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Peoples Bodega community pantry
Photograph: Courtesy Elise Fields

Communal pantries and fridges are sprouting up in L.A.

Guerrilla aid groups are cropping up to offer sustenance in one of the country’s most tumultuous eras.

By
Stephanie Breijo
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Alex Floro put 300 pieces of free fruit out along La Brea Avenue. By the next morning, they were gone.

With an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent, homelessness spiking and an estimated two million Angelenos who might not know where their next meal will come from, there’s no time like the present for community food in Los Angeles County. Thankfully, a handful of guerrilla aid groups are cropping up to help the cause through pantries and fridges, offering sustenance and mutual aid in one of the country’s most tumultuous eras.

Flower-loving Instagrammers might recognize Floro’s company—the artful and popular floral studio Under New MGMT—but her new project is blooming, and doing it on both coasts: Founded along with a handful of friends, the People’s Bodega launched this summer to provide bottled water, snacks and other supplies during civil rights and anti-racism protests in L.A., and has since spread to New York City. But how to provide food aid beyond protest days and marches? In a confluence of grassroots activism, Floro recently teamed up with baker and fundraiser Elise Fields, who set up her own daily, free pantry of sorts across from République: a few cardboard boxes along La Brea offering canned goods, produce and dried foods that everyone is encouraged to contribute to or take from, no questions asked. 

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At first Fields started small and with whatever was available from her own home: extra produce from a CSA box, canned soups, a bag of split peas, a few cans of garbanzo beans, a bag of pita chips. Then she and her husband, Tyler Hicks, began shopping to keep it stocked with the likes of cases of bottled water, apples, oranges, dried pasta, canned goods with pull-tab lids and a few boxes of Clif Bars.

Over the past two weeks, Instagram followers and friends have begun adding goods, placing boxes of cereal and other items into the open cardboard boxes along the vacant stretch of sidewalk.

“It feels really amazing to make an immediate impact so quickly, and to have the response be what it is so far and to feel that, no, the world isn’t total trash,” Fields says. “Right now it feels like it is, but there are people out there who want to make a difference and are into this grassroots activism. It’s really powerful.”

Each day, Fields stops by to check the progress and see what’s left and what’s needed. Floro has added fruit and other People’s Bodega resources to the pantry, and the two are collaborating to spread the word, provide guides for others to start local pantries, and launch a few community fridges together; last week Fields held a cake raffle to fundraise the project, netting $730.

Community fridges function similarly to Fields’s pantry, though they require “hosting” by either a resident or a business who’ll volunteer an electrical outlet. Stocked with items such as milk, produce and even sealed prepared meals, community fridges can extend the longevity of donations in the summer heat, not to mention open the door for nutritious perishables like eggs.

Another new grassroots group is picking up speed on that front, plugging in and offering free food from Long Beach to Highland Park. Launched in early July and currently with six outposts up and running, LA Community Fridges is a volunteer- and community-based initiative that provides fridges, freezers and pantries to neighborhoods across the county in order to cut down on food waste and ensure access for all to healthy food. 

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Anyone can contribute, and in the spirit of community, it’s a thoughtful effort: Those donating are asked to place the newest items toward the back of the fridge and the older items near the front; date food items to gauge expiration, if possible; avoid stocking raw meats; clean up any spills you might cause or see; and label prepared foods with their ingredients, in case of allergies. 

You can find LA Community Fridges in Long Beach, Mid-City, Arlington Heights, Highland Park and Exposition Park, made easy with an online map. The glowing lettering across the group’s first fridge—which sits out front of nonprofit Reach for the Top—says it best: “Comida Gratis; take some, leave some; this fridge belongs to you & everything inside.”

A handful of farms and organizations are donating to the effort, including Oxnard’s Ayala Farms, Highland Park’s California Island Market and mobile food pantry Polo’s Pantry, stocking the fridges with zucchini, beets, onions, heads of lettuce, bell peppers and ready-made meals. To promote and ensure health and safety, some locations even sport gloves, face masks, bags and sanitizer.

But LA Community Fridges and the People’s Bodega want to make one thing clear: This isn’t charity. The concept of mutual aid is decades old and built on the principle of care for the community, by the community—on taking civic systems into the collective’s own hands to protect the interests, health and safety of everyone. By sharing food through a stigma-free system where everyone can benefit, ideally fewer Angelenos will slip through the cracks and can receive the nutrition they need.

“I’m not really well versed in all the intricacies of mutual aid, let me just preface that, but I think that mutual aid is super important now,” Floro says. “The last however long we’ve been in Covid really showed me, and I think most people, that your immediate community can really make a difference in each other’s lives. We can take care of ourselves, and I think it’s just great to see the everyday people chipping in the few dollars that they can spare just to help their neighbors.”

To donate food or supplies to People’s Bodega or their community fridges with Elise Fields, DM directly and you’ll be instructed on how to send money, or Venmo Fields at @ovenwitch with a note specifying your pantry donation. To volunteer with or donate to LA Community Fridges, fill out their online form or find more information here.

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