You’ve probably heard about or seen little free libraries—the cute wooden boxes people sometimes put in their front yards with free books inside to read and share. But I recently encountered a new use for boxes like this: the little free pantry. Jessica McClard, the woman behind the original little free pantry, lives in Fayetteville, AR and says she first had the idea while she was out on a jog through her neighborhood and noticed several little free library boxes.

“I was thinking about the little free library concept,” she says. “It’s not so much about the books. It’s about recreating a space for neighborliness, and I wondered if it could be used in another way.”

She launched the pilot pantry a year ago in May 2016 on her church’s lawn and since then it has spawned hundreds of others around the world. There is no official database of the little free pantries, partly because they’ve gone by many different names, but McClard estimates 500-1,000 are in existence, including some in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. For the past year, McClard has served as a resource for these pantries and has built up a website and Facebook page where she posts information for people interested in starting their own pantries.

The pantry is a fairly simple concept: a small wooden box with a glass door sits in a public location and is filled with food items, available for anyone in the community who need them.

The patrons who use little free pantries are fairly different from those who would use a traditional food pantry, says McClard: “It’s people who are falling through the cracks. I get contacted all the time by people who wouldn’t qualify for a mainstream pantry, but are living paycheck to paycheck.” For these neighbors, the pantry is a resource to help sustain them through tough times. McClard also noted a recent message she’d received from a psychologist at the VA who has a client that uses the pantry because his severe PTSD prevents him from visiting a traditional pantry where the crowded waiting room would be too stress-inducing.

I asked whether McClard found it hard to get initial community buy-in for the little free pantries, or whether new pantries around the world had experienced challenges in starting up. She says for the most part, that’s not the case. “In my experience and the anecdotal experience of others I’ve talked to, it’s not hard at all,” she says.

The "Blessing Box," a little free pantry spin off.

The "Blessing Box," a little free pantry spin off.

Leveraging existing relationships—such as McClard’s with her church—is key for success. She recommends houses of worship, businesses, nonprofits, and schools as ideal locations for little free pantries. Private homes are more challenging because of privacy concerns and the increased traffic that a pantry can bring to a residential street, so if you’re looking to put up a little free pantry in your yard, McClard highly recommends talking to your neighbors first. She has also noticed that working with local governments (her own included) can be a challenge, but she adds that in communities where a spirited leader has an in with local government, the results can be very powerful.

Pantries are restocked in a variety of ways, depending on the organization or person who creates them. McClard says the restocking of her pantry happens completely organically, but that others have found rotating monthly or even daily assignments helpful. “It’s up to the people who are stewarding the box how they want to do it,” says McClard. “I’ve seen civic groups take on a month, or the high school football team takes on a month...” Anything works and it’s a fairly low maintenance project that can really bring a community together.

The main goal of the little free pantries is, of course, feeding hungry people, but community collaboration has been another meaningful result of the pantry project. “It’s really [great to see] the community-building that happens as a result,” says McClard. Pantries have “a transformative effect” on the neighborhoods where they’re erected.

To support that transformation, McClard will continue to steward the little free pantry efforts around the world by building a database of sites that would provide updates on the status (full or empty) of each box and allow people to order food and have it mailed directly to the boxes. She's an inspiring strong citizen using this hyper-local, small-scale method to help out neighbors who are hungry and building community connections in the process.

Find tips for starting your own little free pantry and more information on the original project here.

(All photos from the Little Free Pantry Facebook page)

You may also like: