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When Eloísa Trinidad teamed up with New York activist Power Malu to help her community, she knew it needed to align with her values: ending the exploitation of animals.
Trinidad is the executive director of Chilis on Wheels New York, a nonprofit with regional affiliates that focus on making veganism accessible to communities in need through sharing meals, providing food relief, and toiletries and clothing that don’t use animal products. She’s also the executive director of the Vegan Activist Alliance, a New York organization that fights to end animal exploitation.
Together with Malu, Trinidad started Overthrow Community Fridge in New York City to provide nutritious, plant-based foods to people in need. By supporting her neighbors with healthy foods, Trinidad is also able to stay true to her beliefs.
How the Overthrow Community Fridge Came About
Trinidad works and lives in New York City.
She met her co-organizer, Malu, only two weeks before the fridge launched.
Her organization, Chilis on Wheels New York, has been providing pandemic food relief over the past year. Through the Department of Education, Trinidad and her team were delivering food to families in some of the most impoverished schools in New York City, where food and housing insecurity is prevalent.
She was introduced to Malu by a vegan restaurant owner, and they quickly bonded over their discomfort that city was providing families with unhealthy, animal-based foods.
“We started talking and he tells me, ‘I’ve been doing pandemic relief, I’m vegan, and it’s no longer OK for me to be providing this food that I know is contributing to the illnesses of my community,’” Trinidad said.
What they mean is that eating red meat and processed meats increases the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers.
Delivering animal-based foods to people in need was conflicting for Malu, who know that a plant-based diet is healthier and can help them more.
“[He told me] ‘I’m going into these homes, and I’m seeing people having all of these different medications. And I’m asking them, ‘What’s the ailment that you have or the illness that you have?’ And it was chronic diseases, so diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and so he came at it from that angle,’” Trinidad said.
The duo realized that they could provide healthier foods to help people in need by starting their own community fridge.
Setting up the Overthrow Community Fridge
A community fridge supplies free food and household supplies to people who have limited access to fresh groceries. For Latinos and other people of color who facing a rise in food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a community fridge is a tremendous benefit.
While it varies from city to city, many community fridges are set up close to businesses and highly populated areas where people need food.
In addition to being a community organizer and activist, Malu is also the Director of Community Affairs & Special Events at the Overthrow Boxing Club. So that seemed like a logical place to set up the community fridge.
It only took Malu and Trinidad two weeks before it was up and running.
Because of their extensive network with different community organizations in the city, it was easy to get people involved in setting it up.
They’ve also reached out and connected with local supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers to get plant-based foods for the fridge.
By picking up foods that are reaching their expiration dates in stores, they’re able to prevent food waste, which is another big concern for Trinidad.
“At least 40% of our food that we produce in the US is being wasted. And it’s going into landfills, perfectly edible food,” Trinidad said.
However, even with sourcing extra food from local grocers and receiving donations from the public, it has still been difficult for Trinidad and her team to keep the fridge fully stocked.
“The biggest challenge is keeping the fridge full. We are in an area where most people perceive it as a high-income, wealthy area, there’s a lot of boutiques and fancy restaurants. But there’s also seven shelters, there are also people commuting from other neighborhoods that don’t have higher incomes. There are also students in the area that are food insecure, a lot of those students may be going to college, there’s NYU there as well,” Trinidad said.
“And so because there’s such a diversity of people, from the unsheltered to those folks who are unhoused but living in shelters, to families who have lost their jobs, people really do come to the fridge for their food.”
With such a high demand of plant-based food, Trinidad noticed that even essential workers like food delivery drivers needed supplies.
“It’s just so heartbreaking that there’s people delivering food who can’t afford food, and it’s the same case with people who are picking our food and our produce, not being able to afford food. And so it’s such a realization that the need is so much greater,” Trinidad said.
Fighting the Stigma Against Healthy, Plant-Based Eating
Along with providing people with free and healthy food, one of the goals for Trinidad is to get rid of the idea that healthy food is only for wealthy people.
“Our goal is to provide education for our community members on how to eat plant-based and for their health and food justice from various angles. There’s a lot of shame in people who are asking for food. When people receive SNAP benefits and they go into a health food store or even a Whole Foods, they’re ashamed. We want to get rid of that stigma, we want to get rid of the gatekeeping, that this is only for people of a certain background or certain socio-economic background. Because health is for everyone and liberation is for everyone,” Trinidad said.
