When Jessica McClard created the first Little Free Pantry in 2016, inspired by the Little Free Libraries she would see in her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas, she didn’t anticipate how quickly the movement would take off.
“I think it was about four years ago that the first Little Free Library popped up in my home community … a lot of the Little Free Libraries even look like kitchen cabinets,” McClard says. “From there, it was just pretty obvious what I was going to do with it.”
There are now more than 450 varieties of the Little Free Pantries recorded nationwide, with five locations in Austin. The Little Free Pantry operates in the same well-known “take what you need, leave what you can” model of the libraries, with the main difference being that rather than sharing books, these pantries exist to provide free, easily accessed food to the surrounding community.
“This concept is just free for anybody to implement in whatever way they choose,” says McClard. “At first I saw this with the Blessing Boxes; now there are Red Door Food Pantries, Micro Pantries; these go by a ton of different names.”
One such variation is located at the Central Christian Church on West 12th Street and Guadalupe. Their “Petite Pantry,” set up in May 2018, was the first branch of the Little Free Pantry in Austin. Executive Pastor Heidi Bounds implemented the project with the help of Jennifer Pugh, a local champion for the pantries.
“As a pastor, you want to be able to help people when they come to your door,” Bounds says. “This has no restrictions. It’s for the single mom; it’s for the college kid; it’s for the homeless man; it’s for the husband who just lost his job and who just needs some beans and rice … It doesn’t put anybody in a box as far as who needs help. And that’s what I really, really love about it.”
Jenny Lorraine, another local owner of a Little Free Pantry, keeps hers in the front yard of her home. Though most pantries are located at public establishments, Lorraine says there is enough foot traffic by her home to keep it both stocked and utilized.
“There are days when it’s filled with baked goods. Today it’s filled with clothing and baby items,” she says. “It’s just really cool to watch … I guess it’s like my way of paying it forward. And the neighborhood loves it. You know, everybody’s always donating.”
Though the pantries aren’t large enough to come close to replacing institutions like food banks, they are a fun, unique way to serve both neighbors and those in need.
“I think it’s a really, really good entry point to service because it doesn’t require a lot of time or a lot of money, which opens it up to all sorts of people who maybe haven’t engaged with community service before,” McClard says. “In my wildest dreams, this would be something that anyone could feel like they could use.”
Update: Since the publication of this story, Jenny Lorraine's Little Free Pantry was destroyed by a truck that lost control on Cameron Rd. Click here to find updates the pantry's status and if they're currently accepting donations.
Written by Darby Kendall • Photos courtesy of Little Free Pantry & Petite Pantry