Little Free Pantry

the little free pantry movement

Inspired by the Free Little Library movement,  Jessica McClard saw a need to create free food boxes and believes any small action of giving in community can make a huge difference.  

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What is Little Free Pantry? The concept behind Little Free Pantry (LFP) is simple: give what you can, take what you need. Physically, that looks like a box or cupboard on a post, though it can be any empty vessel. The point is that it’s filled with gifts from neighbours for others to take at any time, no questions asked. Usually, those items are non-perishable foods, paper products, bottled water or hygiene items.

Why did you decide to start this project? As a runner who also avidly reads, I began to notice the Little Free Library movement popping up along my running route. Around the same time, I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point, about how little actions can make big differences. I also read some statistics and participated in a women’s giving circle focused on hunger in local schools. Arkansas, my home state, is perpetually in the top five hungriest states in the US. These pieces all fell into place for me, and I realised those library boxes on posts could be used in lots of different ways. 

What’s your background? It’s varied. I’m a registered nurse, and I briefly went to law school. When I started LFP, I was working in finance. My workplace at the time was offering grants for community service projects, and that’s what I used to build the pilot project in 2016. I feel like I’ve always been on a path to this place.  

What motivates you to continue this project? When I was pregnant with my first daughter, we were an extremely low-income family. I was never on food stamps, but I did receive supplementary coupons from the government. At the time, those vouchers were fluorescent yellow. I still remember how I felt in the checkout line, handing those over. No one wants to be in that position. 

What I like about LFP is that it helps to restore dignity. The person giving also has to confront the fact that people might think they are taking something out. It’s an interesting perspective for both the giver and the taker.

I also think LFP is an easy entry point to service and community organising. Most people who steward these projects are rightly focused on the benefits for those who are experiencing food insecurities in their communities. It’s only after someone starts the project that they see how it changes who they are and begin to understand that personal growth goes along with it. 

This project has been the greatest gift of my life for many reasons. At a time when there doesn’t seem to be much good news, I get to see positive stories. I don’t get paid for this work, so I need to acknowledge my own privilege, but I get plenty back.

What is radical trust, and why is it important to you? In some ways, this project works as a community thought experiment. As a society, we continuously vet the concept of need. We use all kinds of data to make a judgement about whether someone’s need is legitimate. On the other hand, there’s a trust that’s required in taking something that a stranger has left somewhere, available to whomever. This project instigates trust and compassion from both sides. It’s a different framework from the way most folks look at giving.

Describe your ideal community. My ideal community consists of thinking and feeling individuals who believe that we are all connected to one another and that we should work for the common good. I also like the idea of promoting risk-taking, instead of being fearful of doing anything different.

Lots of our social problems are intractable, no matter what we do. We feed the need, but nothing ever really changes: we need to shorten the line. To move the marker, you have to think differently and do different things. We need to support one another in creative endeavours and risk-taking. I think my ideal community would do all those things.

How can interdependency benefit neighbourhoods? Profoundly. We are so insulated, and people are so committed to the narrative that if I work hard enough, I will succeed and get what I deserve. We would see shifts in people’s quality of life if we approached just about everything the same way we fight fires. If your neighbour’s house is on fire, it’s imperative to put it out because it can spread to your house. I think lives would be fundamentally altered for just about everybody if giving and gratitude were prioritised, because they are fulfilling for us as humans.

How has LFP impacted communities? It’s variable and depends on what each community needed from the project. Some are very hands-on projects, while others are the opposite. I think the sweet spot is in the middle: where you’re cultivating key partnerships, but it stays easy. When this happens, it can be interesting. The stakeholders that come together aren’t always who you would assume. I just read about a project that started a mini-pantry and has now been adopted by the local police force. There are also lots of kids running these projects. They are standing on little steps, speaking before their city council and trying to bring LFP to their communities. They are going to be long-term change-makers in their community.

Where should LFPs be located? I don’t usually recommend private properties as LFP locations, because even though they can work well, they do increase traffic to an area, and they can bring folks in who don’t live in that neighbourhood. Not every neighbour wants this.

The most successful LFPs have usually been located near a publicly operated business, a not-for-profit, a church or a school. These are places where people are coming and going, so the privacy issue is not as significant and, usually, there’s ample parking.

What should we consider before building and stocking a LFP? It’s important to remember that any vessel works. People often become focused on how it will look, but what goes inside is more important. Think about where you are located, and what kinds of things might be needed. Some projects don’t want perishable items, but I put perishables in mine all the time. The turnover is rapid, and fresh fruit and vegetables are the items most wanted by people who are using the pantries because they’re expensive at the store.

It’s also important to accept that what you can do is enough. It has to be. This is about extending grace to our neighbours and ourselves. And that can be difficult sometimes. Occasionally I walk past my pilot project and it’s empty. I have to confront that feeling and accept that what I can give has to be enough.

You also have to consider how you’re going to respond to questions like, “What about the people who are going to take everything?” Those questions and that dialogue is essential work for project administrators, and they’re very human questions. It means grappling with what need looks like and asking if we’re going to respond in a way that is dignified and compassionate. For me, the answer to that question is: the project is working precisely as it should. If a young family is between pay cheques and they’re able to eat by clearing out an LFP, that’s the project working. But others might feel differently. To me, once a gift is given, it’s out of my hands, and I can only control what I do. But there may be folks out there who don’t like that style of giving, and it’s not a method they can feel good about. I understand that too.

What’s the best LFP impact story you’ve heard? A nurse at the US Department of Veterans Affairs told me one of her clients uses LFP at night because he is too ashamed to visit the service providers during the day. It was sad to hear, but I was grateful he had an option that didn’t diminish his pride. Lots of kids also use the pantries on weekends and during holidays when they don’t have school lunches provided.

Has anything surprised you about this project? How much the project changed me. It challenged what is important to me, what I want from community and neighbours, and the importance of trust and giving. I had previously thought about all those things, but it’s different when you’re living the theory. Many project stewards have this same experience and are surprised by it.

What other social impact projects interest you? I’m paying attention to several projects. I love the work of Equal Justice run by Brian Stevenson, and I’m interested in the Transgender Equality Network. Of course, food security groups also fascinate me, like the Black Church Food Security Network and the Food Justice Movement.

What does the world need more of? Gratitude.

What has this project taught you about people? That people do care about their neighbours and want to be good community members.

What has this project taught you about yourself? That I am not ever going to have all the answers. I’m an analytical person, and I’ve had to learn there are some things for which there are no answers. The world and human behaviours are mysterious and wonderful. 

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