Each Friday, Will and Sue Twombly drive to Cambridge and fill up their car with vegetables, fruit, bread, and other items and bring them back to Watertown. The food is bound for one of the newest resources for people struggling to afford to eat: the Watertown Community Fridge.
The Fridge is a free resource, located outside the United Methodist Church at 80 Mt. Auburn St., that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. People can take items, or donate them any time of day.
With the increasing cost of food, and people still feeling the economic impact of the Pandemic, the Watertown Community Fridge has become a popular place.
“It is a constant effort to stock it,” Sue said.
The volunteer run effort finds many ways to put food in the fridge, including donations from residents, donations from people in town (including one enterprising young man), and collecting food that has been rescued from grocery stores that otherwise would have been thrown away.
Starting the Fridge
The Watertown Community Fridge started in October 2021 when a small group who had seen community fridges in other communities decided to bring one to Watertown.
“They got together and got some help from Sophia Suarez-Friedman at Wayside Family Network to get things off the ground,” Twombly said.
Wayside provided some financial help, the Helen Robinson Wright Fund at the First Parish Church provided a grant, Will said, and the Watertown Community Foundation provided enough to buy a fridge and build a shed.
The first location was on Belmont Street, near Francis Market, and then in April 2022, it moved to its current location at the Methodist Church.
Donations Big and Small
The Community Fridge receives donations from local organizations, but also many from individuals, said Nancy Dutton, treasurer for the Fridge.
“We get a lot of money from Venmo — donations from checks and Venmo,” Dutton said. “In 2022 we got $12,000 in donations from various sources including grants — $3,400 from the Helen Robinson Wright Fund, a First Parish Church offering raised over $1,000. The rest is checks and Venmo.”
One of the ongoing sources of support for the fridge comes from a Watertown Middle School student. Jacob Sack started donating food to the Fridge when his family had items they were not going to eat. Then he started to raise money to buy even more food.
“We make some bracelets — we get string and beads and make them — and then with all the money we raise we go and we shop for food, and give it to the Watertown Community Fridge,” Sack said.
The 11-year-old sells the bracelets for $7 on his Facebook page, Jacob’s Bracelets for Good. He often finds beads online. He also received some beads made of metal, wood, or stone by his vice principal at Hosmer Elementary School, which he said went into some of the most popular bracelets.
Sack had a table at the Watertown Arts Market where he sold many bracelets and also received about $200 in donations.
“We started making a spreadsheet (to track sales),” Sack said. “We don’t know exactly, but we probably raised over $3,000.”
With the proceeds, Sack and his parents go shopping and then take the items to the Fridge.
“Sometimes we get meat, and some of the main stuff people need: we get a lot of yoghurt, we get eggs and milk. Sometimes we get snacks. We get mostly non-perishables, so we get some cereal and nature bars and some stuff like that,” Sack said. “When we drop off food at the fridge a lot of times there are a lot of people there waiting for food. As soon as we put the food in the Fridge a lot of people are already taking it, and it means they need it.”
Sack was recognized for his efforts at a Watertown Community Fridge Volunteer dinner last fall.
Another volunteer at the Fridge adds items every day, Sue Twombly said.
“She gets donations of bread and baked goods from Shaw’s every morning and so there is kind of a crowd that waits for her at 7:30 to come to the Fridge to get baked goods,” Sue said.
Sometimes a woman who likes to bake will take the items she does not plan to eat, and individually wraps them, and includes a list of ingredients when she donates the baked goods, said Dutton.
Kathy Cunningham, the coordinator of the Watertown Food Pantry, located in the basement of the same church that hosts the Community Fridge, will also help keep the Fridge stocked.
“I don’t really participate in the organization of the Fridge, But I mean, I’m their neighbor, I’m right here and I do have the opportunity on Tuesdays,” Cunningham said. “I fill it at 9 a.m. and then I fill it again at 1:30 p.m. If they’ll post something on Instagram saying the shelves are empty, I’m going to go out and fill it.”
While the concept is simple, keeping a free fridge stocked can be a challenge, and organizers want to make sure it is a reliable source of sustenance.
“A person who comes once or twice and its empty, they may not come back,” Sue said.
