I also think it’s important to start food education in schools as early as possible. Teaching children about nutrition and engaging in activities such as basic kitchen skills, meal prep, and how to grow their own food would be valuable for fostering a healthy relationship towards food. Adult education would be beneficial as well. Even if healthy food was available in a food desert, people still may gravitate towards the cheaper, more shelf stable food — we want people to understand the value of healthy food. Along these lines, providing spaces like community gardens, seed sharing, kitchen classrooms, and the materials to go along with these projects would be a great investment into the community.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lea Rose.

Lea Rose is the founder and organizer for The Chelsea Community Fridge & Cupboard, a mutual aid initiative based in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that opened in September 2020. The fridge and cupboard operate on a “take what you need, leave what you can, no questions asked” basis and aims to close the loop between food insecurity and food waste.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My professional career has always been food-focused, and I have spent the past few years working in the wholesale departments for bakeries and coffee roasters. While in this career and living in the extremely restaurant-heavy Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, I’ve always been extremely aware of the juxtaposition of businesses throwing out perfectly edible food out onto the sidewalks that so many people call home. It was something I saw every day, but I had never felt compelled to do anything significant about it, and it was actually the lack of a job that pushed me to take action.

I got laid off in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and like many others, had the economic and racial disparities in the world intensely magnified for me during this time. I had read about community fridges popping up around the city on Grub Street, and felt inspired to start my own, as there were very few in Manhattan at that point. I made an Instagram account for the fridge to hold myself accountable to actually make it happen, found a host (Xavier Mission), got my landlord to donate a fridge, and assembled a small team garnered mostly through social media. Less than a year later and we now have over 60 volunteers with over 40 scheduled food rescues per week, and we’re growing pretty fast!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I think the most interesting and unexpected part of opening the community fridge and cupboard was the amount of people I would meet! I was able to connect with so many new people over the past year, strangely probably more than I would have if there had been no pandemic. Our volunteers only connected virtually for the first few months and we are slowly all starting to meet each other. Same with our guests — there are some people we see every day and we’ve gotten to know about each other’s lives. I’m still meeting volunteers and more guests even now, and it’s been fascinating to somehow feel like we are all family in the short time we have known each other — what ties us strongly together is the common goal of helping our community and the environment.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Success is a hard thing to qualify with a community fridge. It’s open 24/7/365, but we don’t monitor it because we want people to be able to visit without feeling any judgement, so we don’t always see who is visiting the space and what they’re doing. I guess I started feeling a twinge of success once our team started really getting to know our other neighbors. We recognize people who drop things off every so often, and we have a lot of regular guests, some who stop by every day. Some of our visitors have become formal volunteers with us as well. It’s great to see people utilize the fridge and cupboard for themselves, while also giving back by organizing items, helping us clean, or spreading the word about the fridge to their friends. Chatting with our guests and having the personal connection there is incredibly motivating for me. I went into this to fight for two specific causes — ending food insecurity and food waste — but now I keep in mind specific neighbors that I’m fighting for.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Not just one person, but our entire team of volunteers. I am constantly inspired and amazed by their level of hard work, commitment, and creativity, and there’s absolutely no way I could pull this off without them. Everyone pours so much time and effort into maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for our neighbors to get nutrition, which is particularly impressive as none of us had ever met in person the first few months after our inception, and some of us still haven’t met each other. I love when volunteers take ownership of different aspects of the fridge, such as managing the relationship with one of our donation partners, or taking charge of reaching out to places for product donations. Not to mention, they’ve been a great emotional support when I’ve needed it — running this thing is no joke, it can be physically and mentally exhausting and it’s so reassuring to know that we’ve all got each other’s back.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Patience, positivity, persistence! It didn’t occur to me until I gained a sizable volunteer team that I would be managing not just volunteers, but an array of very different personalities. There are so many opinions regarding mutual aid work and it’s been tough trying to figure out how to please everyone while still running everything efficiently, and that’s where patience comes into play. I try really hard to be as neutral as possible when there’s an argument among volunteers, while also staying true to our mission.

