Fayetteville, Arkansas, refers to itself as "the track capital of the world." So it's fitting the idea for a Little Free Pantry (like the Little Free Library, but for food) came to Jessica McLard on a run as she passed by one of the small, community-run book depositories. Like New Mexico, Arkansas faces high levels of food insecurity—but those Little Free Libraries are plentiful, according to McLard.
"I really started to think about them and what was going on in that space," she says. "They do a good job of accomplishing their mission in increasing access. They are everywhere, in all kinds of neighborhoods. Something resonated about that concept, above and beyond its mission."
Years down the line, after a small set-up at her local church, McLard's Little Free Pantry concept boasts hundreds of pickup locations across the country. The ripple effect from that daily jog is felt in Santa Fe, too, and set up outside St. Bede's Episcopal Church (550 W San Mateo Road, 982-1133)—one of the eight Little Free Pantries in Northern New Mexico, a region where the nonprofit Feeding America finds a 15.1% food insecurity rate.
"It's more of a stopgap measure, not intended to be a major source of food," Rev. Catherine Vollard, rector of St. Bede's, tells SFR. "But there's different reasons we struggle. Maybe you're overwhelmed, you can't get to the grocery store this week. Let's help you with your meal tonight, maybe your lunch tomorrow. There's no shame….It's a stopgap measure."
And it's a stopgap measure that Vollard says has done fairly well.
"We move impressive amounts of groceries every day. We have a core group of volunteers who stop by at least once a day to make sure it's stocked," she explains. "But the greatest success story is that people in the community have picked it up, and a lot of those people have no connection to the church."
St. Bede's pantry popped up in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as Vollard wanted to continue the church's long history of assistance to members and non-members alike. It's also accessible day or night and, since then, Vollard says she's observed people constantly coming and going.
"Some of them stop to talk, some of them want their privacy," she says. "We get notes from people, very sweet notes of appreciation, sometimes even gifts, little handmade items."
From New Mexico to Arkansas, Vollard and McLard agree food pantries, while lifesavers, are not enough and not a long-term solution. Some aren't even particularly accessible.
"Some pantries use means testing, and folks are living paycheck to paycheck," McLard says. "Sometimes people live where [food pantries] are only open a couple of days a week. Folks fall through those gaps. I hear from people all the time—I got an email from a woman yesterday who lost her job in November, and in between unemployment she said she was able to eat."
McLard praises Santa Fe's sole Little Free Pantry, noting that it follows one of the most important rules she's learned over the years: location, location, location.
"The essential challenge of the project is that," she says. "What I've seen is that the best locations are privately owned but publicly operated entities. Churches, schools, nonprofits, places with ample parking."
Vollard adds that being in a church parking lot doesn't mean one has to be religious in order to give—but she leans into scripture to express how giving just a small amount on a regular basis is a common, age-old practice.
"There's a lot of precedent throughout history. In scripture, they talk about gleaning the fields—give just a little extra at the end, knowing there are others who can't help themselves," she explains. "Burdens need to be shared, but it doesn't have to feel like one. One can or package each time you went to the grocery store would revolutionize the whole thing."
"Think about how much supply there would be if shoppers just picked up one can during their grocery runs. It would be hugely impactful," McLard advises. "I've even seen people who use the pantry between paychecks and then put food back when they can. It really only works if it's a collaborative effort."
Meanwhile, Vollard is concerned that assistance for undocumented people, who aren't eligible for stimulus programs, will wane as the pandemic does. Pew Research found an estimated 60,000 undocumented residents in New Mexico in 2016. She encourages people to keep on giving, even as a perception arises that things are getting better. Insecurity, she says, can still trail recovery for people on the economic margins.
"If anybody wants to stop by with something, they can do that," says Vollard. "We have an overflow bin by the door of the church if the pantry is full. If you want to stop by, great. If you want to volunteer to be on the schedule to manage the pantry for a day, we'll do that too."
St. Bede's requests nonperishable goods for donation. Interested in starting your own Little Free Pantry? Check out littlefreepantry.org to get started.