The Fridge serves as an attractive option to some who do not want to go to the Food Pantry, or cannot make it during the hours it is open (Tuesdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Watertown Food Pantry, Thursdays from 10 to 11:45 a.m. at the Catholic Collaborative Food Pantry). The Fridge is free, and people do not need to register or fill out any paperwork, and using it is anonymous.
“It’s hard to know for certain the number of people using the fridge,” Sue said. “The more we put in the more people who come.”
One of the main sources of food for the Fridge comes from a group at the Cambridge Community Center, or CCC. The center is located in the section of Cambridge between Central Square and Memorial Drive known as “the Coast,” and is an independent organization created by a group of Black pastors in 1929 because at that time the YMCA was for whites-only. The CCC offers a variety of programs such as after-school programs, teen activities, as well as community meals. During the Pandemic, it started running a food pantry, said CCC Community Engagement Coordinator Zack Goldhammer.
“I was originally an after school teacher here. Because of COVID-19 our classrooms were shut down and we were trying to figure out how we can serve the community and families that were coming to our after school programs,” Goldhammer said. “We started out by doing a lot of outreach, … and the main thing we heard was that people needed food, and they also needed basic supplies like diapers, and personal things like toilet paper, paper towels and other household items.”
The CCC partnered with some food rescue organizations in the Boston area, including Food for Free, and Lovin’ Spoonfuls. The food pantry at the CCC runs four days a week, and when the trucks from the food rescue groups arrive, volunteers operate like clockwork, unloading the truck, organizing the food, and setting it up on a line of tables for people to pick out what they’d like.
One of the CCC volunteers, Lawrence Battle (known by most as LB) said that they to work out some details with the City of Cambridge to accommodate the food pantry, such as more frequent pickups of recycling, since the cardboard produce boxes pile several feet high on the curb each day the food pantry is open.
After starting the food pantry, someone suggested the CCC started its own community fridge.
“None of us had ever heard of an idea of an outdoor community fridge, but once we heard the idea it made sense,” Goldhammer said. “Once the food pantry closed, we could put the leftovers outside in an outdoor fridge. People could pick it up, people who didn’t necessarily want to be seen waiting in a food pantry line. They could do it a little bit more discreetely. It solves a lot of problems for us.”
Battle said he was skeptical of the idea at first.
“It gets filled every day by us and by neighbors. They come out and fill it, come out and clean it,” he said. “I really didn’t think it would work at first, but it really works itself.”
With their own community fridge, the CCC got connected with people in other communities running their own fridges. People exchanged ideas about solving problems in an online chat group, and Goldhammer said he was able to ask if anyone wanted to take extra food off their hands. The sharing became a regular thing, and now the CCC provides food for fridges in Watertown, Roslindale, and Somerville.
Watertown’s Community Fridge was one of many that started during the Pandemic. Goldhammer said that Watertown’s fridge has been successful because of the dedicated group of volunteers that have gotten behind it. He said that a community fridges don’t run themselves, “they requires a lot of peoplepower to keep them going.”
“I think it is hard to keep consistent volunteers, especially because a lot of people who start out doing this work,” Goldhammer said. “A lot of students started these but then they get busy with their own work or their career or they move away. You have a lot of fridges that are set up but they are kind of like ghost fridges because they don’t have an active volunteer base. If you see a local community fridge in your neighborhood, know they probably need help, they probably need extra hands to do deliveries like these, to pick up from the pantries, to find excess sources of foods, and to redistribute food to the fridge.”
Volunteers from Watertown go to the CCC multiple days each week. Dutton and her husband, David Benson, go on Tuesdays and the Twomblys go on Fridays.
“We will take it back to Watertown and put probably about half of what we get today in the fridge immediately — that will be mid-afternoon — and by four or five o’clock that will be all gone, the shoppers will have come and taken it,” Will said. “And then we will bring the other half of what we get today back at about probably 5:30 or 6 o’clock tonight for folks who may be on their way home from work so that they will have an opportunity to bring something home with them as well.”
Some days the trip to the CCC does not prove very bountiful.
“The hardest part is going back and telling the shoppers who are waiting for us that we don’t have anything for them, that is very sad and very hard,” Will said.
On the day that Watertown News and Watertown Cable made the trip with the Twomblys, they were able to get a car-full of groceries, but that is not always the case, Sue said.
