A community fridge outside of the East Village restaurant S'MAC teaches a neighborhood of kids how to be there for friends and neighbors in need.
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Sarita Ekya, a business owner and mother of two, looked around her neighborhood in New York City's East Village and wanted to do something to serve her community in a meaningful, tangible way. She was deeply feeling the stress and concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and knew her neighbors felt the same. It's safe to say the rollercoaster ride that was 2020 only exacerbated an already staggering population of people in need, so Ekya decided to help in the best way she knew how: through food.

Since 2006, Ekya, 46, has run S'MAC (short for Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese), an eatery well known for its decadent variety of, you guessed it, macaroni and cheeses. During the pandemic, she added a community fridge to the front of the restaurant, accessible to anyone 24/7.

"It's take what you need, leave what you can, and no questions asked," says Ekya.

In partnership with Change Food, East Village Neighbors, and a team of volunteers, she keeps the fridge stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and homemade meals. They also stock a pantry locker with canned goods and beverages. She says that every time the fridge fills up, it's empty within an hour, proving that the level of need in the community is high. According to the U.S. Census Report, nearly 36 percent of people in the East Village live below the poverty line—32 percent of children under 18 in the area live below the poverty line.

Ekya is astonished by how much food goes into the fridge and comes right back out, but she's comforted by how strongly the community has come together to provide for this labor of love.

"I love to see parents with kids of all ages, from young elementary school kids through high schoolers and college students, getting involved with it," she says. "It's not only a teachable moment, it's also an opportunity to be part of a community. We even had a Zoom with a Girl Scout troop so they could learn more about the food that they fundraise for the fridge and pantry."

Ekya had previously tried to get her children, ages 9 and 12, involved in some volunteer work with soup kitchens and similar organizations, but many won't allow children. When the fridge went up, it was a chance for her kids to be involved and give back to their community.

"You can talk about hunger and people not having enough food, but unless you see it and see the need for it, I think it's very hard for it to register, not only with kids but also adults, too," says Ekya. "There's a spectrum of people who are food insecure. I think that having kids directly involved not only opens their eyes when they're helping to fill the fridge, but it gives them a real appreciation for what's being provided for them at home."

There has been a noticeable shift in traffic to the fridge during the pandemic. When it was first installed, Ekya noticed that a lot of food was being taken overnight, likely because of the stigma attached to food insecurity. Now, she says, they get a lot more activity during the daylight hours, which she hopes is a sign that people are becoming educated on the urgency, and that we shouldn't make judgments on people who need food.

"Anyone can be in that scenario, any one of us," Ekya says. "And it's not as far from home as we all think it may be."

In very uncertain times, when kids haven't necessarily been able to experience the typical trappings of childhood, projects like this help the next generation thrive. It helps them experience connection during a period where it has often been lost.

"At a time like now, it just brings you back plugging into society and having that human connection with people you may not have otherwise connected with before," says Ekya. "My kids are still pretty young and I'm so amazed by what they're learning in school in terms of social activism, social justice, and being more aware of people in different circumstances. All of us need to, to just be a little more empathetic, or at least try to put ourselves in other people's shoes."

Ekya adds that people often ask her when she's going to conclude the community fridge project, but there's no formal end in sight.

"This is part of what we do now," she says. "What would be ideal is to have more fridges in the neighborhood—in every neighborhood. I think our neighborhood could really support a fridge and pantry every third block. The demand is that high. It is very heartbreaking when you see people come up and, if the fridge is empty, at that point it's like, 'Okay, are they going to be hungry? Where do they go? What do they do?' It's not going to be the be all, end all solution, that's for sure."