It's like those Little Free Libraries that are popping up all over the place—but for food, instead

little free pantry
Credit: Courtesy of Ruby Peoples

The first one appeared just a little over a year ago, in front of a Lutheran church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The idea, says founder Jessica McClard, came to her when she saw the now-common Little Free Libraries going up around her town. Instead of books, why not food?

It was a simple idea, the Little Free Pantry—just as with the libraries, food would come in, food would go out; sometimes there'd be an exchange, other times someone would just need something to eat. At a time when food security is of increasing concern—in 2015, it was estimated that more than 40 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, among them 13 million children—the concept seemed to strike a chord.

Success stories are everywhere, and quite suddenly, too. A woman in Cincinnati rehabbed old newspaper boxes, placing them in ten so-called "food deserts" around the city, with the help of a local foundation. Someone in Schenectady, New York, concerned that those in need in a specific area might be too far away from the local food bank, installed a box in their neighborhood. Students at Drake University in Iowa, in partnership with a local urban farm, launched a program to place six of the pantries in their surrounding Des Moines neighborhood. A humane society in Wisconsin recently put up a Little Pet Food Pantry, aimed at struggling pet owners.

Getting involved is easy—McClard and her Little Free Pantry organization act more as cheerleaders for the program, than anything else, working to raise awareness of the urgent need for increased food security in the United States, but how each town chooses to get involved is entirely up to them. Most projects are grassroots, crowdsourced affairs, though in many cases, a local organization has assisted.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, in places where the boxes exist, though some criticism has been leveled—by nature, the pantries are a drop in the bucket compared to the widespread need that impacts many communities. But that drop in the bucket is still very real, and very necessary—small needs, the needs of people too hesitant or even embarrassed to sign up for any kind of organized assistance, are being met. While the proliferation of the pantries—and the need for them—is hardly cause to celebrate, there's something gratifying about seeing so many communities rise to the occasion.

Want to get involved? The Little Free Pantry organization has more information on their web site.