“Even here it depends on what the grocery stores are getting rid of,” she said. “It is seasonal, we’ve noticed that. It depends on what they don’t need or are giving away, or have excess of. so nobody knows how much they are going to have day-to-day even here at the CCC Food Pantry.”
One of the food rescue groups, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, has a route that collects food from stores in Watertown, and distributes it to several organizations including the Cambridge Community Center food pantry. Some of the food ends up in the Watertown Community Fridge.
Each weekday, 10 trucks from Lovin’ Spoonfuls go out across Massachusetts, including six in the Greater Boston area. They collect food from 85 stores and distribute the food to nearly 200 non-profit organizations. In 2022, the group rescued 4.3 million pounds of food and provided enough food for 3.3 million meals for more than 370,000 people facing food insecurity from Boston to Springfield, according to Lovin’ Spoonfuls.
Food Rescue coordinators Meghan Dawe and Zach Ward stopped by Roche Bros. in Watertown to collect food on their route this past October. They picked up bread, prepared food, dairy products and some produce. The day before they collected 600 pounds of milk. The previous stop was across the street at Target, where they got about 100 pounds of blueberries and 100 pounds of meat.
Sometimes food is at the “sell by” date, but is still in good condition.
“A lot of it comes down to your senses,” Ward said. “And, honestly, a lot of the food we get is produce, be it a peppers with a few wrinkles on it or an apple that just isn’t sale floor quality or maybe the stem comes out of the wrong side, or maybe it’s an orange that is a little bit misshapen, or maybe it’s a head of lettuce where the outer layer has wilted a bit.”
Other times the store has too many of one item.
“We got 100 pounds of blueberries that were in perfect condition,” Dawe said. “The reason we got them was because of a mis-order. They ordered 1, they got 11, so they had 10 cases they didn’t need. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those blueberries. It is something that we could take.”
After picking up the food, they decide which organization would benefit most from various items.
“So, we are able to look at these boxes and say this box that has all these family-sized things of chicken, those might not be the thing for a senior center where people are looking to take food just for themselves,” Dawe said. “One of the other really great things is that we have these really good relationships with all these partners, so we know the groups that are going to the places that will be cooking vs. we know the groups that are pantries vs. the people that are going to feed senior citizens.”
The CCC is known as a catch all, Ward said.
“I go there at the end of the day and give them between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of food, twice a week, which is great,” Ward said. “They are able to feed a ton of families. They have a fantastic network of volunteers working there, as well. When we get there they are ready to go and unload the truck. We have people there who are in the community helping out and we are able to get them great, fresh food that just helps put food on people’s tables.”
Next week, the series by Watertown News and WCA-TV concludes with some ideas from the people who are on the front lines of fighting food insecurity. The series is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Watertown Community Foundation.
Watertown Food Pantry: 80 Mt. Auburn St. (rear of the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church), Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. https://www.watertown-ma.gov/330/Watertown-Food-Pantry, 617-972-6490
Watertown Catholic Collaborative Food Pantry: 770 Mt. Auburn St. (basement), Thursdays from 10 to 11:45 a.m. https://watertowncatholic.com/news/food-pantry 617-926-7121
Watertown Community Fridge: 80 Mt. Auburn St. (Front of the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church), Open 24/7 https://www.watertowncommunityfridge.org/
Watertown Social Services Resource Specialists: at Wayside Multi-Service Center, 127 North Beacon St. https://www.watertown-ma.gov/673/Watertown-Social-Services-Resource-Speci 617-744-9585
Live Well Watertown/Watertown Farmers Market: City Hall, 149 Main St. 617-972-6446 x8 https://www.livewellwatertown.org/home
Watertown Community Foundation: https://www.watertownfoundation.org/ 617-926-1500
Food Pantry at American Legion Post 440: 295 California St., Newton, 3rd Fridays from 10 to 11 a.m. 617-244-0440
Centre Street Food Pantry: 11 Homer St., Newton, Tuesdays 2:30-6 p.m. & the first Saturday of the month from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. 617-340-9554
SNAP: (formerly Food Stamps) https://www.mass.gov/snap-benefits-formerly-food-stamps
Project Bread: https://www.projectbread.org/ Food Source Hotline (1-800-645-8333)