At least once a day, Matthew Nordon drives by the Little Free Pantry in Lexington Park, Maryland.
Sitting in his “loaner” Hyundai Elantra, often with fiancee Tiffany Tucker by his side, Nordon, 41, checks out the offerings on display in the closet-sized wooden cabinet, hand-painted by a local artist and stocked by nearby residents.
Days with canned soups and canned fish — stuff “you can eat right out of the box” — are great days for Nordon, who is jobless and living out of his car with Tucker and her mother.
Days with toothpaste or shampoo are even better.
“It would make things a lot worse [if this wasn’t here],” Nordon said of the streetside pantry. “It’s already a struggle as it is.”
Lexington Park’s pantry, which opened for use in June 2017, is one of over 600 Little Free Pantries set up across the United States over the past three years. The movement started when Jessica McClard, a 44-year-old mother of two living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, noticed a Little Free Library pop up in her hometown. That initiative, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, encourages people around the world to share books via mini-libraries made from things like tree stumps or mailboxes.
McClard was astonished to see scores of Little Free Libraries appear soon after the first.
“There was something going on ... and it seemed to have something to do with a need to reconnect with our neighbors,” McClard said. “It wasn’t so much about what went inside the space as the space itself — and I just knew I was going to put food in it. I was determined to do it.”
She opened the world’s first Little Free Pantry on May 12, 2016 just outside her church in Fayetteville. McClard’s proposal was simple: Anyone could build a Little Free Pantry (today there is even a do-it-yourself kit on Amazon), anyone could add food, and anyone could take food. She created social media accounts for the initiative and later launched a website.
Things moved fast. Two weeks after McClard opened the first, a stranger built a second Little Free Pantry in Fayetteville; a few months after that, more than 100 had cropped up across America and the idea had gone international — someone had built a Little Free Pantry in New Zealand.
“I hoped that it would [take off] and thought that it might,” McClard said. “It was just compelling to people.”
Today, in addition to the hundreds in the United States, there are Little Free Pantries in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Through her website, McClard keeps track of as many Little Free Pantries as she can and provides general advice on where and how to build the cabinets. She estimates at least seven new Little Free Pantries appear every week.
“It’s a really neat thing,” said Tim McDermott, the chief development officer for Feed More, a non-profit that collects, prepares, and distributes food in central Virginia. “Addressing food insecurity takes a lot, and this is another pretty innovative piece to the puzzle that meets a really local need where it exists. Hunger is a year-round problem for people.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 40 million Americans — including more than 12 million children — lacked regular access to a sufficient supply of food in 2017. McDermott said Little Free Pantries are especially helpful as a way to meet the “emergency needs” of those who are sometimes forced to choose between buying food and paying for shelter, medication or transportation.
Neither McClard nor McDermott advocated placing strict restrictions on what should go inside a Little Free Pantry. McDermott, who noted that food-insecure people often face health issues, said high-protein foods like peanut butter and tuna fish — or low-sodium foods like fruit canned in its own juice — are always a good option.
But Little Free Pantries are not just for food. Tiffany Childress, 32, who — along with other members of the MOMS club, a local support group for stay-at-home mothers — helped open the Little Free Pantry in Lexington Park, said the items that disappear most quickly are often personal hygiene items: toilet paper, toothpaste, tampons.
“I have not really seen anything that did not go out of a Little Free Pantry,” McClard said. “People should implement this in whatever way suits their need or their vision or matches their resources.”
McClard does, however, suggest that Little Free Pantry owners put up signs forbidding items that could possibly cause harm — things like razors, alcohol or glass containers that might shatter.
In addition to feeding the hungry, Little Free Pantries can knit neighborhoods closer together. Justina Edwardsen — a former resident of Takoma Park, Maryland who opened a Little Free Pantry in her neighborhood in early 2018 after hearing about the movement on National Public Radio — said she was surprised and delighted by how quickly her neighbors got involved with the project.
Edwardsen spread the word about the Takoma Park Little Free Pantry by posting on her neighborhood listserv. Within a week or two, the pantry was filling and emptying every day, and almost everyone she knew was contributing. Childress said the Little Free Pantry in Lexington Park, built outside the Lexington Park Library, took off similarly quickly — all it required was a few posts on social media, as well as a few fundraising events (for the construction costs, which totaled a couple hundred dollars) in partnership with local restaurants. Other residents learned about the Little Free Pantry just by visiting the library.
“It brought into view poverty in our community,” said Amy Ford, the branch manager of the Lexington Park Library. “But I think it also gave people a new and visible way to make a difference.”
Molly Edwardsen, Justina’s 10-year-old daughter, said she realized the impact her family’s Little Free Pantry could have when she opened the pantry one day and found a hand-written note tucked inside.
“It said, ‘God bless you,’ and then there was the name of a family and then it said, ‘A Homeless Family,’” Molly Edwardsen said. “It just made me feel so happy to have people not starving.”
Tara Leggett, who lives off of social security disability checks in a home near Lexington Park, is another person for whom a Little Free Pantry helps stave off starvation. Leggett, who is allergic to gluten and suffers from stomach cancer, said she visits the Little Free Pantry in her area every day.
Burdened in part by medical expenses, Leggett sometimes stops by when she cannot afford to restock her own pantry. At other times, when things are easier, she comes by to leave food. And sometimes, she just swings by to clean: She clears away spilled pasta, re-stacks cans, organizes donated items of clothing.
On a recent Wednesday, Leggett spent several minutes aligning water bottles in pristine rows, making sure their plastic labels faced forward. She takes care of the Little Free Pantry, she said, because it takes care of her.
“I have less than $20 to my name right now,” Leggett said. “This keeps me going.”