Trinidad wants veganism and plant-based eating to be accessible to everyone.
Unfortunately, like many aspects of the modern wellness movement, veganism is often white-washed and made too expensive to lower income communities or communities of color, according to Trinidad.
“I think the wellness industry itself, beyond veganism, whether you’re talking about yoga or meditation, has been so co-opted. It’s become a multibillion-dollar industry, where there’s a lot of gatekeeping, you see people who traditionally would teach yoga being shunned. There’s always the face of the young white woman. And that’s the face of veganism, or yoga, or any of these sort of wellness initiatives. And that’s problematic on many levels,” Trinidad said.
Trinidad highlights how plant-based eating has existed for centuries around the world. But due to colonialism and oppressive regimes that exploited the food systems in non-European countries, the knowledge to create plant-based eating was taken away.
Today in the U.S., many low-income, communities of color are left without resources to create plant-based meals and are stuck eating unhealthy options.
For example, fast food and corner stores outnumber supermarkets and farmers’ markets in many Latino neighborhoods, according to a Salud America! research review.
“Very rarely do we talk about how many people are dying, either because of food insecurity or because they’re eating food that’s not healthy. We don’t talk about how children in school are at a disadvantage because they’re not receiving the proper nutrition,” Trinidad said.
We can fix this through re-educating people about healthy eating, according to Trinidad.
She also learned this from a nutrition workshop that she taught through Medicaid on how to use plant-based eating as a way to heal the body instead of solely relying on medicine or drugs.
In the class, she discovered that Latino immigrants ate healthier in their home countries, and that plant-based foods were stigmatized for being the only option for poor people.
“When they were in their country, they were much healthier, because they were eating more plant-based. Then they came here, eating all the different fast food, and obviously a lot of these people are working multiple jobs, so it’s hard to cook more. In other countries, eating plant-based is more affordable, but here, it’s the opposite – processed, fast food is cheaper. They’re equating eating more meat with a higher income bracket, but not realizing that eating more animal products was leading to them being unhealthy. So that’s something that specifically happens within our Latino community,” Trinidad said.
The Future: Systemic Change Beyond Community Fridges
While Trinidad and the Overthrow Community Fridge team hope to open more sites where people in need can get free food, she sees a need for broader, systemic change as well.
“This is one fridge. And definitely we want to plan more, but it’s immediate relief, and we need systemic change. What we saw during this pandemic was that, in New York City and New York state and across the country, the federal government could say, ‘We threw all this money at food insecurity and hunger.’ But people were hungrier than ever, because the communities are never included in these conversations,” Trinidad said.
Future systemic change around food insecurity must involve the communities at need so that food waste isn’t created, according to Trinidad.
“Going to the schools, the students telling me, ‘I don’t want to eat this food.’ The students are going hungry, because they’re not listened to. And so that’s one of the biggest issues within food policy in this country, and even food justice, where there’s no conversation with the community, and it creates an incredible amount of food waste, and then it still leaves people hungry,” Trinidad said.
If you want to create change to the food systems in your community, you can start small.
“We definitely want to empower everyone to do the best they can in whatever way they can. Even if that means just rescuing food from your local supermarket and sharing it with five folks in your community,” Trinidad said.
To start your own community fridge, Trinidad recommends utilizing community and mutual aid resources and making connections with local grocers.
“Tap into your community and the mutual aid network. We come from a mutual aid perspective of empowering the community, so involve the community in what you’re doing. Reach to your local supermarkets or local growers and farmers and say, ‘Hey, what are you not selling? What’s your excess food and rescue food?’ The biggest challenge is keeping it stocked, so build those relationships that are going to help you with those costs, whether those are local restaurants, growers, farmers, and so on,” Trinidad said.
They hope to continue to provide access to food to those in need.
“Food that grows from the ground is a natural right,” Trinidad said. “We are on a planet where there’s so much land, no human being on this planet should own land to the point where others don’t have access to it. We should be able to grow food, and every being on this planet should have access to that food.”
Image Credit: Photos provided by Trinidad. Image on right in main graphic is by Mikiodo Media.
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.