One of the most disastrous effects of the COVID crisis is food insecurity, which could affect up to 50 million Americans this year.
But for Daniel Zauderer (M.A. ’17), a sixth-grade humanities teacher at the American Dream School (a Bronx-based charter founded by fellow TC alumna Melissa Melkonian to serve English language learners), one of the most indelible images is from before the pandemic began: the sight of a student’s grandmother rummaging in a trash bin for cans and bottles.
“My student told me her grandmother had to do this every day to get enough money to provide the family with food,” recalls Zauderer.
This past September, after watching food insecurity reach crisis levels in American Dream’s Mott Haven neighborhood and other areas of the city, Zauderer and fellow teacher Charlotte Alvarez launched the Mott Haven Community Fridge, a food distribution center which operates outside a 141st Street bodega.
The response has been overwhelming.
People come out in droves when a food drop happens because there is so much need.
— Daniel Zauderer (M.A. '17)
“People come out in droves when a food drop happens because there is so much need,” Zauderer says, adding that the center — which is, literally, a refrigerator surrounded by boxes of produce — typically distributes 600 or more pounds of free fruit, vegetables, dairy, bread, meat, poultry and other essentials on any given day.
The Mott Haven Fridge is one of nearly 70 fridges that have popped up this year in neighborhoods across all five New York City boroughs.
The projects, though independent, operate in partnerships with neighborhood and citywide non-profits.
The Mott Haven Fridge receives support from the Bronx Community Foundation and donations through a GoFundMe page. Youth artists have also contributed their talents by transforming the Mott Haven Fridge's fridge from an appliance into what Zauderer calls “a piece of public art that has become part of the fabric of the community in a way that supersedes basic needs.”
Zauderer says the project has also become a model of a community engagement in which neighbors go the extra mile to take care of one another.
“One of our best people is a woman who is battling cancer and has an autistic child, yet shows up every single week to do a full-on cleaning of the fridge just to pay it forward,” he says. “She uses food from fridge and, in return, makes sure the fridge is clean and the deliveries run smoothly.”
In general, he adds, “the families that struggle are the families that help out. Everyone is on an equal playing field. There is no hierarchy — everyone gives what they can and takes what they need.”
The families that struggle are the families that help out. Everyone is on an equal playing field. There is no hierarchy — everyone gives what they can and takes what they need.
— Daniel Zauderer (M.A. '17)
Zauderer says that his decision to launch the Mott Haven Fridge grew directly out of his experience in TC’s program in Applied Linguistics & TESOL (the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages).
“I chose the program because it had an excellent academic reputation, but it also stressed the importance of a holistic, educational response to the communities we serve,” he says. “The philosophy is that teachers need to step outside the traditional role by becoming stewards in our communities. Or to put it more simply, ‘we need to reach them to teach them’ — and it’s hard to reach your kids if they’re hungry.”
In fact, Zauderer’s former professors and mentors have backed those words with financial support for the Fridge — as has the TC Community Choir, which Zauderer sang in as a student, and to which he still belongs.
“We support one another’s projects that affect the broader, global community,” he says. “And that’s the way an ideal society should be — caring about one another’s causes as much as we care about our own.”
To date, Zauderer and Alvarez have raised just over $30,000 through GoFundMe and other sources — a gratifying response, but far short of what’s needed for warehousing capacity and other measures that would enable the Fridge to expand its reach.
“We desperately need support to sustain and grow this network to keep reaching families and feeding families,” Zauderer says. “The work of a community fridge is only as sustainable as the support the community gives it.”
— Steve Giegerich