WATCH: Arkansas Mom Aims to Fight Hunger, One Free Grocery Box at a Time
"All kinds of folks are struggling—we provide just one way to help."
All across the country, people have taken to the idea of the "give-one-take-one exchange," whether it’s in the form of free books or food. This noble curbside charity effort is impacting neighborhoods everywhere, but more importantly, it’s fostering a sense of trust and connection in the community. Which explains how Jessica McClard, on a random morning jog through her neighborhood in Fayetteville, Arkansas, became inspired to start her own pop-up pantry in May 2016 called Little Free Pantry.
McClard sought out to help families who couldn't afford to feed themselves and aid highly disparate populations in "The Land of Opportunity." She was determined to do by placing food boxes in different neighborhoods. Modeled after the concept of Little Free Library, which involves giving a book and taking a book, McClard created boxes for people to take what groceries they needed and to leave food for others going through a tough time.
"Even though the mission of the little libraries was to promote literacy and access in neighborhoods where access to books was an issue, they were going in middle-class neighborhoods," McClard told TODAY Parents. "I began to think about how those libraries were intentionally creating space for people to be neighbors, and how the idea could be used in other ways."
Having grown up in a small farming town in Winger, Arkansas, McClard knew what it was like to live in a food desert, similar to what many people in food insecure regions are experiencing today.
"The nearest grocery store was 30 miles away," she said.
The mother of two had big dreams for how she planned to execute Little Free Pantry in 2016, like placing the boxes in a multi-family apartment complex, she ended up scaling back her plans, putting them on the grounds of her church instead. Though the area wasn’t filled with people in dire need, McClard saw some success at her church when it came to people willing to give food, as opposed to taking items.
Along the way, she learned how best to keep the boxes stocked based on foot traffic. Things that spoiled quickly, like bananas and bread, were fine in frequently visited areas. In low-traffic neighborhoods, not so much. Most of the pantries, regardless of location, are filled with canned milk, instant meals, boxed dinners, oatmeal, feminine hygiene products, and other items you'd find in most Southern kitchens.
McClard’s willingness to step out on faith, feeding the hungry and nourishing souls, is what has attracted other stewards to copy the Little Free Pantry model in other communities throughout the U.S. In fact, the free grocery movement has grown so big, McClard hasn’t been able to keep up with all of the individual pantry organizers. There’s even a similar model in South Carolina’s LowCountry called "Blessing Boxes," and an organization in Tallahassee, Florida, is currently raising funds to stock "Help Shelf" boxes in the city.
More than just helping those in need, McClard is happy that the pantries have allowed for people to be neighborly again, as in back when asking your fellow neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar was a commonplace practice in the South.
"As much as we need food, we need connection," she said. "Many of us need to give. A lot of times, that need gets marginalized, but we all need one another. Just one small, empty box is often a jumping-off point for other service, which is not what I would have anticipated."
"Folks are collecting for brick-and-mortar pantries because they got started through this, or engaging in some other form of community service after being connected through the pantry," McClard added.
While the Little Free Pantries won’t make a huge dent in the growing problem of world hunger and food insecurity, it’s a great supplement to food banks, shelters, and other missionary work. Plus, the concept isn't governed by money, hours of availability, or staff.
"Little Free Pantries are different in that there is a reciprocity component; they fulfill a need to connect or give back," McClard said. "This is a gap filler. All kinds of folks are struggling. We provide just one way to help."
In July 2017, Jessica McClard was honored as one of Tyson Foods’ "Meals That Matter Heroes." She was awarded $40,000 to develop an interactive map so people could find a pantry close to them to donate food or pick up supplies. The company also donated $10,000 worth of products to stock pantries in Arkansas. To get involved or learn more information about Little Free Pantry, visit the site here.