Jala Hooks noticed a stark difference between grocery stores in North Philadelphia, where she grew up, and her current residence of Northeast Philadelphia – namely the low quality and high costs of food products, like fresh produce.
“The prices are very expensive, the food is not the best, the quality is just not the best at all,” Hooks said.
Hooks serves as president of the pre-law division of Temple’s Black Law Students Association and co-vice president of Temple Progressive NAACP, two organizations collaborating to provide affordable, healthy food options in North Philadelphia – a food desert within the city.
The organizations hosted the grand opening of the Umoja Community Fridge, which provides 24/7 access to necessities like food, water, baby food, hygiene products and menstrual products at its location in the North Philly Peace Park on Jefferson Street near 22nd.
“It just came from the idea of wanting to sustain the community, wanting to leave a legacy, knowing that this was a need in our community,” said Hooks, a junior majoring in Africology and African American studies and political science. “Yes, I’m aware that this won’t fully combat food insecurity, but it’s a step.”
The event ran from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., drawing a crowd of approximately 10 people. Attendees took pictures as the organizations opened the fridge for the first time and children passed, shouting with excitement.
The organizations started developing the idea for the fridge in July 2021. They secured their location in North Philly Peace Park before the end of November 2021 and then began searching for a fridge and paint for it. In January, they raised enough money to build the fridge.
They delayed the grand opening of the fridge from Feb. 7 to Feb. 27 to add doors to the shed that enclosed the food to prevent animals from getting in, Hooks said.
The fridge is named after the word “umoja,” which means “unity” in Swahili, said Mikayla Renwick, the president of Temple Progressive NAACP.
“It’s really about just bringing people together,” said Renwick, a senior communication and social influence major.
People can donate money, food, school supplies, menstrual products, hygiene products and personal protective equipment, like masks, to the fridge through a link in Umoja Community Fridge’s Instagram account bio.
Lil Village Learning Academy, a local child care center, helped pay for the shed where the fridge is located. Bloody Bitches, a non-profit advocating against period poverty, has donated menstrual products.
“I know the kids will see this and appreciate the new community fridge,” said Ayanna Dais, a junior communication and social influence major, who came to the opening to help volunteer. “Seeing this put together is very inspiring and I see it being worldwide one day.”
Chelsea Ross, a senior psychology major, donated to the fridge and is excited to start volunteering for it.
“This is a great opportunity to bring the Temple community and the Philadelphia community together,” Ross said.
Umoja Community Fridge is seeking volunteers to help pick up groceries, clean the fridge, make fliers and recruit other volunteers, Renwick said.
Temple Progressive NAACP will continue volunteering and donating to the fridge, viewing it as a first step toward enacting policy change to support other food deserts.
“We thought long and hard about not only trying to change legislation and policy, but how can we kind of work our way up to that and how can we socially implement something in the community to make a difference,” said Zymir Brunson, a senior music major and co-vice president of Temple Progressive NAACP.
Going forward, Hooks wants members of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and the United States Congress to notice the fridge and pursue legislative action against food insecurity. She plans to get their attention through media outlets and calling and writing letters to legislators.
“[Politicians] kind of use us to get in, but once they’re in the office they don’t cater to our needs,” Hooks said. “People are dying, like this is a real issue, people are hungry.”
Childhood hunger has tripled in North Philadelphia for those whose parents work more than 20 hours a week, according to Philabundance.
Food prices in Philadelphia increased by more than 8 percent between 2019 and 2021 and are expected to rise for at least the next six months because of supply chain issues and inflation.
The organizations may pursue creating a second fridge in September if they raise enough money and find a second location, Hooks said.