The Little Free Pantry
by Cat Johnson on August 14, 2016
Earlier this month, Shareable posted a short article about the Little Free Pantry in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Created by Jessica McClard, the Pantry is an easy way for people to share surplus food and household goods, and access items they may need.
The response to the post has been incredible. In the first week, over 21,000 people read the article and it has been shared over 700 times on Facebook. Our hunch is that people love the low-cost, direct action approach that McClard is taking to fighting food insecurity on a neighborhood level. As we face overwhelming global issues, seeing a simple, human-scale project addressing problems on a local level is a welcome relief.
I spoke with McClard about why people are so drawn to the Little Free Pantry, what she hopes comes out of it, and the unexpected challenges the project has brought. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
As we face huge, global challenges, simple, effective solutions like the Little Free Pantry are really inspiring to people who want to help but feel overwhelmed. What is it about this project that has created such a huge response?
I think there are a couple of things. I think people want to give in ways that are manageable and tangible. It’s really hard to know how to address food insecurity, but you can pick up a couple of cans at the grocery store, and put them into a pantry, and feel like you’re doing something. Some of these problems are so overwhelming, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I also think the Pantry breaks down the barriers between a service provider and client that you see in traditional food pantries. Everyone walks up to the pantry the same way. My hope is that some of the shame that people experience from being in need diminishes. Whether you’re putting food in or taking food out, everyone goes up to the pantry the same way.
What inspired the Little Free Pantry?
I’m a runner and a reader. I ran past Little Free Libraries all the time and really started to wonder what it was that is compelling about the program because it clearly was. It seemed like there was a time when they were multiplying like crazy where I live. I knew there was something about that project that speaks to people and I wondered if it would be possible to address other quality of life issues using that same concept.
What was the initial response to the Little Free Pantry?
I saw a response almost immediately. I thought there would be some interest in the project because of the interest in the Little Free Libraries, but I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the response. On the Little Free Pantry Facebook page, I’ve gotten 8,300 likes. The first weekend we looked at the Facebook metrics where you can see what your reach is, it was almost one million people. It was overwhelming almost immediately.
I got a call from the news station the day after I first stocked it. There was so much more attention with the online presence and what was happening through social media than there was at the Pantry. There was a lot of attention, but the food I had put into the pantry stayed there because word hadn’t gotten out yet to the community that this was available. It took another day before people found the pantry.
Since that time, it’s turning over at least six times a day. What I didn’t anticipate was how great the demand would be for it.
One of the most inspiring things I read about the project was, early on, when you went to fill it and someone already had. That’s what makes projects like these survive—when the community adopts them and doesn’t just make it the responsibility of one person. What have you seen since then, in regards to other people contributing to it?
Other people are definitely stepping up. I have a number of people I know who actively contribute to it on a regular basis and I know of others that contribute here and there.
Some of the people I don’t even know, which is kind of amazing. I’ve had people reach out to me to help and I don’t know them at all. They wouldn’t know my face, because my face is not associated with the Facebook page. We’d never know each other, which I think is pretty cool.
What would you like to see from the Pantry on a day-to-day basis?
How I’d love to have it function is that it would not necessarily be a place for people who are really in need, but just for anyone. On the last day of school, I put some bubbles and jump ropes, and sidewalk chalk, and balloons in the pantry. I had to encourage the parents to send their kids there because they didn’t think it was for them.
I feel that the Pantry could potentially be for everyone. I took something out of it and took it home because I wanted to know what that felt like. It felt really good. It felt like community.
What are the most popular items in your pantry?
I check on it once a day because I feel like that’s probably doing good diligence as far as the site goes, but it’s turning over so frequently that what’s there when I’m there is in some ways just coincidence.
It turns over completely though, so whatever is being put in there is being taken. I heard that there have been baby shoes in there, which, if there was too much of that thing, I’d probably have to try to control it because clothing is so bulky and it’s a pretty small space.
So far, there has not been anything that’s stuck around. It gets pretty hot here so I was concerned that maybe it would get too hot inside, but things just do not stay. It’s about 40 minutes from the time when people put things in to when they’re gone. I’ve marked what time people I know say they’re going to go drop things off, then I’ll go back and check it at varying times later, and everything they brought will be gone.