This kind of work can also be very draining — it’s rough knowing the amount of need out there and knowing we can’t solve everyone’s problems right away. Staying positive can be hard, but it’s important to keep everyone’s (and my own) spirits up, bounce back from any setbacks, and remind everyone that every little bit of work we’re doing goes a long way.

Persistence applies on all levels, and for me, it only works hand in hand with patience and positivity. Whether it be getting places to donate or finding new volunteers or keeping the energy levels in our group high, it’s important to keep pressing on, while also making sure everything evolves in a mindful way. I’ve already had a few times where I’ve suffered from burnout, and will admit that I’ve wanted to give up on even just being involved with the fridge. I’ve always had to remember that the quest to close the loop between food insecurity and food waste was never going to be easy, and balancing these three traits is key to keeping everything running efficiently.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s really easy to get frustrated in this endeavor and there have been a number of times that I’ve had to ground myself with this quote.

Our policy at the fridge and cupboard is that anyone can take what they need, which to some people, translates to as much as they want — and that’s okay! The first time I saw two people completely emptying out the contents of the cupboard into rolling suitcases, I was extremely upset that they weren’t sharing with the rest of the community, especially after I worked so hard to stock and organize the cupboard! I had to calm down and remember that I’ve never been in that position of need, and I don’t know what measures I would take if I was in their position. Someone who doesn’t have stability in their food schedule is naturally going to take as much food as they possibly can if they come across it as a method of survival,, and I’ve never been able to relate to that. I also always have to remember that when I see someone taking more than I think they should, that I don’t know anything about what they are going through. They might be taking food for their families or neighbors, they might live completely off of this food only for the foreseeable future.

We just don’t know what people are going through, and I would rather channel my energy towards rescuing food and redirecting it out of the waste system, rather than questioning people’s motives. I truly believe there is enough food for everyone that wants it, it will just take a lot of work to get to a place where no one suffers from food insecurity.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

A food desert is an area in which there is a severe lack of food options that are both affordable and nutritious, particularly fresh food. Places to buy food may exist in these spaces, but items such as produce and other fresh items may not be readily available.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

Public health and safety concerns are the big consequences. Malnutrition, obesity, high blood pressure, mental health issues, the list of medical conditions goes on. People living in food deserts are more likely to either have unbalanced diets or even skip meals. Poor nutrition can also lead to social and behavioral problems for children while in school, which in turn can affect them both educationally and economically — the effects of living in a food desert can leave a lasting impact.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

Grocers are always going to go where the money is. Areas with food deserts tend to be both low income and lower in population — these problems will often exacerbate over time, and only worsened more quickly with the pandemic.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

We believe that access to healthy food shouldn’t be something that only privileged people can obtain — it’s one’s right. Community fridges serve to provide nutrition for everyone, and they are also a place where ideally people can go and find food assistance without feeling any shame.

Our neighborhood of Chelsea isn’t a food desert, as there are a lot of healthy and affordable food options available, but there is certainly a lack of places where anyone can get free nutrition without feeling the stigma of being needy. We wanted to create a safe and welcoming environment where guests can come and go, and take or give as needed without any judgement.

At the same time, we are also making strides to end food waste. I believe that hunger could be ended, and that there is enough food to go around for everyone, but this hasn’t been solved because there’s no immediate incentive for people to minimize food waste. It’s just so much easier to throw leftover food into the trash and never think about it again. We try to make rescuing food waste easier for donors — we’ll pick up food and re-portion or wrap items as needed, so that our partners don’t have to make that effort that may be a barrier to donating.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with the fridge and cupboard when I hear stories that seem small, but mean the whole world to me. Like when someone tells me they were thirsty, and came across the fridge filled with bottled water. Or when I see people get super excited when we fill the fridge with tons of fresh produce. I also love when people try something new because of the fridge — one time I picked up these huge bags of donated herbs, like tarragon, rosemary and dill, and gave them out to people who had never cooked with them before. Another sweet thing is that guests will sometimes leave thank you notes to our volunteers in the cupboard. Little moments like this make me really proud of what we’ve accomplished as a whole, and inspire me to keep the momentum going.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

