Refrigerators full of food are popping up on streets around Miami. Here’s why

Carlos Frías
·6 min read

Sherina Jones looks forward to opening her refrigerator and finding it empty.

That means someone in Liberty City has found the fridge full of free food she plugged in outside her friend’s print shop and won’t go hungry.

“I feel fulfilled every day I come here and see that it’s empty,” she said. “It puts a smile on my face to see everything is gone.”

Jones, 35, a Carol City native, has taken on the vast problem of food insecurity in South Florida in a direct, targeted and grassroots way: She set up a community refrigerator.

Very simply, these community fridges are set up in public areas where anyone from the neighborhood can take food or donate food.

Hers is one of two community fridges set up in Miami-Dade County in the last two weeks and they aim not to be the last as locals look for ways to address hunger made worse in their communities by joblessness as COVID-19 sweeps across the country. Both of the fridges sit near food deserts — low-income areas, where the closest source of fresh food, like a grocery store, is at least half a mile away.

More than one in seven South Florida households say they sometimes do not have enough to eat, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in July. It was the highest rate in the country, ahead of Houston and New York.

Jones placed a plain beige kitchen refrigerator outside of the Roots Collective print shop at 5505 NW Seventh Ave., with a sign that reads “Take what you need, donate what you don’t.” A pack of plastic gloves is taped to the front.

Inside is a bounty: milk, cereal, bread, lunch meat, fruit cups, cheese, granola bars, tuna, canned soup in the refrigerator; quartered chicken, chunks of pork, green beans and frozen sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwiches in the freezer.

A fully stocked community refrigerator in front of the Roots Collective.
A fully stocked community refrigerator in front of the Roots Collective.

Plus, there are turkey and cheese sandwiches that Jones packs in Ziplocs every night after she’s done working as an aesthetician in Miramar. She stops by twice a day to stock it, on her way to and from work.

Jones had been thinking for weeks about friends and neighbors whose bills were mounting and money for food grew scarcer.

“We have people saying, ‘Do I take the money to put gas in my car to go to work or do I use it to feed my children?’ People are having to make these choices at a time like this,” Jones said.

Then she saw a video on YouTube of a community fridge in action that would not let her sleep.

“I prayed about it and it just stayed in my heart and my mind,” she said. “Every morning, I would wake up and think about that community fridge.”

She called a cousin, Isaiah Thomas, who ran the Roots Collective print shop with his partner, Danny Agnew, to see if they would host a fridge.

Isaiah Thomas, left, Sherina Jones and Danny Agnew by the refrigerator they placed in front of the Roots Collective to provide free food to locals.
Isaiah Thomas, left, Sherina Jones and Danny Agnew by the refrigerator they placed in front of the Roots Collective to provide free food to locals.

“We thought, this is a good idea and it needs to happen,” Agnew said.

So Jones, who provides skin care and shapes eyebrows for a living at her Snob Beauty Box in Miramar, took money out of her own pocket, bought a used refrigerator at a local appliance store for $180 and had it delivered to the shop. The Roots Collective put out a call through their social media, which count more than 44,000 followers on Instagram alone, and raised $400 in the first hour alone to buy groceries from a local BJ’s Wholesale Club.

Others dropped off items for the fridge, from fresh fish to homemade soup. Thomas’ mother donated sandwiches from her Culinary Logistics Services catering business. Their community fridge was up and running that very night.

“The donations just started rolling in,” Jones said.

The partners printed fliers and taped them to local bus stops and light posts nearby. And people continue to come by at all times of day and night to help themselves or drop off new items.

“It’s a revolving door of support and people in need of support,” Agnew said.

They continue to take donations through the CashApp account $villagepantry and through the GoFundMe site: https://bit.ly/3fJgyXM.

“We can’t always wait for government to solve these problems for us,” said Thomas, a Miami native, Florida A&M grad and teacher at Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center. “It’s just another example of how a community can come together to fight these problems.”

Sherina Jones, center, passes out food from the community refrigerator she set up to feed locals who may be struggling due to the pandemic.
Sherina Jones, center, passes out food from the community refrigerator she set up to feed locals who may be struggling due to the pandemic.

The idea continues to spread — and to become more organized.

Three miles away, Jessica Gutierrez, 26, and her friend Kristin Guerin, 30, cut the ribbon on another community fridge Aug. 20 in Overtown.

“We want to prove it’s not difficult to help other people,” Gutierrez said.

It was just months ago that they met and started a volunteer group, Buddy System MIA, when they realized they had neighbors who couldn’t afford groceries and couldn’t make it to a free food distribution site.

So they put out a call through social media to pair volunteers with people in their own apartment buildings or blocks to carry groceries to them. That grew to a network of 750 volunteers.

Gutierrez, who was raised near Cutler Bay by Cuban immigrant parents, moved to the Bronx in July when her partner got a job in New York and she stumbled across a community fridge.

“I was like, ‘This is what I want to bring to Miami next,’ ” she said.

She again teamed with Guerin, who had moved from New York to Miami to act in a play at the Faena Hotel. And they turned Buddy System, a registered nonprofit, to starting community fridges even as Guerin contracted COVID-19. (“I really thought I was going to die. It was really scary,” she said.)

Artist Natalie Galindo, left, painted the new community fridge in Overtown.
Artist Natalie Galindo, left, painted the new community fridge in Overtown.

Their network of volunteers found Chris Abu, who has owned Habra Food Store, at 1003 NW Third Ave., across from Jackson Soul Food, for more than 20 years. Not only did he agree to allow a fridge outside his food store, he encouraged them to bring it inside so it would stay cool, and he contributes to stocking it daily. A local artist, Natalie Galindo, painted it for free.

“For my community, where I make my living, it’s a way to give back,” Abu said. “This is something good for the community and we should encourage that.”

Gutierrez and Guerin already have locations upcoming for three other fridges in South Florida. And they set an ambitious goal of outfitting 20 total fridges by the end of 2020.

“You don’t have to be a social worker to support your neighbor,” Guerin said.

More information

Roots Collective fridge: free.oge.miami@gmail.com or @roots_collective

Buddy System fridge: BuddySystemMIA.com or @buddysystemmia