If you recently passed by a now-empty, gray-brick building on East 7th Street that used to serve as the offices of CMPD’s Metro Division, you may have seen something that looked out of place: a refrigerator adorned with colorful spray-painted floral artwork and the words “Da Village, Free H20 and Food.” The bright free food fridge stood out among the backdrop of the plain building across from Spirit Square in Uptown.
Shamelle Jackson, founder of local nonprofit Da Village Pop-Up Shop, which hosts free pop-up markets for those dealing with food insecurity and homelessness, put the free food fridge there on July 13 to help provide food and water to the large population of homeless neighbors in the area.
Just a few blocks away, a large homeless encampment that’s become known as Tent City has continued to grow throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Operating similarly to the “little free libraries” that have become popular in Charlotte and around the country, the fridge was put there to supply anyone walking by who might need a snack or hydration in the summer heat.
Just weeks after placing the fridge at the location on East 7th Street, Jackson posted on Da Village’s Instagram feed on Aug. 9 that it had been vandalized and needed to be removed. Jackson stated in the post that she had been restocking the fridge twice a day, but found it damaged beyond repair during a visit over the weekend.
“When I pulled up with my children to see that mess I was so hurt and upset,” Jackson wrote. “All I do is for the GOOD!”
Most people recognize that, however, and thanks to donations from her supporters, Jackson won’t let the speed bump stop her. Over the last month, community members donated five more refrigerators to the cause. Not only will Jackson replace the Uptown fridge, she plans to place free fridges across the city.
Jackson told Queen City Nerve she plans to put a free fridge in NoDa by Wednesday or Thursday, and in the coming weeks will place new ones in Uptown and on West Boulevard, Albemarle Road and South Boulevard.
A Market for Those Who Need It Most
Jackson, a mother of four, launched Da Village Pop-Up Shop last year. She is a survivor of domestic abuse and had dealt with homelessness herself.
“I’ve lived in a shelter before while being pregnant and I used to always think, like, dang, why are people just not helping?” Jackson told Queen City Nerve.
From the start, the organization’s mission was to provide clothing, hygiene, and cosmetic items for homeless and low-income citizens in Charlotte. Jackson hosted events across the city to raise money and collect donations, including pop-up clothing markets with free food vendors and music playing, giving them a block party vibe. Those in need could shop without worrying about the cost of each item, as everything was donated and being offered for free.
Then came the idea for a community fridge, which operates similar to the “little free libraries” that have become popular in Charlotte and around the country. The idea is simple enough: Stock a refrigerator in an area where folks can really use it, and continue to stock it as needed, with help from community supporters who donate directly to Jackson or stock the fridges themselves.
Charlotte’s First Free Food Fridge Comes to Fruition
The community fridge concept didn’t start with Da Village Pop-Up; Jackson was inspired by similar programs in other cities across the country. When she went to Minnesota in May for the George Floyd protests, she found a community-based garden that offered produce, water and perishable foods for free. Jackson came home and scoured social media for similar concepts, coming across a free food fridge in New York.
After hours spent researching how these fridges were set up, what the upkeep looked like, and where to begin, she got to work on Charlotte’s first food fridge.
Amazingly, from the initial call to action to the actual implementation of the fridge, everything came to fruition in the span of one day. Jackson shared a post on her personal social media account and within 24 hours received her first donation: the fridge itself.
“It was that quick,” Jackson affirmed.
What followed was a flurry of donations, kind messages, and volunteer offers. At its core, Da Village Pop-Up Shop strives to show love and appreciation for Charlotte and Charlotte has returned that love tenfold, Jackson maintained.
Since the free food fridge program began in July, Jackson has received pounds of fresh food, cases of bottled water, as well as a donation of four new fridges from one eager follower.
Free Food Fridges Offer Relief Without the Stigma
With the help of community members, Da Village Pop-Up Shop is battling food insecurity in Charlotte through direct action. According to the USDA, food security is defined as, “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
Food fridges offer a service that curbs the stigma often associated with food pantries. Though both are donation-based, community fridges allow patrons anonymity, offering a sense of dignity –– no paperwork to fill out or arbitrary criteria to meet — while not forcing people to ask for favors from organizations or passersby. It’s simply a resource that’s there for whomever needs it.
“The fridges aren’t just for the homeless,” Jackson shared, “it’s for anybody that just wants to get anything out of there.”
When we spoke to Jackson in early August, she told the story of a man who, in need of hydration, picked up a half-empty bottle of water off of the ground as if he was about to drink it. Jackson’s heart broke at the sight, and she grew concerned for the risks of such behaviors during a pandemic. She let him know that he didn’t have to drink that water and gave him a fresh water bottle from the free food fridge.
“We’re not responsible to a certain extent,” Jackson continued, “but to a certain extent, we are responsible for each other.”
Anyone can give and anyone can take from the fridge without the fear of judgment or the stigma that comes with asking for help. Community fridges also make fresh food more accessible to people in our community that may not have the resources to shop at traditional grocery stores.
Da Village Pop Up Shop Meets a Growing Need
In the coming months, as the end of the eviction moratorium becomes a growing issue for lower-income residents of Charlotte, so does the need for community support. Ongoing evictions paired with the end of pandemic unemployment assistance is a recipe for disaster as we navigate the new normal brought on by COVID-19.
More and more people are at risk of losing their homes and entire livelihoods every single day –– though having a home doesn’t necessarily mean that people have the means to get their needs met.
Jackson’s free fridge plan started where the needs are currently most urgent, but she plans to install more community fridges throughout the city –– two in NoDa and two in Uptown to start. She hopes to connect with local businesses and launch more fridges to expand the reach of Da Village’s services.
Da Village Pop-Up Shop is always looking for folks to volunteer their time, money, or resources to help the community. You can find the organization’s first free food fridge at 119 E. 7th St., with more to follow as the organization grows.