Fighting 'food apartheid,' NJ group stocks community refrigerators from Passaic to Philly

There's one in the food pantry of St. Luke's Baptist Church in Paterson. And there's one in the food pantry of the Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Passaic.

Both churches host a computerized refrigerator known as an Ujamaa Cafe, where healthy premade food prepared by area restaurants are stocked as grab-and-go options. Anyone in need can take food from these "community refrigerators" for free, no questions asked.

They are the brainchild of Leeja Carter, founder of the Coalition for Food and Health Equity, a Jersey City-based organization with the goal of promoting health and battling hunger in minority and low-income communities.

Along with the Passaic County locations, the group has installed three other refrigerators in Jersey City and Newark, with a fourth to be unveiled in Philadelphia this month − just the start of what Carter hopes will be an initiative stretching across New Jersey.

(from left) Dr. Leeja Carter, founder of Coalition for Food and Health Equity, and Lewis Spears, founder of Kismet of Kings, with one of their Ujamaa Cafe community refrigerators in Jersey City on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.

The coalition, which was formed in December 2020, also runs The Hunger Project, a meal delivery program that twice a week brings over 600 freshly prepared meals to seniors, homeless residents and people with disabilities in six New Jersey counties: Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Hudson, Union and Camden.

Carter, 39, in an interview at the headquarters of Kismet of Kings, a Jersey City after-school program where another refrigerator was officially unveiled on May 9, spoke about the importance of providing healthy food options in areas where they are limited. She recalled her late father challenging her to put her education to use in helping the community.

"When I see these fridges launch, every fridge I literally think about my Dad, him being like, 'You're finally opening that window, you're finally doing something for your community," Carter said. "For me, it's actually doing what my Dad wanted me to do with my education and living in that purpose versus complaining about [expletive] going wrong."

There are also plans to open community fridges in rural areas in Cumberland and Salem counties in South Jersey, Carter said.

Her initiative to bring community refrigerators to areas that are considered food deserts follows the efforts of other organizations in North Jersey. In Paterson, Silk City Community Fridge on North Main Street was opened in 2021 by Black Lives Matter Paterson. That same year, the United Community Corp. opened a community refrigerator in Newark’s East Ward.

Carter's work dates to early 2020, when restaurants, supermarkets and other food establishments in New Jersey had closed to in-person visits at the start of the COVID pandemic. Carter, a Jersey City resident then teaching at Long Island University-Brooklyn, enlisted her students to help restaurants in Hudson County prepare meals and deliver them in what was called the Hudson County Hunger Project.

More: Passaic's new food pantry offers an innovative approach to defeating hunger

More: Walk this way: Jersey City show highlights 50-year fusion of hip-hop and sneaker culture

"What I noticed in doing that up to about October 2020, was that we were serving folks who were in hard-to-reach areas, that people that we were delivering to were in food apartheid, food desert communities," Carter recalled. "Us mobilizing food during a crisis was a life-saving mechanism."

There are at least 50 "food deserts" in New Jersey, according to a state Department of Community Affairs report released last year. These are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food is limited or where supermarkets that sell nutritious food are too far away. In North Jersey, the department found food deserts in Passaic, Paterson, Fairview, Montclair and Dover.

Feeding those in need

The teens who come to the Kismet of Kings headquarters on Monticello Avenue in Jersey City after school inevitably get hungry.

That's when they make their way to the Ujamaa refrigerator located in the organization's main office. The refrigerator has a keypad that has a unique access code depending on its location. Carter said each food item has a RFID tag, a label that enables whoever is overseeing the fridge to track what foods are being eaten and how much is in stock. That allows the coalition to determine what foods are popular with users and why.

Carter said the foods prepared by coalition partners such as Cafe Peanut in Jersey City are stocked every Monday. They include items such as coconut parfait, burritos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the most popular item for the Kismet of Kings fridge.) The machines are in an open area of the host site and accessible during the times when the locations are open.

A refrigerator called Ujamaa Cafe holds prepared food from local restaurants with free food. Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church held a grand opening for their food pantry in Passaic, N.J. on Tuesday May 24, 2022.

"We want people to access healthy food options with the least barriers as possible," Carter said. "We want to reduce conversation; we want to reduce things around completing lengthy surveys and things like that … that might reinforce the feelings around shame and undesirability."

Lewis Spears, the founder of Kismet of Kings, said the refrigerator provides a much-needed service for the 15 to 20 young men, ages 11 to 18, who take part in the after-school program.

"We're feeding them, and people may look at it and say, 'Oh, three square meals,' or whatever they need from the refrigerator. But the reality is that we are giving them the confidence they need to walk through the world and know they don't have to worry about food," Spears said. "That's really exciting."

Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @ricardokaul

This article originally appeared on Coalition opens Ujamaa Cafe community refrigerators for North Jersey