Sometimes called blessing boxes, these outdoor pantries can help get food on the table for local community members.
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It's been nearly a year since the pandemic lockdown started, and while you might not be able to gather with friends to make a homemade meal, you can help your neighbors get food on the table. Many need it more than ever as it's estimated that one in six Americans could go hungry due to COVID-19. A simple way to help feed those in need is to donate to a little free pantry in your area. You might've seen them while walking around your neighborhood: Outdoor cabinets that look like tiny houses filled with supplies. Sometimes called blessing boxes, the free pantries encourage neighbors to share non-perishable food items and hygiene products.

Similar to little free libraries (where anyone can borrow a book or leave literature for others to enjoy), free pantries help provide food to those in need. Usually, little free pantries are outside of a church or business. The wood structures are raised from the ground and often feature glass doors so people can see what’s inside. Community members are encouraged to keep the pantries stocked by leaving canned or dry foods and other supplies for others to take when needed.

Little Free Pantry outside of a storefront
The blessing box Corri Biesemeyer created in Festus, Missouri, sits outside of a Books Galore store.
| Credit: Courtesy of Corri Biesemeyer

Mini free pantries have been springing up in neighborhoods across the United States since 2016, after Jessica McClard first set one up outside of her church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She also started the Little Free Pantry website to help keep track of locations across the country. Currently, there are more than 850 free pantries on the map, with at least one in most states.

Corri Biesemeyer started a blessing box in her town of Festus, Missouri, about 40 minutes south of Saint Louis. “I always wanted to do something that made a difference in the community,” she says. But the process of getting the box up and running wasn’t easy. It took her about a year to find someone to build the box; then, she had to find a business that was willing to let her install the box on its property. Currently, it’s located at Books Galore in Festus.

Biesemeyer sets aside money every month, then makes a grocery run to pick up pantry staples to fill the box. “So far, it seems to be a pretty good hit,” she says. “People are actually going and taking the things that we put in, and it seems like people are bringing stuff also.”

One of the advantages of contributing to a neighborhood pantry is that, unlike food banks and larger pantries, the donations in the boxes are always available. “If someone is in a bind and they need something, and a food pantry is closed, this can kind of fill in the gaps of when they’re not able to make it to one of the bigger food pantries,” Biesemeyer says. In addition to being open 24/7, there are also no limits or restrictions on how much people can take if they need extra food.

Because little free pantries are outside, it’s important to only contribute non-perishable items. Canned goods are always an option, but in some locations, you can also leave extra clothes or hygiene products like toilet paper, toothpaste, and deodorant. “What’s really popular and gets taken quickly seems to be peanut butter, canned soup, toilet paper, any kind of hygiene products, any kind of kids’ snacks or baby snacks that we put in,” Biesemeyer says.

If there’s already a free pantry in your community, consider stocking it with a few non-perishables. Especially with growing concerns over COVID-19, stocking your community pantry can help at-risk individuals avoid a trip to the store. It might also be a good idea to wipe down any cans or boxes with a disinfecting wipe before you leave them at the pantry so germs can’t spread to others.

If your neighborhood doesn’t have its own little pantry, but you want to start one, there are plenty of resources to help you get started. Biesemeyer got in touch with the original Blessing Box Facebook page, and they were able to give her advice and plans for creating a pantry in her town.

You can also reach out to Little Free Pantry, which has free building plans for creating a box and checklists of essential pantry items. It's a good idea to check with your local city government before starting to build a box as some have zoning laws restricting where it can be placed or how large it can be. But with a little effort, a blessing box or free pantry can unite a community in times of need.

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