Are Little Free Pantries the New Little Free Libraries, Or What?

January 11, 2017; National Public Radio, “The Salt”

Over 42 million Americans face hunger or food insecurity on a daily basis. While pantries and soup kitchens do help alleviate the problem, there can also be a layer of stigma involved with walking into one of these establishments. Oftentimes, the requirement to sign up or give contact information to the organization deters people from using these resources. To solve this issue, people across the country have started placing miniature pantries in their yards. Similar to the little free library project, these boxes operate on a “take what you need, leave what you can” basis to offer food and basic hygiene products to families.

Jeannetta Presley, who started her own “blessing box” in Muncie, Indiana, says, “Everybody is just trying to survive. If I can give somebody a dinner for one evening, then I did my part for that day, or if I just added something that they didn’t have to make a dinner, then that’s OK, too.”

Presley, and some others who have created mini-pantries, heard about the idea through social media and took to it instantly because of the simplicity of the project. It takes a huge problem with systemic roots and gives ordinary people a feasible way to get involved. It is also a great project for families to work on together. Maggie Ballard, who has a pantry in Wichita, Kansas, works with her son to maintain her box. “My son is six years old, so it gives him a little chore to kind of watch it and see what comes and goes and who comes and goes, and maybe learn a lesson from it.”

The Little Free Pantry organization created the first pantry last year. Their website not only offers information on how to start a project but also addresses a burning question: If these pantries are located in neighborhoods, how does the pantry address food insecurity? For instance, if someone lives in a wealthy neighborhood, how would that benefit those living in poverty on the other side of town? According to the FAQ, in high poverty areas, the pantries help those who may be dealing with food insecurity. In wealthier areas, however, the idea is for neighbors to lend a helping hand to their neighbors. If you need one last ingredient to finish a dish, you may be able to find it in your neighborhood pantry as opposed to going to the grocery store to purchase one item.

In that sense, each person who decides to start a little pantry needs to consider what his or her goals are in taking on this project. If the goal is to address hunger and food insecurity, placing the pantry in a location where those impacted would have access to the pantry is critical. However, if the goal is to just be neighborly, the front yard will suffice.

While these pantries are helpful, it is also important to remember that established food pantries are still absolutely necessary in the fight against hunger. Because of their size, little pantries cannot provide the amount or variety of food families need to address food insecurity on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, little pantries cannot stock perishable items, particularly healthier food items such as milk and vegetables. For those in a pinch, however, little pantries are an excellent way to meet an immediate need.—Sheela Nimishakavi