Local teen activist Mariabella Rivera-Todaro is spearheading an effort to establish a free community food fridge in the Village of New Paltz, behind Snug Harbor, facing west towards the Rock & Snow parking lot.
Originally of Brooklyn and now residing with her family in Esopus, Rivera-Todaro said that she became heavily involved in protesting a year ago against police brutality and racial injustice. “I saw the community come together when we were protesting at Abolition Plaza, across from the Brooklyn Bridge,” she recalled. “We’d been protesting and walking 11 miles, and we’d get there and have free food provided to us, which means a lot when you’re hitting the pavement.”
While she was grateful for the generosity, she noted that there “are only so many cucumber and hummus sandwiches you can eat. I kept thinking of chocolate!” She came home from the protests and began baking batches of brownies to take back with her and deliver to the protestors to add a little bit of sweetness to their struggle. They were all individually wrapped and ready-to-go, but in her haste to get back to Brooklyn, she forgot them at home. “My 13-year-old brother ate a bunch of them, but I had made dozens!”
Inspired by the local Food Not Bombs movement, Rivera-Todaro decided to pack up her brownies, purchase some lemonade and cups and sell them on a blanket to tourists and locals near the Rock & Snow parking lot. She then took the proceeds and donated them to Black Lives Matter (BLM), While she enjoys being part of a larger movement, she said that her eyes “kept drifting back to more local issues.”
After the pop-up brownie sale success, she decided that was a great avenue to help and to heal. “Food is medicine, and baked goods are an easy way to raise money and involve a lot of people who want to volunteer, because it doesn’t cost much to bake a batch of cookies or brownies. And I started finding a lot of people that wanted to help me.”
Rivera-Todaro’s mother and grandfather helped her with the paperwork for a not-for-profit company of which she was president. “I opened a bank account and named it Millions of Butterflies (MOB),” she explained. As she and her friends set up bake sales, they donated the money to several local organizations like Family of New Paltz and People’s Place of Kingston.
While those organizations serve local people and families, Rivera-Todaro wanted to “focus on individuals even more.” She and a team of like-minded friends put together 100 “back-to-school” care packages that each contained a large sketchbook, colored pencils, erasers, rocks, notebooks, folders “and one of those giant pens that you would see at the fair and your parents would never get one for you,” she said with a laugh. “It was right around Christmastime when the kids started to go back in person to school, so it worked out perfectly.” As an artist and a recent graduate with a Fashion Design degree, Rivera-Todaro said that she “wanted to add things in there that were artistic and fun, and rocks are just cool!”
One project led to another, and eventually she decided that she wanted to help create a place where people could access food. “Kingston has two food fridges, and I just thought it would be such a great community service to have a food fridge that’s accessible to anyone who needs it right in New Paltz.” Using the money from MOB, she purchased a new refrigerator from Lowe’s. “This is the sexiest refrigerator I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Her goal is to get the various permits required from the Village of New Paltz and other governing bodies and then get volunteers to help build a platform and roof, so that the refrigerator almost has “its own shed to protect it and the people using it. There would be shelves for canned goods, and I and other volunteers would make sure that it was cleaned, that no expired food was in there, and work with local businesses, farms and individual donors to help stock it with fresh, healthy food, because there are a lot of people who do not have regular or reliable access to food and to meals.”
As someone who comes from a culinary background, “being Sicilian and Puerto Rican, I just love to stand over a large pot of sauce and stir and add spices and herbs, and I truly believe that food can help heal people.”
Where she will need assistance is with the design of the platform and shed, the materials to build it and any labor that people might want to offer. “I would love a professional to help design this, and then for those who have the skills and access to lumber to help build it. I want it to be bright and cheery and something that people are drawn to.”
Her hope is to have this up and ready by late summer or early fall. “College kids love to volunteer and are a wonderful resource, but they’re also in school, so I want to get them involved before they get too bogged down with work – and fall is also harvest time!”
For anyone who is interested in donating to this project or wants to offer their professional services or skills, you can reach out to Rivera-Todaro by e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting the New Paltz Free Food Fridge or Millions of Butterflies Instagram accounts.