Leadership Tallahassee created a way for the Tallahassee community to have access to food and products at no cost, a benefit for low-income families in the area.
The pantry boxes, a part of the Help Shelf project, have thrived for four years by being a resource to those in need.
The Help Shelf project started in 2017 when members of Leadership Tallahassee decided to address food insecurity in Leon County. They began with placing six boxes around town, free for anyone to use. The pantry boxes were stocked with canned goods, dry foods, and toiletries for anyone who could not afford to supply their homes.
Now, 17 pantry boxes are in Tallahassee and one is in Chattahoochee.
Help Shelf is like a combination of Little Free Pantry and Little Free Library. All are based on a take-one-leave-one policy to encourage people to pay it forward. Currently, the Leadership Tallahassee Class 34, which began the project, has garnered much support from the community who stock the shelves and even help with the upkeep.
“What we did is we created a template. We did the branding and we spread the word about the project. It has grown from there,” Kevin Forsthoefel, attorney at the Ausley McMullen law firm and project chair for LT Class 34, said.
“We started off by ourselves … since that time, we haven't installed any shelves. They've all been installed by other organizations that have reached out to us to try to replicate the project at their location.”
The community has taken over the project, leading the efforts in combatting food insecurity in Florida. Faith Presbyterian Church, Sealey Elementary School, Fire Station 12 and Fairview Middle School are among those who have agreed to host the Help Shelves in Tallahassee. The pantry boxes are all over the city to provide access to a larger number of people.
Responding to a need in Chattahoochee
Cindy Glass is the owner of Around the Corner Flowers in Chattahoochee and the host to the only Help Shelf in that town. After Hurricane Michael hit the town in 2018, Glass and her family members wanted to help deliver supplies to the surrounding area. Once she learned about the Help Shelf project, she knew she wanted to have one for her community.
“After seeing that hunger in our community was not just from the effects of the storm and that it was a day-to-day reality, I knew I wanted to play a small part in helping our people in our town. I expressed my interest to Leadership Tallahassee, and they agreed to help install the Help Shelf,” Glass said. “I, along with a lot of help from my family and friends, maintain it and try to keep it supplied. Many in town contribute food to it on a regular basis.”
As Glass recognizes the impact hunger has in her community, Tallahassee residents are also well-versed in that reality.
'Help another, help yourself': Leadership Tallahassee launches free 'help shelf' pantry boxes around town
Entering the pandemic, this issue was even more apparent, says Karen Loewen, executive director of Tallahassee Action Grants. Her organization tries to fill all pantry boxes every other week and buys over $800 in food and personal hygiene items every month for the boxes. She believes the community needs these help shelves more than ever.
“Over the last year and a half, lots of people have had a serious change in their living circumstances,” Loewen said. “People you would never suspect are running short enough each month that they can't afford enough food. A lot of the time, we are still at the pantry when folks come to ‘shop.’ ”
According to Feed America, 12.7% of people in Leon County are food insecure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined food insecurity as "a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life."
The county is also among the top 10 most food insecure counties in Florida. That is why the Help Shelf project continues to be an invaluable resource for Tallahassee residents. Forsthoefel says the goal was to encourage togetherness, and he believes that goal has been achieved.
“I think our goal was to bring the Tallahassee community together. These are all supposed to be community supported. The idea was that through small engaging acts of service, individual members of the community could assist their neighbor by simply providing food or household items to these help shelves. So, I think we've definitely succeeded,” Forsthoefel said.
Volunteers needed to sustain project
While the project has expanded greatly since 2017, help is needed to make sure the shelves are stocked for those who need it. Loewen encourages everyone to educate themselves about Tallahassee’s food insecurity issue and put themselves in others’ shoes. “Help another, help yourself” are the words on each pantry box, and she wants people to take that seriously.
“They probably don't know how stressful finding feminine hygiene products is for a single mom with kids to feed. Or a small family where one of the parents isn't employed. These pantries are their lifeboat,” Loewen said. “We find that even though we fill the pantries, within hours they are empty. We need help.”
“Supplies can be donated to us or put directly in a pantry. Anyone can put things in, and anyone can take things,” she said. “We would love to recruit volunteers to monitor a pantry or two and keep them full. If we make a real effort towards keeping them stocked, there will be more people benefitting from their presence and we won't see empty pantries.”
Contact Democrat writer Dejania Oliver at DOliver1@gannett.com.
How to help
For more information and Help Shelf locations, visit Facebook at www.facebook.com/helpshelfTLH.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Leadership Tallahassee's 'Help Shelf' project provides food pantries