On a humid afternoon last week, Leslie Cohen walked down the stretch of West End Avenue with bags of food in tow to donate to West End Collegiate Church’s community fridge. A member of the West Side Coalition Against Hunger, she made regular donations, providing hefty bags of home-cooked meals and fresh produce every week. But once Cohen reached the church’s steps, she realized the fridge had gone missing from the spot it had sat for the last nine months.
West End Fridge was established last September after the pandemic forced the cancellation of Collegiate Church’s usual in-person food distribution programs. The community fridge was a collaborative effort by both members of the church and neighborhood volunteers to provide both fresh and packaged foods to those in the area facing food insecurity. According to a statement on West End Fridge’s Instagram account, the fridge was closed on June 15 by the church due to “increasingly hostile” complaints from neighbors.
In a statement given to West Side Rag, Collegiate Church’s senior minister Reverend William Critzman said that an insistent group of neighbors “made explicit demands” for the church to cease hosting the fridge, citing concerns about loitering, marijuana usage, and littering.
Critzman stated that he was grateful to those who had supported the initiative, but that the church felt that closing the fridge was necessary to “deescalate neighborhood tensions, reevaluate our ongoing programming, and acknowledge that we are in a different place than we were last September.” The church declined to comment beyond the statement given to the West Side Rag.
The fridge was widely used by the neighborhood’s homeless, seniors, and those on fixed incomes, with a devoted group of organizers, volunteers, activists, local restaurants, community partners, and neighborhood donors keeping it running. Organizers stated that on any given week, over 3000 pounds of food was moved by the church alone and that the fridge also saw regular donations from businesses such as Orwasher’s, Trader Joe’s, Juice Press, and more.
Not all of the church’s neighbors felt the closure was warranted. Cohen, who lives nearby, expressed disappointment upon finding the fridge missing. “It felt good to give some of our food to others in the neighborhood who face food insecurity,” she said. “I’m not sure why the local community found this so disruptive.”
“It Feeds the Soul”
With one of the volunteers describing the fridge as “solidarity, not charity,” Cohen and other Upper West Siders spoke on the impact the program had made not just on those who utilized the fridge, but on donors as well. Several expressed their sadness around losing the opportunity to connect with their community, with one Instagram commenter saying that despite having lived on the Upper West Side for 10 years, she had never truly felt a part of it until she began working with the fridge.
One long-time member of Collegiate Church who wished to remain anonymous said that the fridge had been a crucial resource for her and other neighbors after finding herself without a job and food insecure due to the pandemic.
Having attended the church for 35 years, she said that she went to the fridge often, soon becoming familiar with many others who were in similar situations, such as seniors in her building. “It wasn’t just me, and it’s not just the people seen hanging out on the steps that didn’t look like the ones complaining and threatening the church,” she said. “This has been a hard time for us all.”
Another Upper West Sider wrote, “These opposing voices do not represent us. This fridge feeds all of us. For some, it staves off hunger. For others, it feeds the soul. There is no doubt that the love and food exchanged at the West End Fridge has made our community stronger and given purpose and sustenance to so many.”
Andrea Steinkamp, an active member of Collegiate Church who helped establish West End Fridge, said that the focus of the feeding programs at the church has been creating community and offering a safe and inclusive environment for those in need.
Steinkamp, who has been volunteering with the church for six years, said, “The community fridge was a way to continue feeding people and building community in a really dignified and collaborative way.” She continued, saying, “It’s my personal belief that when you treat others with dignity and see their humanity, you begin to realize how different none of us really are from one another.”
While West End Fridge is currently closed indefinitely, in a statement, the organizers expressed that they hope the closure is “only a pause in service, rather than a permanent farewell.” The program is actively seeking a new host on the Upper West Side and is accepting leads from the public that they hope can accelerate their reopening.
“The community fridge was a way to continue feeding people and building community in a really dignified and collaborative way.” Andrea Steinkamp, an active member of Collegiate Church who helped establish West End Fridge