What can you tell me about the location of the Pantry and what role that plays in its success?
It has good visibility. It’s not in one of the highest traffic areas but gets good traffic. It sits at the intersection of a couple of roads that are through streets. There’s a school right across the road and low-income housing right across the street from there. It’s in a good location as far as both visibility and accessibility.
Because it’s on private property, I haven’t had to deal with any pushback. It’s set back a little bit at the entrance to a big parking lot, so it in no way obstructs the flow of traffic. I think some of the issues around Little Free Libraries had to do with people pulling cars up in the road, but this doesn't affect the traffic at all.
I have permission from the property owner and, as far as that goes, there haven’t been any issues. Great visibility and really good accessibility are both important.
Have you heard of other pantries popping up? Are people reaching out for advice?
I lost count of how many people have asked for advice. I know of a couple others that are already in existence. I get contacted multiple times a day by people who want to duplicate the process. I decided to build a website because it’s just me—I’m not an organization or anything. I really want people to duplicate it, so I’d answer the questions, but I was answering the same questions over and over and over again. It was not very efficient. I hope that, with the website, it will be easier for people to get the information they’re looking for, which will encourage people to do it.
Have you had any issues with theft or vandalism or people taking everything?
The taking everything probably has happened. I haven’t actually seen it happen, but I think it probably has. That doesn’t really concern me because if, whoever that person is, is in a situation to be there and taking everything out of it, to me, that’s need. It’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
If you don’t really need it, you’re not going to use it and who am I to judge someone else's needs? That whole concept of food security—what it takes to feel secure—is different depending on who you ask. That is not for me to judge.
Vandalism is something I got asked about it quite a bit at the beginning. There have been no incidents thus far. In fact, the opposite has happened and people have been enhancing the site in ways I didn’t expect. Someone put up flags on Memorial Day. I have no idea who it was. Someone taped up a notification about the school lunch program—Now that it’s summer break, there are a couple of schools around that offer free meals at noon—and where to find information about that. These are just people in the community.
I understand why people would want to ask that question, but for me it was not enough of a deterrent to keep me from doing it. If something happened, I would just try to take care of it.
Are there any challenges you’ve had with the Pantry?
There are a couple of things in differing arenas. People contact me a lot about liability issues, but I’m not an attorney. I can’t give legal advice. Ordinances and codes and all of that differ from municipality to municipality. What is the case here isn’t going to be the case even 15 minutes from here.
That’s been kind of frustrating because I think people want to do it but they also want to be protected. It’s frustrating to say, do your diligence at the state and local level. I wish that I could just say, “It’s so easy, just go do it.”
It’s also upsetting and frustrating—and, I guess to be expected too—that I get contacted by people who really need help and are looking for help. I can’t help them more than what I’m doing at this point.
For example, someone contacted me and said they didn’t have enough money to buy diapers for two days. I can’t predict what's going to be in the pantry. There may not be diapers in there, so people who have a really specific need, the Little Free Pantry is not going to be a great fit for them. It’s completely open source. I can’t predict what’s going to be in there, or how much is going to be in there, or even if there will be anything in there. That’s hard. I know that people are in need and the inability to do anything about it is tough. It definitely brings me more joy, and has been more of a blessing, than any of the bad, though. It’s just hard.
Any regulatory issues you’ve had to deal with? Does the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act cover something like this?
I’m playing email tag with someone at the University of Arkansas Food Law Program. The language of the Good Samaritan Law protects all donors, so the donors are protected, no matter what. But the language of the law identifies the one in receipt of the food and it specifically says a nonprofit. I’m trying to determine whether that means you have to be registered as a nonprofit or whether you’re just not profiting.
There is absolutely no case on the books, anywhere, of a donor or a provider of these types of services being sued. It’s never happened. But people wonder about that, and rightly so.
Anything you’d like to add?
This is working really well in rural communities because, it seems like, in rural communities, you already have that sense of a community there and the number of people that are food insecure is more manageable. I think in those smaller communities, it could really be a solution.