“Turn left here.”
“No, that way!” I pointed at the second fork in the road.
“Arghhhh!” my wife fake screamed as she steered the car in front of oncoming traffic. We were passing through a six-way intersection, the result of three roads crossing in an asterisk, the likes of which I had never experienced until moving to Atlanta. I had just come from a foot-friendly New York City and ignorantly believed anything under twenty minutes was “walkable.” On one of my first trips out on foot, I stood at the hexagonal intersection for about ten minutes, waiting for the walk signs to appear in the correct order so that I could cross. There was no way to go straight, mind you. The only way through was around.
It was at that dizzying intersection that I saw it for the first time. A large, brightly painted box declared itself as FREE FRIDGE. It stood just behind a pyramidal sign announcing “North Decatur Presbyterian Church”. What a fantastic initiative, I thought. How cool. Atlanta is cool.
I didn’t think much about it for a few weeks afterward. Every time we drove by, I’d see someone stopped there. Once, a car pulled out of the line at the light and into a parking spot in front of the free fridge. A man got out of the large SUV and opened his trunk. He left a box of food in the refrigerator. Other times, I saw volunteers in white t-shirts stocking and sorting through the goods. Most recently, I saw someone open the door and look inside. After grabbing a few items, he and a woman sat with their backs against the pyramid sign and ate their lunch.
My wife told me that some people in the neighborhood Facebook group didn’t like the Free Fridge at the street corner because it attracted undesirables. I thought this was silly. The fridge is at one of the busiest intersections in the area. People drive by all the time. I’ve seen people panhandling at the nearby gas stations and bus stops. If people were there anyway, it’s the perfect place to have a Free Fridge.
I wanted to help so I went to the Free99Fridge website. Latisha Springer started the Free99 Fridge to fight for food justice in our community. She noticed that there were billions of dollars in food waste each year and that most of this could be redistributed to the food insecure. Free99 is an urban expression that means instead of paying for something, you got it for free. The fridge dependson a system of mutual aid. People don’t need to sign up or apply; they can just walk up to the fridge and take or give what they need or have. During the pandemic, the fridge locations also started to carry items like hand sanitizer and masks. It gets even more remarkable. Each fridge is named after a Black community member whose life was taken “tragically too soon’.” Ours is named Korryn, after Korryn Gaines, whom police officers killed in Randallstown, MD.
I’ve never had to deal with food insecurity. Not the way that it’s defined, anyway. But my parents and my grandparents did, and something of their trauma has been passed down to me through their attitudes towards food. My grandmother tells a story of when they were young and poor, living in what was essentially a shantytown in Hong Kong. The dwellings were little shacks built into the side of a mountain. A large drainage gutter ran downhill through town, connecting each shack to the next, so people could wash their laundry and their bodies. One night, my grandmother was waiting for my grandfather to come home from his job as a coolie. She had been hungry all day but didn’t have a dime to buy rice. When he came home, he brought a bowl of hot noodles. She was so grateful for something in her belly that hot tears fell down her face as she ate, mixing with the broth as she slurped up her noodles.
I will never forget that story, and it’s not in me to waste food. As a child, my parents insisted that no grain of rice be left behind in our bowls (hardly a healthy attitude in modern food psychology). We did not waste. When I spent months in Vietnam and a shorter stint at an orphanage in Mongolia, the chefs were proud to provide us with a hot meal each day—a bowl of broth with a piece of potato and a chunk of meat. I watched as the kids around me licked their bowls clean, careful not to spill any of it. They passed around crinkly bags of chips and ate each crumb—not because they were hungry, but because they valued each morsel as something they hadn’t had before.
The memory of those orphans and my grandmother crying into her noodles clung to me the first time I went down to the free fridge. I had read on Slack that they needed more drinks. I had some V8 and LaCroix that we weren’t drinking and weren’t expired, so I packaged that up, along with some ground coffee, apple chips, and a bottle of body wash that had accidentally been delivered to our house. I was a little bit apprehensive about donating these items. What if people didn’t like what I brought? Would I have to interact with a lot of people? As I got out of the car, I saw a lot of the patrons were already around the fridge. I said “Hi”, shyly, and started putting my items in the pantry. A few people gathered around me and one young man said, “Wow, V8! That’s great!” So I turned back to him and smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty good, right? It’s got fiber and vitamins in it.” That was the colorectal surgeon in me talking and I couldn’t help myself. As high sodium as V8 can be, I wouldn’t say it’s good for you, but it is better than no vegetables at all.
As I was leaving, one of the volunteers shouted to me, “Do you want some spinach?” I blinked, then focused on the bags of spinach that were being packed into the fridge. “No, I’m good, thanks!” I wasn’t there to take food from people who need it.
“We have a lot of spinach,” she continued, “and bok choy. We just got a donation from the farmer’s harvest.”
I stared at the raw bok choy in cardboard boxes and then looked at the patrons who were congregated around the pre-packaged foods. Perhaps they had no way to cook it? Even on a good day, most people might not know what to do with bok choy.
“Should I… cook it? And bring it back?” I was already thinking about sauteeing versus steaming, slicing lengthwise versus diagonally, adding ginger and chicken broth to make a dish that people would want to eat. But I also worried that I had just signed up to cook for strangers. Were there legal implications if someone gets sick? Cook it well, I thought.
“Yeah!” the woman responded. “There’s more in the van, get it from the van.”
