Some only come by at night, when no one can see them peeking inside, popping the door open and taking what they need.
Molly Harmon takes comfort in that, in seeing what’s missing from the Little Free Pantry outside her home in the morning. It means people are being sustained by their community, and in the simplest of ways: A bag of beans. A can of soup. Pasta.
Harmon — a private chef — had been maintaining a free pantry in front of her Columbia City home for six years. In March, when the pandemic caused a new wave of unemployment and hunger, she applied for and received a small grant from the Awesome Foundation to build six Little Free Pantries, which are similar to the Little Free Libraries that provide free books in neighborhoods.
She asked on the Columbia City Facebook page where the pantries should be. The response was so good that she started a GoFundMe to build a total of 26 pantries, which were installed — and filled — all over Columbia City and the Central District.
Eight months later, there are 111 pantries — more than four times the number they started with. And there are plans for more, larger pantries to be installed in front of community hubs such as El Centro de la Raza and the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation, as well as in Eastern Washington to help migrant workers and members of the Yakama Nation.
Angela Clement, who knows Harmon through their children, put in a pantry in May, hoping to better interact with neighbors who need food, and those who want to help. It worked, on both counts.
Her pantry is filled and emptied almost daily, save for two cans of tomato soup no one seems to want.
“It has definitely reminded us of how generous and observant our neighbors are,” said Clement, “and I think it made us feel a little bit less alone. People are walking and visiting and stopping at the pantry.”
Harmon doesn’t track who is filling and who is using the pantries.
“That’s part of the beauty,” she said. “There’s an anonymity to it, this moment of giving a few pieces of food to this box, or taking from it.
“It’s about the act of solidarity and kindness, and mutual aid when we all need help.”
Indeed, food insecurity caused by the pandemic has doubled in King County, according to an August report by Public Health — Seattle & King County. One in 10 people did not have enough to eat, the report said, and many are needing help with food for the first time in their lives.
To answer that need, Harmon has partnered with other nonprofits to keep the pantries full and expanding.
Every eight weeks, the Little Free Pantries group receives about 3,000 pounds of donated food from the Mary’s Place shelter for women and families. It is then distributed by volunteers, including members of The Seattle Pedaling Relief Project, an arm of the Cascade Bicycle Club.
Harmon and her team are seeking donations with the aim of having 100 additional pantries built and distributed by March 2021. Donations of lumber — one of their biggest expenses — are also welcome. TAP Plastics has donated plexiglass for the pantry windows.
For those who want to build their own pantry, the Little Free Pantries website — www.thelittlefreepantries.org — has a drawing and building materials list, a list of long-term care practices and a community outreach flyer. The website, which includes a map of pantry locations, has been viewed more than 9,000 times from the United States and Canada.
“The intention is to give folks the tools to build a simple, cost-effective pantry,” Harmon said, “and to empower communities to enact positive change.”
She sees that every time she opens a pantry and sees it empty — or full.
“I have met people giving and receiving from it,” Harmon said of her pantry. “And I am confident I would have never had a conversation with those people otherwise.”
When the pantry is low, she puts a note on Facebook, “and within hours, it is full,” she said, “sometimes with an extra bag of food on my porch.”
No one person “owns” a pantry, she said. The person is the host, and the care comes from — and goes to — the community around it.
“That’s the only way it works,” she said. “Otherwise, one person can’t keep the pantry stocked.”
And it’s not always about food. Pantry hosts have found notes of gratitude, and volunteers have their own stories.
One of the bicycle volunteers recalled the hot summer day when her father, who has dementia, was missing for several hours. When he was found, he was carrying an empty water bottle.
“Where did you get that water?” his daughter asked him.
“There was a little box on the street, so I took it,” he said.
A little free pantry.
It doesn’t matter if people take one bottle of water from a pantry, or everything in it, Harmon said.
“We’re trying to shift that thinking of, ‘Is it fair?’ It should be,” Harmon said. “It’s wonderful that that person took all that food. I am thinking about that person with no judgment.”
Maybe they have two or three generations at home, so that food is not only serving two or three people, but 10 or 12.
“There is a need and there is going to be a greater need real soon,” Harmon said. “It’s just neighbor helping neighbor.”