When COVID-19 hit Tampa Bay, it's safe to say everyone’s world was turned upside down. Grocery store shelves reached "Walking Dead" status, toilet paper was nowhere to be found, and panic levels were at an all time high. With produce, meat and toilet paper products scarce or overpriced due to demand, where did that leave food insecure families? Feeding Tampa Bay, was quick to jump into action with its on-site and mobile food pantries.
According to the nonprofit, 1.7 million people struggle with food insecurity in our 10 county region, 1 in 4 are children. Feeding Tampa Bay is providing an average 2 million meals a week and distributing to 10,000 families weekly through mega pantries.
While Feeding Tampa Bay’s efforts have proved to be invaluable to the community, there can never be enough resources for those in need of food while coronavirus cases continue to climb in the state of Florida. That’s where the TPA and St. Pete Free Fridge Project comes in.
The project isn’t a new initiative, but it is the first in Florida. Essentially, there will be refrigerators stationed throughout Tampa and St. Pete filled with free donated food.
I connected with the TPA Free Fridge Project founder, Christina Sanchez, via email to get the lowdown on how this initiative came about and what she hopes to achieve. Sanchez’s partner in the initiative, Avery, Moore is heading up the St. Pete Fridge effort. Sanchez explained that she and Moore have had a budding friendship for a while, but the real partnership began during the initial weeks of quarantine.
“We both felt charged to do something for our prospective communities through many different avenues, but have settled here, for now, at food insecurity.”
The duo came across Free Fridge Projects in other big cities like New York City, Oakland and Austin and felt it was an initiative they could launch in their own community. They give credit to A New World in Our Hearts, a NYC-based anarchist network established in 2004, of autonomous collectives, projects and individuals with a mission to build a culture of resistance for tips on launching. The next step was finding the equipment.
“[We] figured why not?," Sanchez said. "I'm sure someone in the Tampa Bay area has an extra fridge?”
Sure enough, 10 ten minutes of posting on Facebook asking for an extra fridge, Sanchez’s own mother responded with the hookup.
“In hindsight, finding a location should be the first priority, as it is, in my experience, the most difficult facet. There are a ton of resources online to guide in the process. Getting the word out was the next move, and that happened easily with the help of my sweet friend Jujmo.”
Once the first fridge was secured, and the @TPAFreeFridge Instagram was made, Sanchez says Tampa-based artist and muralist, Cheryl Weber, better known as Jujmo, reached out completely unsolicited into their DMs offering to paint the initiative’s very first fridge.
“Cheryl [Weber] is an incredible friend and artist, she dropped everything, came over, (safely and distanced) and knocked it out the next day. This is the spirit we're really banking on for this project. It's all about Mutual Aid. Caring for one another without being asked and accepting that gift without immediately questioning whether or not you need to earn the love you receive.”
In typical Jujmo fashion, the fridge is brightly painted and reads “Free Food,” “Gratis Comi,” “Take Wut U Need,” and “Leave Wut U Can.” Weber has been blasting the initiative ever since, helping get the word out to her 6,000-plus followers.
But how does this fridge thing work? There are small operational costs, but the idea is that farms, businesses, and people, will donate essential foods that are in excess, and there are no questions asked and picked up by those in need. All food will be inspected and rotated by a team of volunteers.
“This can look like a lot of things, but sustained donations and community effort with maintaining the space, are absolutely essential to the success," Sanchez said.
The first fridge is stationed at 1017 E. Columbus Dr. in V.M Ybor. Sanchez and Moore are hoping to collect a list of business owners who are interested in hosting a fridge as well as volunteers to stock, clean and/or monitor locations. The fridge will operate certain hours and be locked otherwise to manage what goes in and out of the fridge. A non-perishable shelf is coming soon to the Ybor location.
“If any other business owner is interested in supporting this project by hosting a fridge, we will happily find more units! In the end, the community will sustain this project and help mitigate the effects of food insecurity on our communities.”
Although the first fridge just found its home on Friday, July 17, both Sanchez and Moore already have plans to expand by not only establishing more fridges but also attending city council meetings to fight for Black lives.
“In time, I would absolutely love to work on a long time daydream with my sweet friend Ave and hope that comes to fruition. There are a lot of young adults taking their lives in their hands right now and as we continue to educate ourselves and take risks the future looks limitless.”
The St. Pete Free Fridge initiative is in the process of securing a location. More details to come when a location is announced.
UPDATED: 07/21/20 4:05 p.m. Updated with new pandemic numbers from Feeding Tampa Bay.
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