Artist Sade Akin Boyewa El has lived in Harlem for 25 years, but memories of her European upbringing remain vivid. She’s still connected to the soil, the seeds, the plants and the spirit of nature that surrounded her on a suburban farm in Sweden where she grew up.
Boyewa’s lifestyle changed drastically after she moved to Harlem back in the 1990s to pursue her passion as an artist and curator. But once settled, she noticed that most of the neighborhood residents did not have healthy food choices or much food at all. For Boyewa, her move was not just from northern Europe to the East Coast of America, but from a rural idyll to a cruel urban food desert.
“Harlem is and has been a very underserved community,” said Boyewa. “There’s no stores that provide healthy options of food.”
When COVID-19 hit New York City in March, Boyewa lost her job at Fotografiska, a Swedish photography museum in the Flatiron District. Her unemployment made her think about people who were already facing different degrees of hunger, homelessness and financial hardship before the pandemic, she said.
“The neighborhood was suffering,” said Boyewa. “We have a food pantry right down the street from here. It’s always super, super busy. They serve a lot of people in this community and beyond.”
When Boyewa saw a picture of a community fridge on the Instagram page of In Our Hearts, a New York-based political resistance organization that tackles hunger as one of its platforms, she thought, “How can I bring this to my community?” With an idea in mind, she reached out to the group.
Boyewa soon received a donated refrigerator from the organization and started the Harlem Community Fridge, the first in the neighborhood, she said.
Plugged into an outlet of a building located at 352 West 116th St., the fridge faces the street, where people can donate or take food anytime. Within months of launching, Boyewa’s project has received support from Trader Joe’s and local eateries, including BO’s Bagels, Orwashers Bakery and more.
“It’s accessible to everyone 24/7,” said Boyewa. “Everybody should be able to eat food. There’s a lot of shame and pride involved with food, here in America. It is not and it should never be a privilege in any shape or form.”
A study by Columbia University found that there’s a direct correlation between health issues and lack of access to healthy foods. Bodegas that offer nutritious items are more likely to be located in wealthier neighborhoods, like the Upper East Side, than in East and Central Harlem, where fast food chains are more prevalent. And food insecurity has increased since the pandemic, with poor and underserved communities feeling it the most, said Boyewa.
But wasted food is also “a huge problem in America,” she said.
“There are tons and tons of foods that are going to waste, from a micro to a macro level, from the producer to the stores, and people really have no idea,” she said.
Even though there are communities and individuals who can’t afford healthy and affordable options, food waste is about 30% to 40% of the total food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Data from the Journal of Sustainable Development shows that around 1.3 million people in New York City deal with hunger every day.
Harlem Community Fridge is also a piece of artwork, conveying a message of solidarity and equality, said Boyewa, who reached out to fellow Harlem artist Jaleeca Yancy for help designing the refrigerator’s exterior.
It took Yancy almost three weeks to draw images of iconic Black activists, like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Malcolm X onto the fridge.
Speaking about the figures depicted, Yancy said, “They are all from different decades in life. But they all have the same message and the same ideology about community, about assisting each other.”
Despite the project’s success, the idea of putting a fridge packed with free and fresh produce that anybody could access on the street was not as easy as Boyewa thought it would be. For one, household refrigerators are more fragile than they appear, she said. They aren’t designed to withstand the constant opening and closing. After experiencing a few fridge breakdowns, she realized that only an industrial refrigerator could do the job.
A shortage of help has also been an issue. “I don’t have a lot of volunteers, just a few people,” said Boyewa, who doesn’t want to push people to assist her. “Then it becomes a job,” she said.
To pull off this project, Boyewa gets up early. Starting at 7 a.m., she drives to different food providers, then back to her fridge site, collecting and stocking. Sometimes, she also helps set up food for other organizations that have community fridges around the city.
Cleaning and disinfecting the fridge are part of her routine as well. To prevent cross contamination when people take out food, Boyewa puts certain items, such as bagels, in individual packages. And all prepared foods have labels with ingredients, for anyone with food allergies.
Despite the safety precautions taken, however, not everyone is thrilled with the community fridge.
Boyewa said one resident, who lives in the building where the fridge is located, threatened to call the Department of Sanitation if the fridge wasn’t removed. But the resident eventually apologized, after she saw how much the community was in need of food, said Boyewa.
Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that even if food donors and volunteers follow appropriate hand cleaning and hygiene protocols, food safety might be a concern.
“It is important that food insecurity be addressed,” said Shaman. But with COVID-19, he strongly recommends that people wear gloves and masks while picking up and dropping off food. It is unsafe to solely rely on the daily disinfection of the fridges, he said.
But food safety isn’t the top concern for Boyewa, who said she’s worried about winter. The project relies heavily on donations and people will be less likely to go outside and fill the fridge, she said.
“Often when the cold hits, people retreat,” said Boyewa. “Hope the weather will be nice to us.”
(Main photo by Sade Akin Boyewa El)