Volunteers inspect the new community refrigerators at NYCHA's Holmes Towers on the UES
Volunteers inspect the new community refrigerators at NYCHA's Holmes Towers on the UES | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

The Upper East Side’s First Community Fridge Fights Hunger, Raises Concerns with NYCHA Neighbors

In an effort to combat the rising food insecurity that has plagued New York since the pandemic, the Upper East Side is now home to a new community fridge. Located at the New York City Housing Authority’s Holmes Towers on First Avenue between East 92nd and 93rd streets, the refrigerators opened to much fanfare this week, garnering coverage on many local TV news stations. After the cameras left, however, the handful of cautiously optimistic neighbors present raised concerns about the installation— including safety, sanitation, rats and even inclusivity and awareness.

The new community refrigerators are located at NYCHA's Holmes Towers at East 92nd Street and First Avenue
The new community refrigerators are located at NYCHA’s Holmes Towers at East 92nd Street and First Avenue | Upper East Site

“It was sad to see that the people that look like me was not there clapping and applauding and happy and excited about it,” said Saundrea Coleman, a co-founder of tenants’ rights group the Holmes-Isaacs Coalition and a resident of the Stanely Isaacs Houses, next to Holmes Towers.

“It was people who probably don’t have these insecurities,” Coleman added, telling Upper East Site that she counted only four complex residents out of the roughly 100 people gathered for Thursday’s ribbon-cutting. 

Grassroots Grocery founder Dan Zauderer speaks to a crowd of roughly 100 people attending the community fridge unveiling
Grassroots Grocery founder Dan Zauderer speaks to a crowd of roughly 100 people attending the community fridge unveiling | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

Holmes Towers resident Leticia Clark, agreed, saying she doesn’t remember the placement of the fridge being “an open conversation with the community.” 

Looking around at those at the event, she noted, “No one is here from the community.” While she acknowledges “food insecurity is serious in this area,” she believes the project will “need to be closely observed” if it is to succeed. 

The two large refrigerators were painted by a Bronx-based artist
The two large refrigerators were painted by a Bronx-based artist | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

According to the NYC Mayor’s Office, food insecurity affects 1.4 million New Yorkers, or 12.9% of the city. As the city continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, layoffs and inflation have wreaked havoc on households all over the city, causing incomes to plummet, rents to rise and access to food to become uncertain.  

The Holmes Towers community fridge project is a partnership between Central Synagogue, a prominent Reform congregation on East 55th Street, and several food-related nonprofits, which aim to provide free, healthy food to those unable to access it. 

Pallets of fresh fruit were delivered to the new community fridge on Thursday morning
Pallets of fresh fruit were delivered to the new community fridge on Thursday morning | Nora Wesson/Upper East Stie

Dan Zauderer, the founder of Grassroots Grocery, and mastermind of the community fridge told the crowd that “it takes community to solve this issue.”

Zauderer told Upper East Site Thursday night that “The fridge will make an immediate impact in the lives of Holmes residents and other local people by providing them with easy and dignified access to food.” 

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The community fridge will be open 24/7, and those who struggle to afford food are encouraged to stop by any time of the day or night. 

While the fridge — actually two large residential refrigerators and a small unchilled pantry area nestled in a wooden frame, built pro-bono by a local construction management company — has been hailed as a positive development by both its sponsors and some residents of the affordable housing complex where it stands, community members are concerned about how it will be maintained.

The community fridge and pantry is located at NYCHA's Holmes Towers on First Avenue
The community fridge and pantry is located at NYCHA’s Holmes Towers on First Avenue | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

Having studied health sciences and food safety, 34-year-old Holmes Towers resident Leticia Clark also raised concerns about the significant rodent problem on the campus — made worse by the roof-repair construction — and how the fridge may worsen it. Saundrea Coleman agrees.

“[The community fridge] is good for the community, but it needs to be up-kept, because if not, the rodents are going to have a ball,” Coleman, who sits on the Housing Committee of Community Board 8, told us.

Rat burrows can be seen near the NYCHA complex
Rat burrows can be seen near the NYCHA complex at East 94th Street and First Avenue | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

Coleman also brought up the need for close supervision. 

Nine hours after the ribbon-cutting, she says there was a significant surplus of produce and bread piled in the lobby of one of the Holmes Towers buildings.

She also says the fridges were dirty, and mostly empty, with debris on the floor below them. 

Hours after the ribbon-cutting event, the community fridges were dirty and needed restocking
Hours after the ribbon-cutting event, the community fridges were dirty and needed restocking | Saundrea Coleman

Mr. Zauderer wasn’t worried, saying that “should any rodent issues surface, we’re more than happy to work with [the Holmes Towers Tenant Association president] and other resident leaders” to find a solution, but that “based on our experience with other community fridges throughout the city, we don’t expect for there to be a major rodent issue.”

Rodents and sanitation aren’t the only concerns either. Ms. Clark says she also worries about the kind of traffic it will attract. She especially takes issue with the 24/7 nature of the program — designed to give people a dignified way to source healthy foods whenever they are needed — because of the crime and unsafe behavior she has seen on the block. 

Hours after the ribbon-cutting event, the community fridges were dirty and needed restocking
Hours after the ribbon-cutting event, the community fridges were dirty and needed restocking | Saundrea Coleman

Ms. Coleman noted that a lack of awareness of the fridge among the residents at the Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses could also pose an issue. She said that though it was announced at a Tenant Assocation meeting recently, “everyone does not show up” to these meetings. 

For a project like this to succeed, Coleman says “you have to have a team.” She said one or two people aren’t enough, that there needs to be someone cleaning and organizing the fridges “morning, noon, and night.”

Stray broccoli left on the sidewalk after apparently falling out of the fridge
Stray broccoli left on the sidewalk after apparently falling out of the fridge | Saundrea Coleman

Volunteerism is the heart of the community fridge, said Zauderer at the ribbon-cutting. 

“Neighbors helping neighbors” was a common sentiment echoed by many at the event. Rabbis Angela Buchdahl and Hilly Haber from Central Synagogue, along with City Councilmember Julie Menin were in attendance. 

Surplus food has begun piling up in the lobby of a Holmes Towers building
Surplus food has begun piling up in the lobby of a Holmes Towers building | Saundrea Coleman

Holmes Towers Tenant Association President Sandra Perez said she hopes it “can normalize access to nourishing food with dignity,” and reminded those gathered that “unused food can become someone else’s meal.” 

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Though they have concerns, the residents of Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses are cautiously optimistic that the fridge will alleviate some of the struggle of sourcing nutritious food.

Left to right: Council Member Julie Menin, Holmes Towers Tenant Association President Sandra Perez, Rabbi Hilly Haber and Grassroots Grocery founder Dan Zauderer at Thursday's ribbon cutting | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site
Left to right: Council Member Julie Menin, Holmes Towers Tenant Association President Sandra Perez, Rabbi Hilly Haber and Grassroots Grocery founder Dan Zauderer at Thursday’s ribbon cutting | Nora Wesson/Upper East Site

“You don’t get to see that often,” Coleman said of the crowd gathered for Thursday’s unveiling.

“When do you get groundbreaking and ribbon-cuttings on public housing?”

Volunteers can sign up here to clean and maintain the fridge, and anyone is welcome to donate food, including items that do not need to be refrigerated. 

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