you,” he said. “A nonprofit like us, we don’t necessarily have the money to go out and buy another one, but when that fridge goes down, there’s a lot of people who no longer have access to a resource that they desperately need.”
Old and worn-down cooling systems don’t bode well for fridge safety, Myers added: “It’s worse at this exact moment, and what I worry about tremendously is what’s going to happen if there’s a power outage.”
Unlike other community fridges that rely on the electric grid, the Washington Avenue fridge uses solar power from the church, which is also a neighborhood shelter. A recent citywide program that made the church a safe haven for residents to gather during power outages also means that the outdoor fridge has a reliable power source. Diaz said he wants to install a cold water dispenser next to the fridge, which he said could further secure water access.
Many fridge users facing food insecurity are simultaneously affected by other structural problems, such as climate change and unaffordable housing, Diaz noted. “Those things are going to start to affect everybody, sooner or later,” he said. “And so if we put the systems in place to help the most vulnerable now, it’ll be ready for when it becomes more widespread.”
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