“Well this is an improvement,” said Robinson, who over the past month has returned to the refrigerator for lunch three times a week. “Especially because my husband passed and he was the cook in my house.”

Amid soaring need and an eight-month absence of additional federal relief, vulnerable Americans have turned to each other to make ends meet. They have set up grass-roots networks with food pantries, resource delivery systems and community fridges like the one Robinson visits to help fill the gaps where lawmakers and already strained nonprofit organizations have not. As millions of hungry Americans hope for a piece of the federal government’s newly approved $900 billion in emergency relief and an extension of unemployment benefits, they are increasingly dependent on help from their neighbors, often in the form of mutual aid networks, to get by.

In the Washington region, more than 6,000 people have joined a Facebook page to coordinate everything from meal deliveries to help with down payments. One woman said she moved from a rental to her own apartment entirely because of support from strangers she connected with through the group. In Chicago, two organizers launched a “Covid-19 Hardship & Help” Google Form that has distributed more than $69,000 in aid. And nationwide, the number of community-led refrigerators stocked with free food has multiplied at least fivefold over the past eight months, according to Freedge, an organization that coordinates their installation. 

The boom in grass-roots aid networks has been so extreme during the coronavirus pandemic that umbrella organizations have formed to catalogue information about them on spreadsheets. There are documents about how to best make hand sanitizer, where to find affordable mental health resources, how to support health-care workers and where to go if you are low on food. The spreadsheets also allow people to list their needs that others in the community can fulfill, with the idea that each person in the network can give and take to get the help they need.

“When we are in a situation like a pandemic and the government is not taking care of us as they should, we need to trust in people power and understand that we can take care of each other,” said Fariha Huriya, who helped form a mutual aid network in the District’s poorest wards.

Restaurant owners have also stepped up to create systems designed to meet need where it has emerged. Despite citywide efforts to expand public benefit programs and fund new emergency feeding programs, food insecurity in the District almost doubled between February and May, according to a report by D.C.’s Office of Planning.

Mark Bucher, who owns D.C. steakhouse Medium Rare, launched a program in December that works to address growing hunger in the District by using resources from restaurants and emptied sports stadiums.

Through “Feed the Fridge,” Bucher formed partnerships with the Washington Nationals, among other sports organizations, which have donated dozens of empty refrigerators that he fills with free food from eight partner restaurants. By late December, there were 10 refrigerators plugged into recreation centers and youth centers across the District, each filled with between 16 and 50 free restaurant-grade meals each day.

Bucher, along with participating restaurants including Little Sesame and Call Your Mother Deli, says he hopes the program will act as a lifeline for the city’s struggling restaurant scene in addition to bringing fresh food to struggling neighborhoods. Bucher has paid each restaurant $6 per meal it provides through crowdsourced donations.

“D.C. restaurants are in real trouble. The hospitality business is in real trouble. This is a program that solves that problem,” Bucher said at the program’s launch Dec. 2, positioned next to a fridge with “…because you matter” written on its side. 

Mutual aid networks have existed in various forms for centuries. These networks have been the infrastructure of generations of social movements, from the Underground Railroad to the Montgomery bus boycott, and have played critical roles in natural-disaster relief operations. 

Typically decentralized and not as formal as nonprofit organizations, there is no one mandate or focus behind the thousands of aid networks that exist nationwide. There are networks working to help people transition after serving time behind bars and others meant to hand out water and snacks during protests. Some organizers see these grass-roots efforts as functioning to supplement government programs. Others say mutual aid is part of a social movement to mobilize people against systemic injustices.

Thousands of mutual aid networks have coalesced over the past few months to meet the skyrocketing needs of Americans struggling through the pandemic.  

“In covid, mutual aid became mainstream because there was suddenly a new crisis that was unrolling around the whole world at once,” said Dean Spade, a social movement activist who wrote a book titled, “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During Crisis.”

In D.C., the mutual aid network for Wards 7 and 8 has provided masks, food and help with requesting unemployment benefits, among other services, to more than 7,000 residents in Southeast Washington since March. A team of over 50 people have managed the need by splitting up into four groups, fielding hotline calls, purchasing requested items, packing materials and delivering goods through a contactless system. The operation is run out of a Bread for the City location in Southeast Washington, which allowed the network to use space for storage, and is funded by community donations.

“Not hoarding resources and money and sharing it can create something so beautiful,” said Huriya, who walks dogs to make ends meet. 

When Huriya, who helps oversee the team of 50, came down with the coronavirus in July, the network mobilized to provide her with oxygen meters, food and daily check-in calls.  

Across the country, dozens of networks of community fridges such as Bucher’s, led by teams of neighborhood activists and organizers, have emerged. In New York City, a network of residents has worked with an activist group, In Our Hearts, to run at least 14 fridges that are plugged into local bodegas, restaurants or homes.

Christen Whitaker, who works at a nonprofit advocacy organization in D.C., and Nikki Brown, an editorial director for an online platform, were inspired by the New York fridge movement and launched their own fridge system in the District.

“There is a need for food access and food security,” Whitaker said. “We have resources, we know folks who have resources, so this seemed like a way we could make an impact.”  

With the help of a GoFundMe page and a collective of nonprofit groups, small-business owners and community organizers willing to pitch in, Whitaker is maintaining three fridges in D.C. One is plugged into nonprofit Fihankra Akoma Ntoaso, which helps youth in the city’s child welfare system. Others are at An Indivisible Art Collective and the Brazilian-American Cultural Center. They also run a food distribution center out of the Village at Union Market.

Each fridge has two appointed “owners,” who are responsible for ensuring that the food stays fresh. The bulk of volunteers coordinate food pickup and deliveries through a WhatsApp group and an online mailing list. Community groups and people who have seen the “DC Community Fridges” on social media donate the goods. Food is restocked, cleaned and maintained at least twice per week.

Ona Balkus, food policy director at D.C.’s Office of Planning, stressed the importance of a multipronged approach to addressing the pandemic-induced crises.

“My feeling about emergency food programs in D.C. right now is the more, the better,” she said. “It’s time for a thousand different flowers to bloom.”

Still, because mutual aid networks are unreliably financed and structured, it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks of both government and grass-roots support systems.

Katie Cruz, who has been living in the District for seven years, lost her job as a waitress when her restaurant closed as a result of the pandemic. Undocumented and a mother of three children, Cruz has grown to rely on a combination of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the D.C. Mutual Aid Network to feed her family.

Some months, Cruz finds house cleaning, painting and gardening jobs through the mutual aid network. But in other months, like the last one, resources are few and far between.

Cruz said November was the first time she could not afford rent. She did not have enough money to buy her children Christmas presents this year.

“Some months it’s okay,” she said, “and some months it’s not okay.”

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