Free Food on Seneca: Community Support in Ridgewood
By: H Conley
Walk down Seneca avenue in Ridgewood, Queens any evening of the week and you’ll find a line stretching around the corner, down Grove and onto Cypress for the Fenix Free Market. Music plays from beneath the marquee of the Fenix XL Car & Limo Service Corps. There are boxes overflowing with produce, a folding table piled high with bread and a bin with premade lunches for kids.
The market doesn’t start until 6:30 p.m., but regulars start lining up at 3:00. Volunteers in reflective vests empty cardboard boxes of fruit and toss them on a growing pile. Antonio Vaca, called Don Antonio by volunteers and patrons, walks down the line, handing out aluminum trays, calling out, “Black beans with pork!” He’s been running this free market since the summer of 2020.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Vaca was president of Fenix XL Taxi and Limo. He said, “We had before like 275 drivers. During the pandemic, a lot of drivers, they died, you know, sometimes they left, they disappeared. So we were down like to 10 drivers.” With the loss of employees and customers, the company couldn’t operate.
Vaca saw the Caracoal Community Refrigerator in Bushwick and was inspired to create his own, wanting to do something for the community. He connected with the creators and, later, partnered with Father Mike Lopez from Hungry Monk Rescue Truck. They started providing food donations, along with Metro World Child. But, Vaca found the fridge wasn’t the ideal method for distributing food. No matter how often they restocked, it would empty immediately. So, he started hosting the free market where they can hand out greater volumes and guarantee equitable distribution.
The market goes beyond food. Depending on donations, they have furniture, clothing, formula and sanitary products as well as toys at Christmastime. Alex Cepeda, from Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, donates his time on Fridays to sign children up for Medicaid. Many of the families who frequent the market are undocumented and thus don’t have health insurance, but their kids qualify through DACA.
The market has been a resounding success, feeding hundreds of families a week, with only one problem. Since this market is unaffiliated with any companies or non-profits, the city won’t pick up the garbage. Vaca said. “A lot of restaurants, they help me, they take one bag. Everybody’s working together.” Even so, trash bags pile up on the curb.
Hungry Monk has partnered with multiple organizations to set up other refrigerators in Ridgewood. Woodbine NYC has one on Woodward Street and the Ridgewood Tenants Union has one, ten minutes from Fenix, on Seneca.
Refrigerators come with their own drawbacks. Tallie Medel, a volunteer and member of the tenants union, said that there’s been, “Conflict around the fridge because people are sort of policing one another about how much they should take.”
According to the founder of the union, Raquel Namuche, “There were certain businesses that complained that there's a bunch of accumulated garbage here on the street.” She said, ”People have always dumped garbage in this little street just because it's convenient.”
These free food projects were created to address serious needs in the neighborhood, made more apparent by the pandemic, and the organizers are still working out some of the kinks. Medel said, “The dream would be that we don't need this fridge and that resources are dispersed enough so that no one is food insecure.” Until then, there will still be free food on Seneca.