I walked over to the minivan and peered at the crates of fresh vegetables. The problem with hunger is, a plate of raw spinach won’t satisfy it. So I picked out a big bag of spinach and three heads of bok choy and drove home to cook.
I love to cook. My wife has been the lucky recipient of a different NYT Cooking recipe almost every night. But preparing two giant bags of raw vegetables and making it palatable for a discerning audience would be a challenge. I looked at my pantry and decided that I would saute the spinach with onions and throw in some white beans to make a classic “beans and greens” dish, something hearty and easy to eat. As for the bok choy, I steamed it with ginger and vegetable broth and tasted a piece. It was delicious. But even still, people might shy away from a box of steamed bok choy. So I found some day-old rice and made some garlic fried rice (using day-old rice is, by the way, the only way to make fried rice, according to my grandmother, because the egg and oil sticks better to each grain after it’s been refrigerated for a day). The hardest part was finding enough Tupperware containers. I ended up with an assortment of five containers, each a packaged meal.
I had been standing there cooking for about two hours when my wife came and said, “How do you get roped into these things?” And I said, “I don’t even know.” But honestly, cooking is my happy place. Aside from the operating room, the kitchen is where I feel most at home. I joke that the kitchen is my OR—I have my knives sharpened and all my tools at the ready; in my head I have a pre-orchestrated dance of every step and every move in the order it should go so that everything ends up done at the same time. And when I’m finished, unlike in surgery, sometimes, there is something beautiful and delicious to show for it– something I can share with family and friends.
After I finished with the meal boxes, I had to make our own dinner. I had bought some tofu to make tofu makhani, which is an Indian dish with a buttery tomato sauce, and yes, it was an NYT cooking recipe. I decided to make a little extra, and threw in some fresh green peas and cooked some fresh basmati rice. My wife and I had dinner and I packaged the extra into another tupperware container. After dinner, we drove out to the free fridge and, again, people were crowded around it. My wife says everyone seemed to descend on me as I approached. It reminded me of when I spent three months in Ho Chi Minh City, and every time I got off a bus, some of the street children would crowd around me. There is no shame when it comes to hunger. I am always surprised at how unselfconscious a hungry person can be.
I smiled and said, “It’s dinner time!” It was, in fact, around 6:30pm.
“Dinner time?” One man asked. “Whatcha got?” I listed off the menu and when I said fried rice, everyone’s eyes lit up. Another man came up and said, “Where’s the fried rice at?” I pointed it out, and also showed him the butter tofu with rice. “Tofu? I’ve never had it, but I’ve heard it’s good!”
“It’s good. You’d like it. I tasted it.” I said, smiling.
“You made all this?” he smiled.
“Yes,” I said, “I hope you like it!” I turned and jumped back into the waiting car.
For hours afterwards, I thought about what to make next. It occurred to me that filling, hearty meals would probably be best, with some kind of rice or pasta. What would you want to eat when you’re hungry? I hatched a plan and let the volunteers know that they should message me whenever there were more raw vegetables that need to be cooked. I’m going to need more tupperware containers.
Two nights later, my neighborhood church held a meeting to discuss whether or not to shut down the free fridge. Since we moved here, all the other fridges have been shuttered. They were sponsored by local businesses that no longer had the means to support them. Even though they were giving away their leftovers at the end of the day, the fridges attracted people to their storefronts, people who scared away paying customers. They were businesses, after all, and needed to make money. But, as the pastor said, a church is in the business of helping people. At our fridge, Korryn, there had been a recent episode where a man had a breakdown and started throwing food at passing cars.
I expected an angry mob. I expected a hundred people storming the church and telling the pastor that the fridge needed to be shut down. Instead, only three angry voices were concerned about the neighborhood’s safety. In their eyes, unhoused people with mental illness became monsters and child molesters. One man shook as he said he didn’t know how to explain to his daughter that a naked man was standing in the street.
I come from New York City, so a naked man standing in the street is hardly anything newsworthy. Avert your eyes if you must. Tell her that the man is dealing with something right now. Have some compassion. One man, an owner of a local fast-casual restaurant, said that if you’re afraid of these people, take the time to meet them. There needs to be more of that in the world. The fridge is a safe place for vulnerable people who should be protected by our law enforcement but are not. As I sat at the meeting, I pondered the data that showed our county (and country) is greatly amiss regarding services for those who are unhoused, having mental health crises, and struggling to stay above the poverty line. This little fridge is shouldering the burden of a failed social system.
I counted the people in the room. Over one hundred and twenty. And the rest of the voices were unified in a resounding, “What can we do to keep the fridge?” A handful of volunteers shared their experiences meeting patrons of the fridge. A lot of the volunteers had once used the fridge themselves. A few said that the fridge had saved their lives during a rough time in the pandemic when they couldn’t afford both rent and food, or perhaps college students who had only enough for cup noodles that week but found a fully prepared meal waiting for them in the fridge. One patron said the free food meant someone cared enough to cook for them. One woman put it especially well– the fridge didn’t attract those in need. Those people are already in our community. The fridge just made them visible. One woman said, “I don’t use food stamps. I go to the fridge. To me, that’s a step up.”
We don’t scream when we make that left turn anymore. Instead, Korryn and the pyramid are our landmarks for where to turn. Without our landmarks, that turn is hidden and tricky, with a sharp angle and a sloping yield coming from the right side. As much as Korryn is a navigational star for us, she is a signifier of the moral compass of our community and our country at large. With Korryn around, we know exactly where to go.
21 October, 2022