How This Community Fridge Is Fighting Food Insecurity in NYC's East Harlem

The founders of the Barrio Fridge aim to bring the community together while fighting food insecurity in East Harlem

Seantell Campbell considered herself pretty engaged in her East Harlem community. As a long-time resident, she’d always painted artwork to help beautify her neighborhood.

But when the pandemic hit, she felt called to contribute in a different way: through food.

“It was very important for me to make sure that my community was getting more than what the politicians were allotting to us or providing for us,” Campbell says.

“This has always been a huge issue. If you come to my neighborhood, you’ll realize that I have one supermarket right now that’s on First Avenue; however, the building right above it has thousands of individuals that live in it," Campbell says. "Across the street I have thousands of people that live in that building, thousands of people there, thousands of people there, so we have a huge amount of people, and look at the amount of supermarkets we have.”

“[Then] the pandemic hit, and you understand that people now – they’re not working, their finances are different – that’s going to even put [food insecurity] into more effect because now you have a community that has less access to good food and vegetables, produce in general, and now you have the same community that has less income now because of a pandemic.”

Campbell had heard about community fridges years ago, and together with her two friends, Jazmin Johnson and Darrielle Karter-Johnson, the three women launched the Barrio Fridge in their East Harlem neighborhood in late June.

“Food is very important to us. All three of us who founded the fridge were all chefs,” Campbell says. “So we like to keep it stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables – things that are easy to clean and eat and things that are easy to store and maintain, but yet are healthy.”

Located on East 108th Street and First Avenue, the Barrio Fridge is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and undergoes cleaning twice a day. Campbell says there are about ten volunteers who help with maintenance, like keeping the fridge stocked and food pick-up, and while different companies and restaurants in the area have also helped out, the bulk of the fridge’s food is donated by local farmer’s markets. For Campbell though, the most gratifying
contributions have come from the very members of her neighborhood.

“What really warms my heart is to see my everyday community members get really excited to donate stuff,” Campbell said. “There’s a lady who, I guess she has a lot of pasta in her house, but she always brings pasta and then takes vegetables. And then obviously, somebody takes the pasta and then puts in vegetables, so I love that everybody has found a way to contribute, and yet, people don’t feel ashamed to take.”

“One of my main goals when I first placed this fridge here was that there was no stigma attached to it,” she said. “So whether you’re the flyest girl on the block or you’re the person that might need the most financial help on the block, this fridge is for everybody.”

Campbell has also noticed another surprising response to the Barrio Fridge, and it’s a feeling that she’s grateful for in the absence of physical closeness due to the pandemic.

“We’re all sort of figuring out a way where we can help each other – you know it’s mutual aid,” Campbell says. “I think that as a whole, we’re smiling more at each other, we’re talking more to each other, we’re understanding more – it hasn’t been easy. But we’re at a point now a month and a half later, it’s starting to feel like one of those weird TV shows where it’s like, ‘Hey neighbor! Hey neighbor! What’s up?’ But this has never been the feeling in my hood. It’s mostly you walk by and are like, ‘Alright, mind my business, keep it moving.’ But now we’re comfortable talking
to each other because we’re helping each other.”

“It was such a transition from trying to introduce this concept to a community that has never heard of anything like that before,” Campbell says. “And every time I come outside, people tell us thank you, so they’re loving it.”