Christophe De Vargas
Saturday 25 September 2021 | 2 a.m
A wooden structure nestled behind two palm trees in the front yard of a house on Blackthorn Drive in Sunrise Manor can be seen as drivers make their way to the east end of Las Vegas.
The slanted roof and white-painted planks house a vibrantly decorated large fridge, stamped with a seagreen shark that wields curved octopus-shaped arms tossing produce into its gaping mouth.
The refrigerator and accompanying pantry is titled âThe Solidarity Refrigerator,â which was created by resident Victoria Flores. Pink neon signs are pinned above the fridge and covered with drawn sunflowers. A sign reads: âCommunity refrigerator and pantry are all welcome. “
This message rings true for the members of the community he serves, said Flores.
âThe community feeds you back,â she said. âYou put love in your community and then they give you love back. “
Flores erected the refrigerator near Charleston Boulevard and Christy Lane on May 1, International Workers’ Day. The pantry is usually stocked with foods like dried beans, bags of rice, and canned soups, while the refrigerator holds produce and bottled water. Residents will rarely see highly processed junk food or sugary treats, Flores said.
“I will not refuse donations unless they are opened or expired,” she said. âIf I didn’t eat it, I wouldn’t leave it here. But that’s another thing I want our communities to learn more about: healthier alternatives instead of all the junk we eat.
Like the miniature free libraries that populate certain areas of Las Vegas, the refrigerator feeds on donations from other Las Vegans, though Flores says she will restock it if needed. The fridge allows residents to take what they need and give what they can while enriching the neighborhood and the people who live there, which is more widely known as mutual aid.
â¢ â¢ â¢
Reciprocity is the key to mutual aid projects, said Robert Futrell, professor and chair of the sociology department at UNLV. Charity involves one person giving to another, he said, while self-help movements benefit the two or more groups that interact with them, but not necessarily equally.
This practice has been common in underprivileged communities for years, Futrell said, as mutual aid projects often fill a gap in government assistance to those in need. Futrell said he believed during the pandemic that need became more urgent. âWe’re going through a long disaster, sort of,â he said. âWithin what we might call ‘marginalized’ communities, marginalized from the mainstream or marginalized in accessing resources and support servicesâ¦ (communities) are filling the void by providing aid together. “
When Gia Santos – a single mother who lives down the road from the refrigerator with her three children, two dogs and a cat – lost her job in property management in April 2020, she used UI and then the rent assistance for over a year to keep his family afloat.
But the addition of the refrigerator in May brought much needed relief. Santos said she now pays a quarter of what she used to pay at the grocery store, visiting the fridge once a week for essentials like rice, beans, canned goods, and produce. pet food, supplied by resident Malia Meyer.
âIt’s just a feeling of gratitude, and it’s nice to know that someone cares about the struggles people are going through during this time,â Santos said. “It was very reassuring, and she just made it so comfortable for anyone to go to the fridge when needed.”
Flores has partnered with local organizations like the Fifth Sun Project and Las Vegas Liberation to stock the refrigerator and provide residents in need with hot meals. Every Sunday, Flores and a group of volunteers prepare at least 60 plant-based meals for the homeless in Las Vegas using leftover groceries from the refrigerator.
Ezli Amaya, president of the Fifth Sun Project, said Sunday meals are generally vegan to show how a plant-based diet can be tasty, healthier and better for the planet.
âThere are other people who struggle, who sometimes go without meals or don’t have access to healthier foods,â she said. âCollectively, we all agreed that eating more plant-based foods is much more sustainable. It’s healthier and that’s what we’re looking for.
The Las Vegan Food Bank has also collaborated with the refrigerator by donating leftover boxes of vegan groceries, initially donated to the food bank by the Las Vegas Culinary Academy, said food bank director Chris McNulty.
If there are leftover grocery boxes or residents don’t pick up theirs, the food bank will donate the boxes to the refrigerator to dispose of wasted food. About 35% of the 229 million tonnes of food in the United States is wasted or unsold, according to national nonprofit ReFED. Efforts like this limit that burden, McNulty said.
âWe all live in the same community, and we are all human beings, and we all want to make sure that the people who need things are taken care of,â he said.
Once the hot meals are prepared and packed, Las Vegas Liberation then takes the dishes to the city’s homeless camps.
“Our heavy reliance on a system that exploits us and leaves so many people without basic humanities can be broken by developing our own safety nets / programs,” said Kenny Fawkes, one of the eight directors of Las Vegas Liberation, by email. “The importance of providing these little humanities becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day.”
â¢ â¢ â¢
The Solidarity Refrigerator also bridges the big gap between East Las Vegas residents and fresh food, Flores said. The region lacks access to affordable healthy groceries, adequate transportation to reach those closest to them, and healthy food education.
However, donations do not come only from nonprofits, nor only from residents of the east. Aimee Holdredge, who donates to the fridge every two weeks, lives in Summerlin, while Henderson resident Nichole Beer drops off her groceries every Thursday when she comes home from librarian work.
âIt’s as popular as it gets,â Beer said. âWe go to the community we serve. They shouldn’t have to come to us.
Beer said she was thrilled to see the fridge getting bigger, especially since soon it will be neighbors with a mini-library, built by Flores and other volunteers.
On Thursday, Flores shared the library’s progress on The Solidarity Fridge’s Instagram account. Although she uses social media to promote the refrigerator, she said the interactions from the mouth and door-to-door world have helped residents learn more.
âThere is more power in a collective than individualism,â she said. “We need each other, you know? So we can do a lot more together than separately or just by myself.