With Little Free Pantries, neighbors feed neighbors in need

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes, charitable acts are contagious. Inspired by Little Free Libraries, an Arkansas woman leveraged that same community-led, grassroots spirit to address food insecurity. Today, thousands of Little Free Pantries help feed those in need. 

Adria Pettigrew/Courtesy of Jessica McClard
Jessica McClard tends to the first Little Free Pantry, which is on the grounds of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in November 2019. Today there are thousands of such pantries across the world.

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It was during one of her regular runs that Jessica McClard noticed the first Little Free Library in her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The homemade book exchange boxes had been proliferating all over the country. She became fascinated with them, and wanted to translate her interest in food insecurity into a similar project. 

Thus the idea for the Little Free Pantry was born, a free-standing cabinet with shelves and a door, mounted on a post. It’s filled with nonperishable food and personal hygiene products. Anyone can put up a pantry, take from the pantry, and donate to the pantry. 

With a microloan of $250, Ms. McClard installed the first Little Free Pantry on the grounds of her church in May 2016. Within months, more than 100 pantries had sprung up across the country. 

Today there are hundreds in the U.S. as well as an estimated 3,000 pantries worldwide in countries like Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Thailand. 

“It takes all of us to make this work,” she says. “It’s only together that we do it. ... We all need each other.” 

Jessica McClard is an avid runner and reader.

It was during her runs that she noticed the first Little Free Library in her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The homemade book exchange boxes had been proliferating all over the country. Soon there were four such libraries within walking distance of her home, situated in her middle-class neighborhood in a college town. She became fascinated with the Little Free Libraries and thought a lot about why she was drawn to them.

“These little free spaces create a place to be neighborly again,” she says. “And that is something that some of us really, really want. If that’s the case, and it’s as much about the space as the books, then anything might go inside it.” 

It didn’t take her long to figure out exactly what she wanted to put inside such a space. Ms. McClard has a long-standing interest in poverty justice and a keen awareness of the prevalence of food insecurity in Northwest Arkansas. She was part of a giving circle at the elementary school her two daughters attended, helping provide food to students in need. 

“All of those things clicked,” she says. “I knew what I was going to do.” 

Thus the idea for the Little Free Pantry was born. 

The concept couldn’t be simpler. A Little Free Pantry can take many forms, but typically it’s a free-standing cabinet with shelves and a door, mounted on a post. It’s filled with nonperishable food and personal hygiene products. Anyone can put up a pantry, anyone can take from the pantry, and anyone can donate to the pantry. 

With a microloan of $250, Ms. McClard installed the first Little Free Pantry on the grounds of her church in Fayetteville in May 2016. Things moved quickly from there. She created a Facebook page for the project and within a few days her story was picked up by the local media. Two weeks later, someone unknown to Ms. McClard put up a second pantry in another part of town. Soon a third pantry popped up 300 miles away in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Within months, more than 100 pantries had sprung up across the country and the concept had gone international, with a Little Free Pantry reported in New Zealand. 

“I really had no idea how fast it would happen,” Ms. McClard says. “I hoped that people would take the concept and run with it, and that’s exactly what happened.”

A way to give back 

Today there are hundreds of pantries in the U.S. as well as in countries such as Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Thailand. Ms. McClard estimates there are more than 3,000 pantries worldwide, though the exact number is impossible to know. 

She attributes the popularity and rapid expansion of the mini pantries to a number of factors. The Little Free Libraries, which started in 2009, primed many people to the concept of a public space where neighbors connect with neighbors, anonymously and with little organization. 

“It’s not a difficult project to execute,” she says, “but it also invites participation without having to execute. It’s an easy way for a lot of people to give back to their communities. For a lot of people, it’s difficult to write a $25 check, but when they get paid, they might pick up an extra can of green beans and put it in the mini pantry. That happens all the time.”

Ms. McClard’s pantry is entirely open source. There are no schedules or sign-up sheets. Friends and community members stock the pantry when they are moved to do so. Other pantries and networks of pantries are more organized. 

While her pantry has always been active, she has seen a spike over the past few months, both in how often it is emptied and in the number of new pantries opening up worldwide. 

“COVID has people looking to do something and this is something that people can do,” she says. “Social distance is built in, so you really don’t need to be close to someone to help through these spaces. I feel like it’s the mini-pantry moment.” 

“We all need each other” 

Gretchen Davis started a mini pantry in Columbus, Ohio, in 2018, impelled by a desire to create a volunteer opportunity for her four children. In 2 1/2 years, the Columbus Blessing Boxes Project has expanded to 60 mini pantries covering much of central Ohio. 

“Jessica’s idea to put out a food pantry to help those in need – no questions asked, no signing up, a place anyone can go whenever it’s convenient – was a fantastic idea,” Ms. Davis says. “People are sometimes reluctant to ask for help,” she adds, noting that the mini pantries break the traditional provider-client relationship model. 

Mini pantries are not intended to take the place of food banks, which are far larger and have the capacity to serve much greater numbers of people. Since mini pantries are small, they cannot stock the quantity and variety of foods that would be available at a food bank, nor are the contents of a mini pantry predictable. 

“Minis are a gap-filler,” Ms. McClard says, adding that many food pantries require recipients to go through means testing, to determine if they are needy enough to receive benefits. “There are a lot of people experiencing food insecurity who do not pass a means test,” Ms. McClard says. “Minis are a place people can go when they can’t go somewhere else.” 

“I see Little Free Pantries sitting alongside traditional sources of food,” says Molly Harmon, a chef in Seattle who used a microgrant to build and install six mini pantries last March. That project has since ballooned to 74 pantries located within a 30 miles radius of the city. 

“Circumstances are different for everyone and they are a nonjudgmental way to get food,” Ms. Harmon says. “They’re open 24/7. There’s no ID required. It’s food by neighbors for neighbors, so the likelihood of finding culturally relevant foods is higher. And it’s an anonymous access point, so anyone can come and get food.” 

The mini-pantry movement has earned the respect of much larger hunger relief organizations. Brenda Shaw is the chief development officer of the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston, South Carolina, which services 300 partner agencies in a 9,000 square mile territory. Last year, the food bank served more than 200,000 people and distributed over 32 million pounds of food.  

“I think [mini pantries] certainly address a need, especially for emergency food assistance,” Ms. Shaw says. “If someone can’t get to a  larger pantry or to the food bank itself, mini pantries provide our neighbors in need with food immediately, which is a very good and honorable thing to do.” 

Ms. McClard maintains a website that offers guidance on topics like building and locating a mini pantry, as well as a map showing the location of many of the pantries. She is in the process of launching an online marketplace that she expects to be live later this summer, www.pantrygift.org, that supports the mini-pantry movement by allowing people to make tax-deductible donations to individual pantries or pantry networks, or to create fundraising campaigns.

“If it were just me, that box out there would be nothing more than a kind gesture to somebody,” she says. “It takes all of us to make this work. It’s only together that we do it. I need them. We all need each other.” 

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