How 1 common household item has been a lifeline to undocumented immigrants amid the pandemic
"I can open up the refrigerator and take what I need and just keep moving."
Every day, millions of people in the U.S. wake up to a harsh reality that was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic: food insecurity.
In a year that was filled with high record unemployment numbers and long lines at food banks, a grassroots movement was born to help serve people who were struggling with hunger. Across the country, “community fridges” have been popping up on sidewalks in neighborhoods that have been deeply impacted by the coronavirus.
In the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, many depend on the neighborhood's community fridge for their next meal. Mike Grant, a Mott Haven resident, tells ABC News that the pantry provides hope.
“We needed something like this. It’s the little things that mean the most,” said Grant.
Just a couple subway stops north from the shiny skyscrapers of Manhattan, the South Bronx, home to many immigrants, is decorated by graffiti art, rugged brick apartments and corner delis.
On East 141st Street and Saint Ann’s Avenue, the Mott Haven community fridge greets this working-class neighborhood with the words “comida gratis -- meaning free food --and that is just what it’s filled with.
Put there by two teachers, it is open all hours of the day and is filled by neighbors, volunteers and local restaurants.
Feeding America projected that 50 million Americans faced hunger in 2020, which meant 1 in 4 children experienced food insecurity, something that sixth grade teachers Charlotte Alvarez and Daniel Zauderer saw in their classrooms.
This observation inspired them to establish the first community fridge in the Mott Haven area where they teach and, while the main idea behind the pantry was to help feed their students and their families, Alvarez tells ABC’s Perspective Podcast it ended up serving so many more.
“I’ve definitely spoken with a few people in the neighborhood who are undocumented [immigrants], and they’ve said, ‘There’s always these lines around the neighborhood where you can get food, but I’m too scared. I’m afraid that they’re going to ID me. I like this because it’s no questions asked. I can open up the refrigerator and take what I need and just keep moving.’”
It’s no surprise that Black and Latinx communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, because many of them serve as essential workers and the racial disparity is further magnified by unequal vaccination rates.
According to the New York City Health Department, only 3% of adults have been fully vaccinated in Mott Haven, a neighborhood that has a large Black and Latinx population, compared to 16% of adults in the Upper East Side, an affluent neighborhood that is predominantly white and is only five subway stops away from the South Bronx.
The impact of the virus, however, has been even harsher on undocumented immigrants.
Many undocumented Americans have limited access to resources because of their citizenship status and although the Biden administration has said that undocumented immigrants will not have to worry about background checks at vaccination sites, there is hesitation among the community because families are worried about being separated by ICE.
Despite the additional challenges that many undocumented individuals face in this country amid the pandemic, the Mott Haven community fridge provides non-citizens in the neighborhood a peace of mind. Alvarez says city leaders need to step up so that everyone can get through this hunger crisis.
“The refrigerator is a response to the lack of support that the government has given people to meet their basic needs. So, what I need to see is better allocation of the funds that are there, that do exist, to help our society’s neediest people.”
A few blocks east of the fridge, La Morada, a local restaurant and staple in the South Bronx, has been making about 600 meals a day since last spring and donating them to churches and community fridges throughout New York City.
Marco Saavedra, whose family owns and operates the business, has seen how hunger has plagued the Bronx and says they are giving back because it’s simply the right thing to do.
“I mean we just want to be on the right side of things. We want to be folks that were welcomed into the community and therefore feel indebted and responsible to give back to it. I grew up in Washington Heights, [Manhattan], but it was impossible and unfeasible to start a business there a decade ago amidst the Great Recession, but the South Bronx opened its doors to us and we were able to build a community there.”
La Morada is known for more than their rich Oaxacan food; they are also involved in immigration activism.
Saavedra, his older sister and his parents are undocumented. He says his family has not been able to receive any federal relief because of their citizenship status, which has made it difficult to keep their doors open.
Luckily, through the help of GoFundMe donations and local partnerships with nonprofits, they have been able to get by. Saavedra tells ABC News it is important that his family’s background is public so that undocumented immigrants and other community members know that there is a space that supports them.
“But definitely it’s important to be a beacon in our community because a lot of people do live in fear, and we know that this pandemic, like a lot of social problems, affects our communities disproportionately. Communities of color, working class, minorities, folks with preexisting conditions. All these are really prevalent in the South Bronx.”
Although Mott Haven is less than three miles away from Central Park, it is part of the poorest congressional district in the country. Alvarez says the high demand from this fridge pushed them to establish another one, but even with two fridges serving this community, it is still not enough. She’s adamant that everyone deserves a chance to thrive--regardless of one’s citizenship status.
“Regardless of how we got to where we are now, everyone has had their struggle. Regardless of your struggle, everyone has a right to live and thrive and find success and have their basic needs met. I don’t find that there’s anything controversial about that, especially when we live in a country that has the resources.”
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