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Little Free Pantries spark neighborhood generosity in Madison

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Kendall stocking

Kendall Werner stocks the Little Free Pantry she and her family have been running outside their East Side home since June. Kendall's Brownies troop also has been collecting items for the pantry, which offers nonperishable food items and personal products for neighbors in need.

A dime, a cough drop and a bottle of nail polish.

That was the contribution from a visitor to Jessica White’s Little Free Pantry outside her home on Olin Avenue on Madison’s South Side. In the spirit of “take what you need, leave what you can” someone may have left all they had.

“It was incredibly kind that they thought so much that they had to give something back,” White said. “That’s what they had. And that’s what they left.”

The Little Free Pantry movement, started in the same vein as the Little Free Library, began in Arkansas two and a half years ago.

Jessica McClard, Little Free Pantry founder, saw Little Free Libraries popping up everywhere and wondered if there was a way to put that idea toward another type of movement. Because many little libraries looked so much like kitchen cabinets — in some cases they are — the answer became clear to McClard.

People were also familiar enough with the little libraries that using a pantry concept instead was a simple transition — they’d understand the purpose of the little free space, McClard said. Rather than books, the little pantries are filled with canned goods, easy to prepare food stuffs and even seasonal items like bubbles in the summer or hand warmers in the winter.

Since the Little Free Pantry movement began, McClard estimates there are upward of 1,000 little pantries across the country.

The Little Free Pantry website prompts new pantry organizers to check with their local officials about whether they need to acquire a permit before placing their pantry.

Pantry close-up

Little Free Pantries are stocked with canned goods, easy-to-prepare foods and seasonal items.

There could be more pantries that may have escaped the organization’s gaze, however, since the concept is open ended. Many pantry organizers call their space something different, like a blessing box, which is OK by McClard.

“Brand it however you want,” she said. “Allow this concept to gain traction. There are lots and lots of blessing boxes and there isn’t really any kind of requirement set in stone for what this needs to look like.”

For the Werner family on Madison’s East Side, their Little Free Pantry looks like a labor of love between a father and his daughter. Kendall Werner, 7, and her father, Dan Werner, refurbished an old cabinet found at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Kendall Werner said she painted the back and sides of the pantry as well as the butterflies and flowers. Her father painted the front, and the top was a collaborative effort.

The Werner’s pantry went up in front of their Milwaukee Street home in June. It didn’t take long for its contents to be cleared out, which left the family with mixed feelings.

Creating the pantry was really an experiment; they weren’t sure what to expect, said Allison Werner, Kendall’s mother.

“We’re glad it’s being used, but it was surprising how quickly it was used and what the need is,” she added.

Allison Werner said they check the pantry at least once a day to evaluate what needs replenishing while also making sure any additions to the stock are appropriate.

Kendall and Allison

Kendall Werner and her mother, Allison, check their Little Free Pantry every day to make sure it's adequately stocked. Allison Werner said the project opened her eyes to the level of need in the community.

“We look for stuff that shouldn’t be in there like books or perishable items or expired, opened or badly dented materials,” Kendall Werner added.

Kendall even made some “kindness rocks” to put in the pantry. She made some that said “try hard” and “never give up.”

When asked by her mom why she put those rocks in there, Kendall said “Because sometimes people might need to be encouraged to keep on trying.”

Neighbors have been extremely generous toward the Werners’ pantry, helping ensure it’s nearly always stocked. The Whites’ pantry isn’t always stocked, but that’s OK too, McClard said; allowing the community to regulate its own pantry keeps the spirit of giving high.

McClard’s original Little Free Pantry also isn’t always stocked. It’s refilled at the discretion of the community around it, which is part of how she runs her own personal project, she said.

She doesn’t organize the stocking of her pantry but lets the contributions happen organically, which has worked pretty well so far.

“For me, this really needed to be something that I could engage with but do it at my convenience and at the level of responsibility I felt I had time to devote,” McClard said. “I actually feel like, in some ways ... an empty pantry can help mitigate loitering concerns, or if you have a project where the box is always full of food, people will come to rely on it.”

Whether organizers assign people to stock the pantries or it just happens naturally is part of the idea of “differences” that surrounds the project. The pantries are all different because they serve the needs of different communities, McClard said.

McClard’s pantry largely serves single moms, whereas the Werner’s family has noticed adult men using their pantry and White said she’s seen all different kinds of people.

Filling a gap

Little Free Pantries can serve as a “gap filler” even in communities like Madison that have more brick and mortar food pantries, McClard said.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people who don’t qualify for food pantries who will use the little pantries when their paycheck runs out,” she added. “I think there are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck that wouldn’t always qualify to use those types of places, like college students.”

Using a Little Free Pantry also eliminates the rigmarole sometimes associated with more established pantries or community services.

There are a lot of great programs in Madison, but some require your name and financial information, which can be a barrier for some folks, Allison Werner said.

Kendall and pantry

Both Kendall Werner and her family and Jessica White's family have found thank you notes in their pantries. Those are some of the moments that make offering the pantries even more worthwhile, they said. 

The nice part about the Little Free Pantry is that it’s good for “short term use with no questions asked,” she said, with many visitors stopping by overnight for added privacy.

The Werners’ pantry is also located on a more private part of their property, not on the corner, which offers a little more confidentiality.

When they installed the pantry in June, the Werners had no idea that their pantry would be as successful as it has been or that their neighborhood would embrace the project so heartily.

Allison Werner said in the 12 years she has lived in Madison that she’s found a warm community that embraces generosity, so she’s glad that neighbors helping neighbors is an idea that flourishes here.

“(The Little Free Pantry) has reinforced what we’ve come to see in this community,” she said. “People are willing to help each other and support projects like this. That’s been really nice to see.”

“(The Little Free Pantry) has reinforced what we’ve come to see in this community. People are willing to help each other and support projects like this. That’s been really nice to see. ... We’re glad it’s being used, but it was surprising how quickly it was used and what the need is.” Alison Werner, organizer of a Little Free Pantry
on Madison’s East Side

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.