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Little Free Food Pantries: A grassroots solution to food insecurity in North Carolina

SPRING HOPE — Heidi Minor’s Little Free Pantry in High Point is known as the “Little Free Peace Pantry,” the “pole pantry” or the “purple box on a pole.”

Minor, who works at the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, always wanted to impact people’s lives. By starting the Little Free Peace Pantry three years ago, she was able to do just that.

Minor and her pantry co-founder, Dawn Pugh, were original fans of the Little Free Library movement. The two friends both saw a post on Facebook about the Little Free Pantries, and each individually went to their pastor at Deep River Friends Meeting in High Point asking to pursue the idea.

“I just thought this was something really neat to do for our community, something that says to the community ‘we may not know you, but you might be having a struggle. And we care, and we want to have this out and available for you,’” Minor said.

They got a box and painted it bright purple, with the word “peace” lettered across the front. In September 2016, the Little Free Peace Pantry opened.

At first, there wasn’t much use. But as word got out and people realized the concept behind the mysterious box, the Little Free Pantry became an important stopgap to systemic food insecurity in High Point, Minor said.

Now, the pantry is so popular that is has to be refilled every other day.

“Food insecurity isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved overnight, there’s no one-ticket solution or one plan to fix that,” Minor said. “Maybe over time we’ll get over the stigma that people who need food, it’s not that they’re lazy or not working, it’s not that they’re bad people, it’s just that they need a little help to get by.”

***

A Little Free Pantry is just what is sounds like: a small pantry, usually the size of a standard kitchen cabinet, with free nonperishable items available for anyone to take. Modeled off of the Little Free Library movement, founder Jessica McClard began questioning ways to expand upon the concept.

“I was thinking about what was going on, and I realized it had to do with how people really wanted a space to connect with their neighbors,” she said.

On May 12, 2016, McClard installed her initial mini-pantry in Fayetteville, Ark. Within two weeks, a stranger had copied the idea and opened a second pantry across town.

“I hoped it would grab the public’s imagination and it would duplicate,” McClard said. “It happened so much faster than I ever imagined.”

To date, there are more than 800 Little Free Pantries registered on the official website, though McClard suspects there are more that aren’t officially tracked.

Anyone can build one, anyone can drop off items, and anyone can take items. Anonymity is at the core of the movement: Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar food pantries, recipients don’t need to provide paperwork, proof of residency or financial need.

“We’re making a claim in a space by actively choosing nonjudgment, safety and trust, and saying ‘That’s who we are, that’s who this movement is,’” McClard said. “That narrative is very loud.”

An estimated 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2018, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In North Carolina, which ranks 10th in food insecurity nationwide, people in nearly 590,000 households don’t have enough to eat. There are currently 29 registered Little Free Pantries across the state, according to the movement’s website.

***

Two hours away from the High Point pantry, Luke Tingler stood in his garage, scraping layer after layer of paint off of an old cabinet.

It was hard work for the 12-year-old. He didn’t know much about building, but with the help of his dad and two months of tedious labor, the cabinet looked dramatically different from what hung on the wall of his garage when he first hatched his plan to build a food pantry as part of his church confirmation.

Covered with five layers of rust-colored weatherproof paint, outfitted with a newly-fashioned plexiglass door and protected by a shingled sloping roof, Luke’s project was finally ready for its community debut.

Spring Hope’s smallest food pantry opened for business last spring.

He strategically positioned it in the parking lot of Gibson Memorial Church on one of the towns’ busiest streets. It’s stocked with a mix of canned goods donated by members of Luke’s church and items he picked out himself.

Across the top, in block lettering, reads the phrase “Take what you need, give what you can.” The motto, said Luke, now 13, is at the core of the Little Free Food Pantry movement: a grassroots network of mini-pantries fighting food insecurity in communities across the world.

“A lot of people can’t afford a meal, and the pantry will really help them be able to afford their next meal,” he said. “I’m glad they found this because I don’t want people to go hungry, I want people to come to the pantry and get the food that they need.”

***

Crackers, beans, canned vegetables. Macaroni and cheese. Peanut butter. And proteins — items like Vienna sausages, tuna and Spam go fast too, said Frances Browne, one of the many community volunteers working to stock the Little Free Peace Pantry.

When she’s out grocery shopping, Browne will toss in a few additional items to take to the pantry. Usually, she can purchase enough food to fill all three shelves for $20, which she does at least once a month, sometimes more frequently if the pantry is running low and another volunteer hasn’t already restocked the items.

It’s an action anyone can take, but when everyone in the community pitches in, it makes a big difference. Members of Minor’s church and the neighboring Parkwood Baptist church know about the pantry and bring donations, as do individuals living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Minor can’t recall a time she’s worried if the pantry is stocked. It’s never been vandalized, and there are only a handful of occasions where one person has taken everything inside.

Little Free Pantries provide additional flexibility that larger pantries can’t, said Dean Jordan, the coordinator of Hand to Hand food pantry in High Point. The Little Free Peace Pantry is located on the same property as Hand to Hand pantry.

Because recipients don’t have to fill out paperwork like they would at a traditional pantry, a Little Free Pantry doesn’t have a set territory and can therefore serve a larger population, Jordan said. It’s also available 24/7.

“You never know who you’ll encounter at the pole pantry,” Jordan said.

But this also presents challenges. To be successful, a pantry should be placed in a well-lit area to protect the safety of those coming and going. To restock, it can cost anywhere between $15 and $30, which quickly adds up when the pantry gets emptied every other day.

The cost became too much for Jordan, who now refills the pantry once a day with items from the Hand to Hand pantry donations. For frequent volunteers like Browne and Minor, a full resupply is only feasible a few times a month if they’re paying for all the goods out-of-pocket.

“There’s a lot of different angles to it,” Jordan said. “I’m glad it’s there. I’ve never regretted having it there and it’s helped a lot of people, but it’s not as simple as building a box and putting it up. It takes a real plan, dedication and resources. You need to think it all the way through.”

***

Rachel Minick, the director of youth ministry and community engagement at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, was looking for a service project for the youth group when she came across the Little Free Pantry movement. The idea was just what she was looking for.

Since the first Little Free Pantry opened at St. Paul’s in 2018, a network of pantries has spread across Wilkes County. Now, the Wilkes Pantry Partners group includes 10 Little Free Pantries and Blessing Boxes, with five more in the works.

Because the Little Free Pantries are supported by the community, Minick encourages residents to look for existing pantries in their area to support before building a new one.

“When they work, they work really well,” Minick said. “The goal is not to replace traditional food pantries, but to know why people don’t have access to those. We want to be present in filling these gaps.”

***

Every day, Luke chekcs on his Little Free Pantry.

If things are running low, he draws from a bin of items donated by members of his church or pulls items from a shelf in his house designated for the pantry.

From constructing the box to appearing before Spring Hope’s town manager to request zoning permits to asking the church’s administrative council for project approval, he’s learned to navigate local bureaucracy.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it to see his leadership project come to life, Luke said. He rarely sees people getting food, as they tend to come early in the morning or late at night. But even if he doesn’t interact with those using his project, he knows people are benefitting from the support of the community.

“Anyone can do anything as long as they put their mind to it,” Luke said. “And I had to really put my mind to this to do it because at first it seemed like it was almost impossible. But other members of the community will really help you with it.”


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