The mini-pantry movement is helping the hungry during the pandemic: 'There’s so much more food insecurity'

Erin Donnelly

In Austin, Texas, a repurposed Little Free Library on a quiet residential street is now packed with canned goods, not books. In New York City, those in need can help themselves to food stocked inside community outdoor fridges scattered on sidewalks throughout the city. And from Houston to Hawaii, mini-pantries, “blessing boxes” and other makeshift food donation receptacles are helping the hungry and those hit hard by the pandemic get fed.

The grassroots method isn’t brand-new — Jessica McClard, founder of the Mini-Pantry Movement, launched her Little Free Pantry Pilot with a standalone box stuffed with food and personal care items outside her home church in Fayetteville, Ark. in May 2016, having conceived the idea the year before. But it’s taken on new urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 50 million new unemployment claims filed in the U.S. since late March. As Feeding America’s May report outlining the pandemic’s impact on local food insecurity notes, “demand has spiked at food banks and pantries across the country,” while school closures have made children reliant on free lunches even more vulnerable. That’s coupled with a disrupted food supply chain, food deserts made even more inaccessible, and general anxiety about going out in public, particularly for high-risk individuals.

“For me, this started as a way to build community and increase neighborliness,” says McClard, whose site maps out a network of similarly minded pantry projects across the country — and features DIY instructions for constructing your very own pantry. But, as she tells Yahoo Life in the video above, the circumstances of the past few months have been “exceptional” due to the pandemic.

“There's so much more food insecurity because of the financial repercussions of COVID,” she says, adding that “brick-and-mortar food pantries and food banks are absolutely overwhelmed because of supply chain problems.” What’s more, a food-insecure individual may not officially qualify for assistance like food stamps, whereas free pantries are available to anyone in need, no questions asked. McClard calls it a “gap filler” for anyone who needs a boost to get by, whether that’s a college student who’s been laid off or a mom with no money for diapers until her next paycheck comes.

For those who are in a position to help, but find traditional volunteer opportunities potentially risky or limited because of social distancing restrictions, setting up a fully stocked pantry or blessing box has a particular appeal. According to McClard, the “vast infrastructure” of the existing Little Free Library network — the help-yourself book dispensaries which inspired her pantry project — makes it relatively seamless to pivot to food donations; many a lending library has cleared a shelf or two of books to make room for canned goods. Pitching in can be as simple as dropping off a few donated items (with limited contact and plenty of social distancing) or becoming a steward yourself by setting up your own pantry or other makeshift kiosk. The Little Free Pantry Instagram feed reveals that everything from converted bureaus to plastic storage containers and even cardboard boxes have been stocked with essentials like paper products, cans of soup, baby formula and face masks.

“I think this is absolutely the mini-pantry’s moment and it's good that it's here for people,” McClard says of the growing number of projects that have cropped up during the pandemic. She also feels inspired by the pantries she sees being stewarded by kids, whether as a camp, school or Eagle Scout project or an independent initiative to do some good.

“[These are kids] putting themselves in a position of civic responsibility that a lot of adults really never have,” she notes. “So it's been really wonderful to watch kids take this on, and incredibly inspiring.”

One such project is in Detroit, where teens Mariah Kent, Laylah Baker, DaJhai Davis and Auriel Blakey founded the North End Free Little Pantry after learning about food insecurity in their community during a Communities First summer program last year. The girls, all of whom are 16, were drawn to the 24-hour access offered by the pantry movement, and felt the informal approach would appeal to those who felt shame or stigma attached to getting help. “It's a way to give people in the community their dignity,” they say.

As the founders of the first Little Free Pantry in their city, they’re now sharing resources and tips to help others in the community create their own.

“All of us being 16 years old, this was a way for us to show people our age or younger that even though we're not as old as other people or as vocal as other people, we still have a voice,” Davis tells Yahoo Life. “We can still make a change in the community.”

In Centerton, Ark., Wendy Parker’s Parker Memorial Pantry serves two purposes: to honor the brother and mother she’s lost to cancer this year, and to help those suffering during the pandemic get back on their feet. Once a seldom-used Little Free Library in her yard, the mini-pantry has been repurposed, rebuilt and renamed during the pandemic, and is now stocked with non-perishable food, personal hygiene and household items, and baby products. (“[As someone] who's been in a low-income situation, I know that some of those things are hard to buy too,” she tells Yahoo Life.)

Parker, a counselor who works with a local after-school program, started clearing out her kitchen and filling the pantry in March, moved by the deaths of her loved ones just three weeks apart as well as school closures hitting her community. It’s now “become a staple for our town,” says Parker, who has also created a Facebook page for Centerton residents in need, arranging everything from hand sanitizer donations to lawn mowing services.

“Honestly this whole thing was created because I was grieving and I was struggling, and obviously being a mental health provider, I wanted to make sure that I was ... being able to channel my grief in a more positive way,” she says. “And so, if anything, I've received the blessing more than the ones that receive the food.”

And it’s not just pantries that are keeping communities fed. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, Pam Tietze has launched the Friendly Fridge, one of several free fridge projects in New York City. Given a slick makeover by street artists Morgan Smith and Hugo Gyrl, and typically flanked by a shelf loaded with tin cans, the fridge has taken on a larger-than-life presence in its neighborhood since Tietze set it up this April as a way of “just, like, planting a seed” to help out after “seeing lines snaking around grocery stores, food pantries, soup kitchens ... there was a clear need for the most basic necessity of food.”

“I was plugging in a refrigerator and just kind of seeing what might grow from that,” says the artist, who started by sourcing a free fridge off Craigslist and writing “free food” on it in English and Spanish.

Tietze says the fridge is more or less self-regulated, with locals regularly dropping off a random mix of donations — from toothpaste to leftover curry to fresh cherries to even money — which are swiftly picked up by those in need. For Mother’s Day, a local florist set up a bucket of free blooms. The fridge also doubles as a mutual aid station accepting donated umbrellas, tarps and other utilitarian items on behalf of vulnerable populations. And in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, it’s served as a makeshift memorial in his honor, with donated protest signs occasionally among its offerings.

“It's hard to put into words, watching this whole thing grow and seeing other communities with their own fridges,” Tietze tells Yahoo Life. “It's very humbling and unexpected and as corny as it sounds, it's inspiring. I wouldn't myself identify as an activist ... I was really just a person just plugging in a fridge.”

Calling the Friendly Fridge the “center point of the community,” Tietze says she’d love to see the project expand into a permanent, community-regulated, brick-and-mortar shop offering free goods. For now, though, she’s heartened by seeing people in her community “empowering themselves” and pitching in collectively.

Says Tietze: “I think it's become very clear that it can't be every person for themselves anymore, and that if we're gonna make it through this, we have to do it together.”

Video produced by Jenny Miller.

Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity.

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