Fayetteville woman may be onto something big with Little Free Pantries

Little Free Pantry founder Jessica McClard stands next to her first pantry outside Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in east Fayetteville.

Staff photo

Over the last few years, Little Free Libraries have been popping up all over the country.

The small kiosks filled with books that are free to take and enjoy have surfaced on countless corners around Fayetteville as well, and now a local woman is hoping the concept can be used to feed more than just minds.

Fayetteville resident Jessica McClard is the creator behind the first ever Little Free Pantry, a free-standing enclosure filled with non-perishable foods, toiletries, and other household items that are free to take.

McClard said the idea came to her one day while on a run in her neighborhood.

“As an avid reader, I loved the idea behind the Little Free Libraries,” she said. “There are several in my neighborhood, and one day I found myself wondering if they could be applied to other areas of need. I immediately thought of food insecurity.”

Once the idea hit her, McClard worked relatively quickly. She and some friends set about building the first Little Free Pantry, which was installed in May at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in east Fayetteville.

Word about her original pantry spread quickly, and after being in place for just a few months, it’s already filled and emptied about six times per day, she estimates. Also since then, two more Little Free Pantries – one at Christ’s Church in south Fayetteville and another outside a church in Ardmore, Oklahoma – have been built.

The Facebook page McClard created for her little idea went from zero to more than 8,000 followers in a matter of months, and she is answering emails almost daily giving advice to new folks on how to create their own Little Free Pantries.

“I get contacted pretty frequently,” she said. “And I love that. We launched a website recently, and that has cut down on the legwork a bit, but this is a totally open-source project, and I hope it continues to grow.”

How it works

A little Free Pantry outside Christ’s Church in south Fayetteville

Courtesy

McClard said location is a very important aspect to consider when developing a Little Free Pantry. Safety is also important, so low-traffic and low-crime areas are recommended when considering a site.

It’s also important to go through the appropriate channels to acquire the permission and city permits required to place a pantry.

Once a location has been determined, McClard said it’s time to decide who might be supportive of the idea by helping to keep it stocked.

The pantries are generally filled with canned proteins and vegetables, peanut butter and bread, crackers, snacks, along with household items like toilet paper, tampons, and diapers.

McClard said she’s not sure who all the people are who help stock her pantries, though she has some ideas. Church members, friends, and folks from the neighborhood are helping out, along with local Girl Scout troupes, high school-aged kids, and of course, plenty of caring strangers.

Little Free Pantries are empty pretty often, too, and that’s by design. Irregular supply helps to keep traffic and consumption manageable, and helps to cut down on loitering.

McClard said when she announced the first Little Free Pantry, there were quite a few naysayers in the comments of the early stories about her idea in the local media.

Concerns about the kiosks being vandalized or pantries being abused by those who utilize them, McClard said, have proved to be unfounded so far.

“The sites have been incredibly well tended,” she said. “I stopped by on Memorial Day, and someone had decorated the original site with flags. And as far as I’m concerned, if anyone is in a position where they need to take literally everything from it, well, then that’s what it’s there for.”

Little Free Pantry’s role

McClard said she realizes that Little Free Pantries aren’t going to end food insecurity on their own, but she thinks they can certainly serve a need and fill gaps in communities.

“I think it forms a harmonious relationship with other food pantries,” she said. “Where they may have set hours, the Little Free Pantry can be open 24 hours a day.”

Others benefiting from the pantries are those living paycheck-to-paycheck, folks who encounter unexpected expenses, or parents of children who depend on free lunches at school, but struggle to feed them in the summertime. Sometimes, it’s just people who may feel embarrassed about asking for help.

The anonymity that comes with donating, or taking, from the Little Free Pantry has its benefits as well, McClard said.

“Whether you’re stocking or taking from the pantry, you’re forced to confront your feelings of ‘What does it mean to be in need,'” she said. “And I’ve learned that sometimes, the act of giving can be as profound of a need for some people as the need for food.”

Becoming a movement

Residents congregate at the dedication of the “Blessing Box” Little Free Pantry in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Courtesy

Though the first Little Free Pantry was erected just a few months ago, there could be more coming soon.

McClard said she’s heard of a handful of single projects that are in the works, and she also knows of at least two groups that are working to develop between 10-20 Little Free Pantries in communities both locally and in other parts of the region.

And though she’s not looking to turn her idea into a full-blown non-profit organization, she still believes the idea itself has the potential to take on a life of its own.

“For me, I’d just like to see more people do it,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is stand in the way of anyone who wants to get involved.”

McClard said there are plenty of ways to help, including volunteering, stocking an existing pantry, building a pantry, or just helping to share the idea with friends on social media.

“I hope it will become a movement, that it will go viral,” she said. “With the attention it is getting, my feeling is that it will.”


This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.
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