Shared from the 2017-05-29 The Columbus Dispatch eEdition

VOLUNTEERISM

GIVE AND TAKE

Little Free Pantries offer community-powered help

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Diane Strausser, left, holds Seneca Holland, 1, as Steven Hurt, Seneca’s mom Rachael Holland and Tara Rodriguez, far right, install a Little Free Pantry box outside Strausser’s home on the East Side. [TOM DODGE/DISPATCH]

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Strausser refills the first Little Free Pantry box she established in Eastmoor. Community donors leave nonperishable foods and toiletries in the boxes for anyone in need to take. [TOM DODGE/DISPATCH]

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The bright blue box along a Berwick street appeared so peculiar that a retired nurse stopped her car and climbed out to take a closer look.

The kitchen cabinet mounted on a stake had been in the ground only a few minutes in the East Livingston Avenue front yard. One person was still twisting bolts into its backside. Others were waiting with bags of food to stock its shelves.

Yvonne Daniels, 63, was thrilled to learn that she had stumbled upon one of central Ohio’s first Little Free Pantries. The Southeast Side resident promised to return someday with her own contributions to the cause.

“That’s exactly how it works,” said a delighted Diane Strausser, its founder.

Solely through word of mouth and Facebook posts, she and others are now feeding the hungry in their neighborhoods daily from two pantries. In the beginning, only Strausser and a few friends stocked them. Now, neighborhood donors, many anonymous, continue to keep them full every day.

Typically, the little pantries are filled with nonperishable foods and drinks, toiletries and information about how those in need can find long-term help. In cold months, they offer hats, scarves and gloves. Items usually disappear within a few hours.

“Give what you can, take what you need” is the mantra emblazoned on the box.

Unlike traditional food pantries, which are sometimes accompanied by stigma or obstacles such as paperwork, income eligibility and lines, Little Free Pantries can provide immediate relief without barriers.

The original pantry is at 686 S. Kellner Road in Eastmoor, where Strausser used to live. She now rents that home and lives at 2517 E. Livingston Ave., on the south Bexley-Columbus border, where the second pantry was installed last week.

Strausser started the local project last year with some fellow members of the Mindfulness Community of Columbus, a Buddhist-based meditation group that meets in Bexley. Steven Hurt of Worthington designed, built and installed the pantries and Rachael Holland and Tara Rodriguez of Bexley painted them.

Before the pantry had a permanent structure, it was a cooler of free sandwiches at the end of Strausser’s driveway on Kellner Road. Within a few hours, the food disappeared. Within a week, the entire cooler did.

While the theft might discourage some people, Strausser just bought another cooler. She learned her lesson and chained that one to a nearby tree.

Soon after, the Little Free Pantry was founded.

“I’m just a widow who loves to feed people,” said Strausser, who keeps a box of extra food in her car in case she spots emptied shelves. She admits she didn’t expect the grass-roots effort to become so popular so quickly.

The local idea sprouted from a community initiative called The Big Table, which the Columbus Foundation hosts yearly, though the Little Free Pantry project also took off nationally last year. It likely drew inspiration from Little Free Library, which has popped up across the country for years using the same crowd-sourcing concept to meet a community need.

In Franklin County, where one in three people lives at or below twice the poverty level, the need for programs to assist the impoverished is significant.

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank reported nearly 940,000 county food pantry visits in 2016.

Columbus’ suburbs are the fastest-growing in the state but have also experienced the highest increases in suburban poverty from 2000 to 2015, up 114 percent, according to the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies’ most-recent report on poverty. About 30 percent of Columbus residents and 12 percent of suburban residents were impoverished in 2015, it said.

“A lot of the wealth in our community masks how intense peoples’ needs can be, especially in neighborhoods we traditionally think of as immune to these issues,” said Jason Reece, an Ohio State University assistant professor who has long studied income disparity in the area.

Many of the area’s poor are working but barely getting by as living costs rise, he said.

As the Little Free Pantries continue to serve Bexley and the East Side, Strausser hopes people throughout central Ohio will be inspired to build and stock their own pantries in other neighborhoods, to supplement formal assistance programs.

Though keeping the shelves stocked can seem daunting, she and the other volunteers said the payoff is in witnessing how the simple work makes a world of difference. Recipients often come to Strausser’s door to thank her. One man shoveled snow off her driveway as a surprise repayment. Many leave anonymous notes of appreciation.

“It really leaves a lump in your throat,” she said.

“Kindness is contagious, and seeing the gratitude from the people we’re helping makes it all worth it.”

For more information on the Little Free Pantries, including tips on starting one, go to facebook.com/friendsofthelittlefreepantry or littlefreepantry.org. awidmanneese@dispatch.com @AlissaWidman

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