A blue fridge, painted with fruits and “Free Food For All” in bright white letters, sits in front of the Doris Records studio at 286 East Ferry St.
It’s one of the eight — soon to be nine — community fridges spread across Buffalo. Anyone is free to take food from it, and anyone is free to leave fresh food or pre-packaged meals for someone else.
But despite their popularity and prominence, Buffalo didn’t have a community fridge until 2020, when Jesse Reardon came along.
“At first it was pretty challenging to find a host spot,” Reardon, the founder of Buffalo Community Fridges (BCF), said in an email. “I walked the streets of Buffalo asking corner stores, laundromats, community buildings if they would be interested in hosting a community fridge. Almost everyone looked at me like I had five heads.”
Eventually, Reardon found a business willing to host the fridge: the now-closed Gigi’s Restaurant on 257 East Ferry St.
The fridge made its debut in October 2020, and helped Buffalo become part of the nationwide community fridge movement.
Reardon subsidized all the expenses needed to get the project started. She and a small group of volunteers stocked and maintained the fridge, educated the public, and worked with other organizations as the network around BCF slowly grew.
Three years later, the BCF manages three of Buffalo’s eight fridges.
Most community fridges identify as mutual aid. BCF sees itself as a “vessel” to get fresh food into the community and provide a 24/7 access point to food, according to Lauren Nostro, the lead organizer of BCF.
“It’s neighbors looking out for neighbors,” Nostro said. “We’re not a place for leftovers, or dumping, or charity. It’s to treat the fridge how you would treat it in your own house — what would you eat?”
That mantra is the focal point of the Buffalo Love Fridge, the third community fridge managed by BCF, located at 45 Jewett Ave., between Main Street and Fillmore Avenue.
The Love Fridge’s co-leaders, Tamika Potts and Sara Corona, met through the Buffalo Collegiate Charter School in 2019. Two years later, the duo unveiled the Love Fridge as “A Love Letter to the Community.”
“It started from my idea of wanting to be a resource to the students and the surrounding area,” Potts said, noting that they were able to work with other Buffalo Community Fridge leaders on developing a grassroots volunteering program.
Based in the Tri-Main campus area, Potts and Corona organize annual “foodraiser” events to engage with neighborhood residents, who in turn bring donations, volunteer and show support for the community fridge.
“Community means everything to us both,” Potts said. “Seeing how we’ve grown, seeing how we’ve impacted the community, and being able to allow more and more people to know that we actually exist are some of my best memories of the fridge.”
They didn’t know it then, but that solidarity would be vital in helping the Buffalo community overcome one of the most horrific days in the city’s history.
In May 2022, a racially motivated gunman killed 10 innocent people and injured another three at the Tops on Jefferson Avenue, the only grocery store in the neighborhood. It was the deadliest shooting in Buffalo history.
BCF organizers “went into crisis mode” and “raised an extraordinary amount” of donations from Buffalonians and other donors, Nostro said.
“With that money came an entirely new responsibility,” Nostro said. “We were like, ‘What the hell do we do? Do we go register as a nonprofit and have to be run by a board of directors?’ …f—k that. We are mutual aid. We do this because we love it and because we know it matters, not to get paid.”
Like other mutual aid organizations, BCF was able to open a bank account under a nonprofit. With the Community Health Center of Buffalo’s help, Nostro and her team were able to re-allocate over $100,000 to Black-led, boots on the ground, community aid groups, according to WIVB.
“People need food, yes, but they also needed mental health resources. They needed legal resources,” Nostro said. “People were out of work… we knew we had this due diligence to re-allocate some of the money.”
BCF dedicated part of donated funds to supporting independently managed fridges, such as the Groundwork Market Garden Fridge on 1698 Genesee St.
Based in the Genesee Moselle neighborhood and within a USDA-certified food desert, Mayda Pozantides, a farmer and founder of Groundwork Market Garden, does what she can to make her produce accessible.
“When we talk about food equity and access, the people who the programs are for or are intended to help aren’t in conversations about what kind of help they need, or if they even want help,” Pozantides said. “I think that people who are low-income should still have a choice.”
Food banks struggle to provide nutritional food to clients, especially for individuals with diet-related health challenges like diabetes, according to a study from the University of Connecticut.
Groundwork Market aims to “increase access and equity” in its food system by providing alternate forms of payment, which range from sliding scale payment options to offering solidarity shares, a program that subsidizes individuals to freely shop for items through sponsorships and individual donations.
“The community fridge was in line with all of that,” Pozantides said. “Another way to make food available at every price point.” The project touched all corners of the community, including UB. Architecture students built shelters for two of the community fridges through the Small Built Works program, where students design and build community-benefit projects in Buffalo.
Alum Delaram Haghdel was on the team that built “Brisk,” a wooden shelter for the Groundworks Market fridge, as her senior year final project. She and her team spent three months working on the shelter.
“I hope [the fridges and shelter] will stand for a long time,” she said. “I hope it’s always full of food and people are always coming for whatever they need.”
For that to happen, Nostro calls for continued trust amongst community members.
“It’s this complicated situation where you basically say, ‘Who am I to tell someone what they need?’” Nostro said. “Am I judging them because they drove up in a nice car — well, what if they’re bringing the groceries to their neighbors? What if the car is actually just a rental? There’s so many situations… you just don’t know.”
Nostro’s ultimate goal is to keep community fridges as safe, secure places for people to give and take food free from judgment.
“It gets hard… I think we’re all a little f—king tired. None of us really thought this would become this [big] thing, but at the end of the day, for every bad there’s always a little bit of beautiful.”
Jasmin Yeung is the senior features editor and can be reached at email@example.com