Wearing a medical face mask, Desuana Dubose holds open the glass door of a commercial refrigerator at the People’s Fridge on 52nd.

The People’s Fridge on 52nd is like an oasis in a desert. Located in front of Mina’s World, a small café located at 511 South 52nd street in West Philly, it is open 24 hours a day and kept stocked by community volunteers. Desuana Dubose, an administrative secretary in Cardiology, is one of those volunteers. People take what they need, Dubose said. “If someone is hungry and needs to empty the whole fridge, that’s fine. It’s about people putting in food and others taking it, any time of day.”

The People’s Fridge was started last summer by sisters Sonam and Sonia Parikh, in memory of their father who they lost to COVID. The café, which they run, provides the electricity, and the sisters oversee the initiative. The refrigerator is a commercial model, with glass doors like that found in a grocery store. Volunteers clean and maintain the fridge three times a day at a minimum and fill the fridge at least three times — and sometimes as much as six times — in a day.

Dubose first noticed the fridge as she did errands in the area and started donating via Venmo, “every other week — coinciding with getting paid” but she wanted to do more. She approached the sisters and they quickly brought her on board, one of about 20 volunteers who help at People’s Fridge. Volunteering in three-hour shifts, Dubose sometimes goes out and buys groceries. Other times, she helps unload the groceries and clean the refrigerator. “Neighbors and community members come and drop food off,” she said. “The fridge is open for donations 24/7, so we see people dropping things off all day long.”

And there’s an incentive for Friday fridge fills, she said. “If people want to shop for the fridge and drop it off, they’ll be reimbursed up to $100.” People can also bring prepared meals. “Just make sure it’s marked with all ingredients,” she said. All fridge items are welcome except raw meat and frozen food but the focus is mostly on “fresh produce, eggs, and dairy.”

Dubose plans to use her Penn Medicine CAREs grant to help fund food purchases. “We also have started connecting with small businesses that drop off their excess food after the sun goes down,” she said. “That way our fridge is full all night. We support our local businesses, and they support us.”

Dubose stressed that the People’s Fridge is “mutual aid, not a charity. The goal is to eliminate food waste and provide healthy and accessible food to anyone who wants it. Take what you need and leave what you don’t.

“Mutual aid is so important, especially in the past year. I think it’s more important to invest in the community where you live rather than waiting for government,” Dubose said. “The bigger picture can be overwhelming — people don’t know where to begin. But starting in your community, you can make a lot of strides.”

Learn more about the People’s Fridge on Facebook or on Instagram (@the fridgeon52nd).

Penn Medicine Cares LogoSince 2011, Penn Medicine CAREs has provided grants to over 730 service initiatives across the region Penn Medicine serves, from Philadelphia and Lancaster and Chester counties to the suburbs and shore communities of New Jersey. So far, more than $735,000 has been awarded to support these volunteer efforts.

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