Inspired by the Little Free Library concept, Arkansas native Jessica McClard had the bright idea to repurpose them for other needs, such as food and household items. Little did she know that her grassroots efforts would soon spark a global movement.
What was the inspiration behind the Little Free Pantry?
I was in Fayetteville, Arkansas probably around three years ago and those little free libraries were really picking up steam there. I’m a reader and a runner so I would stop at those on my run and browse the shelves. Around that same time, I was reading the book, The Tipping Point. I thought about it as a concept and to engage the “why.” I was in a solidly middle-class neighborhood and thought the library concept was an answer to access in literacy. But at least in my neighborhood, that wasn’t a problem. So if that was the case, it had to be resonating for another reason. For me, it stems from a desire for neighborliness, to reconnect with people. We’re kind of isolated in real life and I thought this little free library was speaking to that.
So why not just contribute to the library rather than creating something new?
One in four people in southwest Arkansas are in food poverty. If the libraries weren’t just about the books, I could put anything in there. From there, it was pretty obvious what I could do. I did a lot of research to see if others were already doing [the pantry concept], which they weren’t. So I decided I was going to do it, no matter what.
How did you pick your first location?
Finding a potential host was the biggest challenge. Originally, I wanted to put it in a multi-family housing development since I thought there might be a lot of folks there who would want it. I didn’t get anywhere with the property managers, which wasn’t surprising because it was pretty novel. My plan B was [an area near] my church, which was better for the project since both supply and demand are considered.
What was the reaction when you launched?
I already had the dedicated social media in place and I’d thrown up a couple of articles. I stocked the pantry and took pictures and posted it to social media. This was maybe a Wednesday and by Friday, there were thousands followers.
Why did you decide to make this concept open-source?
I don’t know the communities as well as the folks who live there. The municipal regulations around this are also extremely variable. For that reason, I want to make the concept completely open-sourced and available for people to use and in doing that, it’s become so much better than what it was when I started.
Jessica’s top pantry picks
This was the second Little Free Pantry, done by a woman I’d never met before. She saw the project on social media and just did it. I’ve since met her and we’ve become wonderful friends.
This was launched by a woman in Ardmore, Oklahoma. [I find this] to be significant because it has a different name; the blessing box project has now spun off many others. I think that this project kind of illustrates how if I’d put too much structure around what this looks like, I don’t think people would’ve pursued it as aggressively.
This one is next to the West Poinsett Memorial Library in my hometown of Weiner, Arkansas. It’s a tiny little town, maybe less than 500 people. The house I grew up in was right behind the public library and since I didn’t have a lot to do, I spent a lot of time at the library. I think living in proximity to that library is the reason I love reading so much. When I saw that project go up, it was really special to me.
This one is from Santa Cruz, California. I’ve seen lots of upcycled furniture, but this is the first one that was really different. It’s also the first project that I remember seeing launched alongside a Little Free Library. I’m seeing that more and more, folks are launching them together.
This one is from Bunnythorpe, New Zealand. [When it went up] it was fairly early and I was like, wow this might be a lot bigger than what I thought! It just seemed so far away.
This one is from Indianapolis, Indiana. This was the first group that used old newspaper boxes. Those structures were given to them for free so they had absolutely no cost for the project. They may have started with one but not soon after, there were two or three.
This is in Charleston, North Carolina. [The people who created it] were the first group to become an independent nonprofit. They’re constantly putting in more and now have a network of at least 20 active pantries.
I’ve seen a number of other groups also set up nonprofits so they can receive food from retailers.
This is from Purmerend, Netherlands where they are about to launch a network of projects. I have a relationship with them and we don’t even speak the same language. We use Google Translator and sometimes it’s funny to see how things get translated into Dutch.
This one is in Lolo, Montana, a community that has been affected for a long time by wildfires. When the fires got worse, they posted on their Facebook page about the difference that this resource was making for people who were displaced and struggling. My mother-in-law was in Montana and she helped stock it.
I’ve seen that play out in both Texas and Florida. This allows people who are traveling to participate in giving, maybe in a way that they wouldn’t have sought out in a bricks and mortar food pantry.
This is in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s another newspaper box project and one of my favorite done by kids. I’ve seen a ton of Boy Scouts and Girl Scout groups [do these] as they work towards their Eagle badge. This one is wonderful; they’re an extremely diverse group and they’re just so dedicated in maintaining their project. It’s been an absolute joy to watch.