New York State just recently passed an excess food waste law requiring grocery stores to donate excess food to charities and other local distribution sites — a measure that was first taken by France. I haven’t seen this enforced yet in the city as it just went into action a couple of weeks ago, but I would love to see this become mandatory everywhere!

For areas without this law, I would recommend giving incentives or making it easier for businesses to donate food. Although the incentive should be as simple as feeding your neighbors and saving the planet, many people are fortunate enough to not feel the urgency of these issues, and need a gentle push in the right direction to make a difference. Sometimes people just don’t want to redirect their excess food because it takes some extra work. We’ll often pick up from places that will throw a ton of food into a garbage bag, then throw that bag on the sidewalk — all we do is step in and take the bag from them before it hits the pavement, so the donor doesn’t have to exert any extra effort in order to donate their excess food.

Then, of course, there’s the problem of getting this food to the nutritionally under-served areas. More public support for community fridges or traveling food pantries would be helpful, as well as providing these entities with healthier food — a lot of food pantries typically have more shelf stable food rather than fresh, since it’s hard for them to store them. Healthy food should also be made available at a lower cost to the retailers already in these communities.

I also think it’s important to start food education in schools as early as possible. Teaching children about nutrition and engaging in activities such as basic kitchen skills, meal prep, and how to grow their own food would be valuable for fostering a healthy relationship towards food. Adult education would be beneficial as well. Even if healthy food was available in a food desert, people still may gravitate towards the cheaper, more shelf stable food — we want people to understand the value of healthy food. Along these lines, providing spaces like community gardens, seed sharing, kitchen classrooms, and the materials to go along with these projects would be a great investment into the community.

I’d also love to see SNAP and WIC benefits cover a wider range of items, as there are some essentials that aren’t included. In New York State, for example, these benefits do not cover prepared hot foods — this can be the only option for a hot meal for a person who does not have a kitchen. Toiletries also aren’t covered, and it may be a choice for someone to purchase necessary hygiene items versus healthier food. Any additional support that could be provided around non-food items can potentially directly help people purchase better food.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?

Of course, I have immense respect for anyone else who has started a community fridge — there’s over 100 in the NYC area now (you can find a map of them here). I’ve also been following Heart of Dinner for a while — they don’t specifically address food deserts, but their concept would work really well in a food desert. They are an amazing organization that delivers food to Asian elderly who may not be able to or may not want to travel to get a healthy meal, which is such a valuable service for this demographic especially during this time.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I’d actually implement some guidelines for community fridges — right now there aren’t any direct laws or regulations dealing with them since they are fairly new in the city, so what is or isn’t allowed is a bit unclear. I don’t want them to be over-regulated, but knowing what is or isn’t actually allowed would be really helpful. Most of the fridges follow similar protocol, but there are some varying guidelines — for example, we don’t allow raw meat or fish in our fridge, but some fridges do, which can be confusing for people donating to multiple fridges. Some clarity in guidelines would make things easier for people who are donating and would give all of us who run the fridges some peace of mind.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to run a fleet of traveling food trucks that operate just like the community fridges — they would pick up potential food waste, ideally with a focus on fresh produce, and travel to food deserts to distribute everything. It would be awesome if they could involve a team of chefs using food waste to create healthy meals!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Chef Jose Andres! I’m so impressed by his work with World Central Kitchen, and his dedication to feeding others has been a huge inspiration for me.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow @thechelseafridge on Instagram for community fridge related content, and @leamandarose to keep up with me!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.