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As the COVID-19 pandemic dealt an unprecedented financial hardship in Boston and across the nation last year, neighbors in Allston got together on a mission: Feed the hungry.
“We were facing an economic crisis — that was fueled by the pandemic — and food insecurity in the community was off the charts,” recalled Jacob Naimark. “And there were lots of people that had extra to give.”
That surplus lived inside a “community fridge” — an on-the-sidewalk refrigerator, unguarded and unlocked, filled with donations that were up for grabs to anyone who needed them, no questions asked.
The Allston fridge, set up outside the Grasshopper Restaurant at 1 N. Beacon St., was among several that made their way onto the streets of Boston in the past year, as communities strived for new initiatives to take care of their own in a troubling time.
Naimark, who joined the effort shortly after the grassroots project got going, said the concept has been a good strategy in getting people what they need as quickly as possible.
The fridge was checked on by volunteers three times per day, and organizers, who have since launched another fridge in Brighton, have built a network of local businesses, restaurants, and organizations who regularly donate extra or leftover food.
In December, volunteers added a cabinet to store dry goods and even hygienic products.
“It’s just a community effort of people who want to look out for others in our community,” Naimark said in an interview. “And there are pros and cons of that. But I think the greatest ‘pro’ is that, you know, the power of what the community wants in terms of generosity, can really easily be harnessed and that help can be delivered quite directly…
“You can get food to people in the most direct way possible,” he added.
But the effort was brought to a halt sometime between late April and early May, when volunteers discovered the temperature within the fridge was rising over the course of several days, according to Naimark.
Hoai Nguyen, owner of Grasshopper, told Boston.com that either a new or prospective buyer of the property indicated they no longer wanted the fridge out front.
Nguyen volunteered his business to host the fridge last year, according to Naimark.
“COVID came up and a lot of people needed help — a lot,” Nguyen told Boston.com.
When Naimark arrived at the restaurant a few weeks ago, the fridge was plugged in, and the electric supply appeared to be alright as the outside lights at Grasshopper were still operational, he said.
Organizers attempted to look for contact information for the property owner but were unsuccessful, and ultimately decided to focus efforts on relocating the fridge, Naimark said.
As of Wednesday, he said he still wasn’t sure what happened, as the fridge has since been moved into storage and is in working order.
In an interview, Ronald Cahaly, the property owner for 1-9 N. Beacon St., said he was unaware of the fridge operating outside the restaurant until recently.
Cahaly said his office was never contacted about the fridge. His employee informed him a hole was drilled through the wall of the restaurant to run a power line to the fridge, which was done without his permission, he said.
Cahaly also said he didn’t turn off power to the fridge. It’s possible the appliance tripped the circuit breaker, he said.
Asked about whether a buyer wanted the fridge gone, Cahaly said he is not privy to anything that is said when he is not present.
Whether he would welcome the fridge back to the site, Cahaly said he would have to think about it, adding later though he wasn’t inclined to work with the volunteers to make it work.
“It apparently was attracting a lot of people hanging around and sleeping there,” he said. “I mean, if they’re going to install stuff like that on private property, they should monitor it and police it.”
Naimark said in the weeks since, the group of volunteers has set out to find a new home for the fridge, making phone calls and visits to local businesses to let them know about the initiative.
As of Wednesday, the group had some leads but no definite solution had been made yet.
Naimark said volunteers want any interested businesses to know how much support the initiative has behind it.
“We’ve been able to supplement other food aid efforts to people who are in need, and it’s been really well received,” he said.
Organizers make sure the fridge is well stocked, looked after, and regularly maintained, Naimark said. No food is left to spoil and the shelves are frequently cleaned.
“When we put food in, it gets empty really, really quickly,” Naimark said. “I’ve seen a full fridge one night and gone back the next morning, and it’s been completely cleared out.”
Naimark said any interested businesses should know there is an estimated $30 expense per month to run the fridge — a cost volunteers are willing to cover. (Inquiries can be made by emailing [email protected], Naimark said.)
As for the future of the fridge, Naimark said he and its other caretakers are optimistic about locating a new home.
“The outpouring of support and enthusiasm that we’ve seen for this fridge, both before it was taken down and now since it’s been taken down — it’s clear that the community wants to continue supporting it,” he said. “And as it is really an effort that’s fueled by the community, we trust that with our continued efforts, it’s going to find a new home very soon.”
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