When fourth year Math and Economics student and SGA Undergraduate Vice President of External Affairs Rupkatha Banerjee first started volunteering with Atlanta’s Free99 Fridge, she knew she wanted to bring a similar concept to Midtown.
“It’s entirely no strings attached, put in what you can, take out what you want—a free fridge and pantry network with locations in Clarkston, and several in downtown,” she said. Free99 did not have any locations in Midtown, so Banerjee and Grace Swift decided to start one. She settled on a location in Grace House on Georgia Tech’s campus.
The Midtown Free Fridge connects Georgia Tech to the Atlanta community and provides mutual aid.
Mutual Aid is a key component to the foundations of the Midtown Free Fridge, and the Free99 Fridge network. While the Midtown Free Fridge is not part of the Free99 Fridge Network, it was heavily inspired by the Free99 Fridge.
Mutual Aid, according to Banerjee, differs from charity because it involves community members lifting each other up. While charity puts responsibility on economically advantaged people and can create a power dynamic, mutual aid is centered around all people helping each other.
“Mutual aid is more about community members connecting with each other in a way that creates resources and self sustaining frameworks and initiatives that allows the community to survive on its own. So it’s about community members working together to create things like the community fridge or like clothing drives or support their community members in a way that doesn’t rely on a higher political organization,” she said.
Banerjee said another key component to the fridge is de-stigmatizing taking free food. Anyone on or off campus can put food in the fridge, and anyone can take food out of it regardless of need.
“I’ve had conversations with a lot of people that are like, I don’t know whether I should stop by and grab food because I’m not the one who needs it the most. And I think the point of a free fridge collective and something that’s like, so no strings attached is that everybody deserves access to free and fresh food even if they can afford food, right? Our fridge is always stocked and we want people to take advantage of this resource,” she said.
“The core idea that founded the fridge is that regardless of an economic standing, everybody should have access to free and fresh food and we shouldn’t be paying for it. It’s a fundamental resource that I think people are being consistently deprived of,” she said.
Banerjee mentioned that while Tech has a plethora of resources for students experiencing food insecurity, there are often barriers to access and stigma. The free fridge, however, seeks to remove stigma and red tape.
“We kind of remove all of the requirements surrounding getting food, and we don’t monitor … whether or not they’re suffering from food insecurity, and if they need food assistance, if we make it as anonymous as possible, and just allow people to come and go at their leisure, it takes away that stigma from being able to access food,” she said.
The pantry and fridge are located in the back of Grace House on 5th Street. Banerjee said that she considered establishing the fridge in an off-campus spot to make it more accessible to the Midtown area. She asked several Midtown businesses and nonprofits, but eventually settled on Grace House.
The nonprofits that Banerjee originally connected with provided help in getting the word out about the fridge, even though they did not host the fridge themselves. The Arthur Blank YMCA hands out fliers on the fridge to encourage the community around Georgia Tech to visit the fridge. They specifically encouraged families living in subsidized housing in Centennial Heights, a community close to Georgia Tech’s campus, to visit the fridge.
“Several families from Centennial came and visited our fridge, so we were able to make that connection with Atlanta last semester. But that’s something we want to keep doing, making sure Midtown community members and the Greater Atlanta community can access the fridge. So we can tackle food insecurity not only on our campus, but also in surrounding areas,” she said.
She noted that Georgia Tech students are often unaware of the challenges the community around them faces.
“Tech kind of internalizes its own problems and doesn’t do a very good job of interfacing with issues that it’s surrounded by. Despite the fact that as an institute or doing more anchor institution work, which means we’re figuring out what it means to be a staple in the Atlanta like political environment and Atlanta economic environment and trying to increase employment and better engage with Atlanta, in that sense. Because we realize that we’re a very integral part of Atlanta’s economic landscape,” she said.
While she appreciates the student-led organizations that are fostering connections with Atlanta, she would like to see the student body as a whole become more involved in mutual aid.
“As students, I feel like we I feel like there, there are a lot of student led opportunities to engage with Atlanta, like common good. In terms of mutual aid, and tackling issues that are more fundamental to what Atlanta residents need, it definitely can feel like we’re incredibly disconnected from that, even though we’re in a unique position to help tackle it,” she continued, “So something that we’ve been trying to do in SGA is make sure students are more connected with Atlanta mutual aid. That’s definitely something we need to reflect on, which is not something that we’ve been able to successfully cement this year. We want to connect students with mutual aid opportunities to the best of their capacity,” she said.
Banerjee has clear goals for the future of the Midtown Free Fridge. While the fridge is almost always stocked because of students and organizations donating food, she would like to expand the options even more.
“What we would like to do is develop relationships with restaurants in the area so they can donate their leftovers to us and just be able to open up another location,” she said. She would also like to open up a second location on the periphery of campus, which would have less barriers to access for people in the community.
She said that, while the Free Fridge was started by SGA at Georgia Tech, “ this is something that belongs to the community and we want to make sure that we expand it. And we want to make it as much of a part of the community as we possibly can.”