I am always impressed when I find people who take time out of their busy schedule to connect with others who clearly need that connection. They see something happening in their community and take action! I think we need more inspiring stories like this one. With this in mind, I reached out to Jessica McClard, Founder of The Little Free Pantry.
Jessica set up a Little Free Pantry for those going through tough times so they could take what they needed. Here is my Q/A with Jessica.
Growing up did your parents emphasize the need to help others in the community? Did they make you aware of people who were going through very hard times?
I grew up in a tiny rural farming community in Northeast Arkansas. Folks helped one another. So many times I watched my mother make a meal with dessert that my dad would then drive to its recipient, usually someone in grief or struggling.
What prompted you to create a Little Free Pantry? Did the idea develop over time or was there a single event that brought the idea to light?
About five years ago, I remarked the first Little Free Library in my hometown, Fayetteville, AR. Probably because I’m a reader. As time passed, I attended to that movement’s momentum and mission; its resonance seemed about neighborliness, a hunger for reconnection, which meant anything might go inside. I was determined to pilot a “Little Free Pantry,” as Arkansas is one of the most food-insecure states in the nation. Another year came and went before I found a location.
I think poverty is hiding in plain sight where I live. We don’t see signs of it throughout our area but our local food bank shares stats that I find surprising. Do you think people often try to hide poverty because they feel they will be judged? How do you think we can change how people feel about reaching out for help?
Fayetteville, AR, is consistently named one of the nicest places to live in the US, but the Northwest Arkansas region also ranks highly for growth of income inequality. If we appear to be doing well, and we do, it’s because those who aren’t are largely unseen. Folks living in poverty often hide it because in America poverty equals personal failure; these folks judge themselves and are judged by others, including leadership. We will change how people feel about reaching out when we recognize mutual dependence. We are part of a complex system where the health and wellbeing of one affect all.
When did you create your first Little Free Pantry? Are you able to get any feedback from the people who are using it? If so, are there certain items that they need more than others?
I launched the LFP Pilot in May 2016 and hear almost every day from people using minis. Minis can be hyperlocal, targeting the demographic most likely to interact with them; minis near schools need more healthy snacks for kids. Minis near veterinarians, more pet food. Generally, though, personal care items (feminine hygiene supplies, diapers, etc.) and paper goods are in demand as is protein.
What is your long term goal with Little Free Pantry? Would you like to see it throughout the most vulnerable areas in cities and towns throughout North America?
From the start, my “mission” was to feed as many people as possible as quickly as possible. I’d love to see the mini-movement continue to grow, but wildest dreams? The mini is for everyone, just like Little Free Libraries are for everyone. A place on my block where my neighbor knows I always forget to buy an onion.
What kind of change do you think this could create?
Typically, emergency food service providers operate on the margins. Minis re-center food insecurity in the community, raising awareness and acting as a collective thought experiment. Because everyone goes up to a mini the same way, they deconstruct the service provider/client model. More importantly, minis make a collective claim. Those of us doing this work claim compassion, trust, and grace over self-centering, mistrust, and judgment because these things just aren’t up to solving the problems affecting our communities.
How did you go about setting this up? Did you find that it was harder than you expected or easier than expected?
I just did it! I built the box anticipating someone would be willing to host, and when I finally got a “yes,” I put it in the ground that week! From start to finish, the project can be as easy or as difficult as a person wants to make it, but there’s a reason so many kids are doing it!
Where do you have Free Pantries set up? Are you thinking of expanding?
Mini pantries are an international grassroots movement. Often when someone brings the concept to a new market, local media cover it. Folks who want to know more seek out the local expert. Every time this happens, the “Little Free Pantry” gets further removed from me. And this is one of my favorite things about it. It’s ours.
Is the Free Pantry set up as a charitable organization? If not, is that a future direction you would consider?
Though some mini networks have organized as charities to be grocer donation eligible, that is not a direction I intend to pursue. I want people to know anyone can do this and intend to keep the concept free for anyone to implement in whatever way best meets their vision and their community’s need.
Did you find this a journey in personal growth? Did you feel empowered by being able to do something for others?
The mini pantry movement is the greatest gift of my life. I’ve received so much more from being a part of its work than I’ll ever give. I feel empowered not by being able to do something for others but by being connected to others.
Jessica McClard Founder, The Little Free Pantry
Phone. (479) 879-2950