“Community fridge” is built in front of Village Hall on Plattekill Avenue

Mariabella Rivera-Todaro at the site of the new community fridge next to Village Hall on Plattekill Avenue in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The “community fridge,” a refrigerator which will be filled with food for the express purpose of giving it away to those in need, is on the cusp of being a fully operational project. According to Mariabella Rivera-Todaro, founder of the nonprofit Millions of Butterflies through which this idea is being executed, the hope was to have everything in place for a potluck meal and opening by Thanksgiving, but it was not possible to coordinate with the volunteer electrician and carpenter in time. That may be for the best, though: Rivera-Todaro was interviewed during quarantine, imposed after having been exposed to someone who’d gotten a positive coronavirus test.

When the idea of creating this resource — which local health officials consider a food pantry — a lot of details were different, but the essential goal of allowing people to anonymously obtain food when they need it has remained the same. There won’t be any forms to fill out, any requirements to establish identity or prove need, to get food here. People desire anonymity for a variety of reasons, and it can be a barrier to using a traditional food pantry. “Putting your name on a list can be scary,” Rivera-Todaro observed. This was first planned to be built behind Snug Harbor, a tavern that owner Hick Barbarossa has opened to the Food not Bombs program, but the property owner was less keen on the idea. When Rivera-Todaro appeared at a Village Board meeting, brandishing a petition signed by 400 to site it in Hasbrouck Park and ready to fight for that outcome, Mayor Tim Rogers offered instead to have it built by Village offices. This makes it accessible all year long, as it’s adjacent to a well-lit parking lot.

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Rogers was not the only person in the community who has quickly offered help to manifest this idea. Rivera-Todaro has been approached by many who wanted to lend a hand or a dollar. Money raised from bake sales and direct donations have been used to procure the highest-quality materials possible for the shed, as well as getting the refrigerator itself. Labor, including electrician and carpentry services, have been donated, and the fee to obtain a permit to build this was waived. Local business owner MaryAnn Tozzi also stands out, according to Rivera-Todaro, for printing out posters and also for allowing Rivera-Todaro to run a business out front. A quintessential hustler, Rivera-Todaro caters to the late-night crowd with a range of goods and services, including the baked goods that helped fund this project, as well as banging out poetry on a typewriter for bar patrons on the sidewalk. Being in front of Kon-Tiki and next to Gourmet Pizza has been key to all of this coming together, Rivera-Todaro believes, adding that it’s also consistent with Tozzi’s gregarious nature. “MaryAnn has covered my butt” a number of times, Rivera-Todaro said, and has worked to make Kon-Tiki “a safe space to come and shop and support local artists.”

Support for this project can come in the form of food, or money. Rivera-Todaro said that the best types of food are meals that can be eaten as-is, or that can be heated in a microwave, such as the one that’s been installed in Snug’s that is available to be used by anyone. That includes fresh produce, canned foods and frozen meals; home-cooked meals-to-go are also welcome. The rules that come with the health permit that’s been obtained allow for home-prepared food to be donated, with the understanding that anyone accepting a donation also accepts any risk that comes along with that decision. These are the same risks one assumes with eating at a restaurant, Rivera-Todaro explained. To keep those risks low, donations of homemade meals won’t be accepted without the name of the preparer, a list of all ingredients to head off potential allergic reactions and the date donated to ensure that nothing given away is no longer suitable for eating. That complements the information that’s available on the labels of any store-bought meals. “We want to know that people are safe,” Rivera-Todaro explained.

Rivera-Todaro also recognizes that this is an opportunity to address one of the tragic inefficiencies in the food system: restaurateurs toss food into the garbage at closing time, even while there are people in the same community going to bed without a meal. Plans are coming together to have volunteers pick up food at the end of the day and bring it over to the refrigerator, which is located in a shed built in front of Village Hall on Plattekill Avenue. Collaboration with staff members at Family of New Paltz is also possible: a lot of produce and baked goods that get donated there need to be eaten quickly, and if some of that food ends up in this refrigerator, it increases the chance that it won’t go to waste.

Finding ways to make sure that the “night people” of New Paltz have access to this service is also on Rivera-Todaro’s mind. The population on the streets of New Paltz is different during the late night hours than those who walk the daylight-dappled streets. If one works long hours, or late into the night, it may not be possible to pick up something when the shed is unlocked. “Some people need food at strange hours, at the end of their day,” Rivera-Todaro said. The current plan is to have it open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Leaving it unlocked all the time make this a target for vandalism, and ideas being considered include providing the combination to corps of trusted volunteers and changing it periodically.

The influence of Millions of Butterflies appears to be growing. In addition to this community fridge, Rivera-Todaro announced that Food not Bombs will be taken under those millions of wings. Conceived in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists in Massachusetts, the local version was founded by Amanda Sisenstein, about whom Rivera-Todaro sings high praise. Sisenstein, a tireless activist and advocate for human rights, began this weekly meal-sharing program in outdoor areas some years ago, and convinced Barbarossa to open Snug’s for the meals when it’s cold and wet. Along the way, Snug Harbor has become a “haven” for people in need, as in addition to that weekly free meal, also has wireless and a microwave and a place to sit that’s warm and dry for any who need it.

As for supporting this project financially, it’s now possible to buy raffle tickets for a chance to win a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes. Donations are also accepted by people not interested in the raffle; Millions of Butterflies is a nonprofit and donations are as tax-deductible as they are to any charitable cause. Rivera-Todaro said that sending an email to millionsofbutterflies.inc@gmail.com is the best way to get those details.

The potluck meal to mark the opening of the community fridge will be rescheduled, just as soon as the doors are hung and it’s safe for Rivera-Todaro to come out and greet the many supporters of this grassroots project.