Food insecurity has skyrocketed in the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic: It's estimated that more than 50 million people across the country will not have "adequate access" to nutritious food. In many areas, food banks are trying to fill the gaps; other methods, like community fridges, have also become popular.
For author Celeste Headlee, the best way to help was to set up a "Little Free Pantry," creating a system where those in her Rockville, Maryland community could pick up what they needed. She was inspired to set up the pantry early in the pandemic: In June, a neighborhood store gave away boxes of free food. Headlee told TODAY Food that the line to receive a box eventually stretched for a quarter of a mile.
"We couldn't believe the number of people that were there to get food," Headlee said. "My neighbor was like, 'I wish we had a place where we could just give food to people rather than making them go to the food bank.' Food banks are awesome, but some of them require people to give their name and address, some are in churches, there's a number of reasons why people may choose not to go to food banks. I was like, 'Well, we can do that. If people have Little Free Libraries; I can have a Little Free Pantry.'"
Little Free Pantries, a grassroots movement originally founded in 2016 by Jessica McClard in Fayetteville, Arkansas, are wooden boxes filled with nonperishable goods available to anyone in need. And as TODAY previously reported, the mini pantries began popping up all over Seattle shortly after the pandemic began.
Headlee said that she purchased a Little Free Library kit on Etsy and installed it a sheltered part of her backyard in July so people could visit it in private. She added a number of features to make it accessible, like solar lights that allow people to see the interior of the pantry at night, and says she spends about $500 a month keeping it stocked.
"I put shelf-stable milk in there … People put in lots of boxes of macaroni and cheese but often forget that if you're going to make those, you also need milk and butter and a stovetop, so I tend to buy things that can be made with just water," Headlee explained. Other frequently stocked items include cereal, apples, granola, oatmeal, and hygiene items like toothpaste and tampons. Neighbors sometimes donate supplies like macaroni and cheese, tomato sauce and pasta; when Headlee has extra money donated, she'll include more expensive items like canned meat, seasonings like salt and pepper and more.
"I just don't want anybody hungry," she continued. "It's just that simple. I don't care who you are. I just don't want you to be hungry."
On Jan. 19, Headlee found a note in the pantry: A patron thanked her for the donated food, writing that she had been "helping 2 families stay afloat these past couple of weeks."
"That was really moving," Headlee said. "This is a very solitary kind of service. I go out and buy supplies by myself, I stock it by myself, I come out in the morning and (the pantry) is empty. I generally don't see people out there. So to get an acknowledgement is just like a reminder that there is another human being on the end of the transaction. That's real people. That's having an impact. It's really, really great, and it just motivates you to keep going."
Headlee posted about the note and the pantry itself on Twitter, leading to an outpouring of support and financial donations.
"It was a shock. People ended up donating a little over $1,500," said Headlee, who explained that the donations had begun when she shared her Venmo account with one man, who donated $15. " … I got up in the morning and there was more than $1,500 in my Venmo."
Headlee called the donations incredibly generous and said they will be enough to fund the pantry for several months.
"The ultimate generosity is to do something for someone for which you will never be thanked or acknowledged, and so it was very moving," she said. "2020 has not been a great year. It's been a struggle for me like it has for everybody. But in those times when you are most feeling overwhelmed, sometimes the best thing you can do is do something for somebody else. Sometimes that's the most healing and life-affirming choice that you can make."