Days Of Thanksgiving

Days Of Thanksgiving

Pantries feed hungry, bring communities together


When Jessica McClard launched the concept of the Little Free Pantry, she did more than help feed her community — she inspired a global movement.

“I am so grateful for everything, every single day,” says McClard of her life since she launched the first LFP in May of 2016. “I get to read emails from people who just want to help their community by doing something like this, and at a time when so much of the news just seems really defeating. That’s not something that a lot of people get to see, and it’s extremely hope-giving. I’m very grateful to do this work.”

McClard’s original concept was based on the Little Free Libraries she started seeing cropping up in neighborhoods along her jogging route.

The Free Weekly/ANDY SHUPE
“If I kind of think, ‘Gosh, that’s expensive’ when I’m looking at the sticker price in the grocery store, that’s one of the things people need,” Jessica McClard says while restocking her original Little Free Pantry.

“Even though that movement has a mission to promote and increase literacy, these were going into neighborhoods where access wasn’t a problem,” she says. “That means there was really something going on in that space. I think you can say a few things about what that might be, but, for me, it means intentionally creating space to be neighbors, and that’s what people respond to. And if that was correct, that meant that anything might go in the box and work.”

About the time she had that epiphany, she says, she was becoming aware of the shocking degree of food insecurity people living in Northwest Arkansas were experiencing. A 2018 “Map the Meal Gap” study found that Arkansas ranks second highest in the nation for food insecurity. Approximately 515,000 Arkansans experience food insecurity — and 165,000 of those people are children.

A light bulb went off in McClard’s head.

“I realized that a lot of these Little Free Libraries looked like kitchen cabinets, and it became obvious what I was going to do with this,” she says. “I became determined. I thought that it could fail; I hoped that it wouldn’t, but I was determined to see if it might work.”

The beginning stages of the project were rough: McClard thought launching the project at a multi-family housing unit would make the most sense, but she had no luck getting apartment owners and managers to sign on. Various nonprofit organizations she approached weren’t any more enthusiastic.

Resolute, she decided to follow her instincts: This was something that her community needed, she was sure of it. She decided to launch her pilot box at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Rolling Hills Drive, where she was on the Church Council.

“I don’t think I told anyone other than the grounds chair,” she says. “We just kind of went in one day and put the thing in ourselves.”

McClard had done months of thoughtful research, poring over articles on the Internet that covered the successes and failures the Little Free Library movement had experienced.

“I learned that projects that are equally accessible to supply and demand-side traffic are the sweet spot,” she says. “A lot of people think, ‘I would like to put it in a place where I could point to need in the community.’ But, if you do that, you run the risk of the people who will help to stock it not coming to that place as often, just because it’s off the beaten path. The ideal location is where people are going to give and take. The public nature makes the project useful as a community through experiment. A lot of times, our service providers are on the margins. When this is in a public place, it re-centers food insecurity in the community and raises knowledge generally about our neighbors, who might need a little support.”

McClard’s instincts — and her forethought in setting up social media accounts in preparation — made the launch an immediate success.

“I took a picture of the first fully stocked project and asked my friends to share it on their pages, and the very next day I was contacted by the local media,” she says. “The interest was immediate. By the end of the weekend, the Facebook page had almost 1,000 likes, which seems like a lot to me. So it was something that was speaking to people almost immediately.”

Within two weeks, another Little Free Pantry had already sprouted in Fayetteville, followed quickly by dozens more. McClard was named a “Meals That Matter Hero” by Tyson Foods and awarded a $50,000 grant for the project. Within six months, she was hearing from people all over the country who had replicated the concept in their own communities.

“I think those people that do this work in the community with others, those projects are the most successful,” she says. “It’s too much to do on one’s own. Bringing other folks into it makes it more successful in terms of supply, [and it’s] also more rewarding. And the projects that have a good understanding that an empty project is OK — that’s really important. The project generally is about grace and that extends to all of us. Folks who feel like a project always needs to be full, and they’re putting pressure on themselves to do that, you can wear yourself out trying to keep a little box full. What we can do has to be enough, or it can’t sustain — so those that have a good grasp of an empty pantry, that’s important.”

But, says McClard, perhaps the most important aspect those that want to launch a LFP must grasp is that of “radical trust.”

“Groups that really see this as a way to really connect and create together and not to judge one another — those tend to be more successful,” she says. “In fact, if someone contacts me and has a lot of questions about, ‘What do I do if someone takes too much,’ those kind of regulatory questions, if it seems like that’s going to be an issue for that person, I say it might not be a good fit. I think it’s key to see the contents as gifts once you place them out there for the taking — that’s when your interaction with the gift ends.”

In order to focus on managing the spread of Little Free Pantries, McClard downgraded from a full time to a part time job and spends many hours a week manning social media accounts and corresponding with communities hoping to install their own LFPs. She recently launched a Patreon account, a way to crowdfund her work into a paying position. Unlike the creator of the Little Free Library, she doesn’t charge any licensing fees for her idea but, instead, gives it away for free. (To support her, visit and search for her name.)

“Asking for help is hard but wonderful, and I think that this is kind of at the heart of what the Little Free Pantry is all about,” she says.

Giving grows

McClard’s example has inspired thousands of people — many of them right here in Northwest Arkansas.

“I think Jessica McClard is an amazing individual, and it’s amazing that she had the forethought for this project,” says Jene Huffman-Gilreath, who was the second person in Northwest Arkansas to install a Little Free Pantry, just two weeks after McClard opened the original one at Good Shepherd. Huffman-Gilreath’s project is located at Christ’s Church, 525 W. 15th St. in Fayetteville.

Huffman-Gilreath, whose father, James Huffman, is pastor at the church, said the congregation for years had been accustomed to helping the disadvantaged communities located on the south side of Fayetteville.

“Instead of a church yard sale, we would have a giveaway,” she says. “As the church began to age, we didn’t have as many young people who could help, and it was pretty labor intensive. One of our parishioners passed Good Shepherd every day and noticed the box going up. We thought it was a great way for us to still provide for our community without the labor intensiveness. And we could do it year ‘round.”

Huffman-Gilreath says that the congregation’s enthusiasm for the project has remained high in the years since the box went up.

“When people in the church go to Sam’s or the grocery store, they just buy extra,” she says. “It’s stocked twice a week, and it’s cleaned out pretty quickly.”

Over the years, Huffman-Gilreath says she’s gotten a better idea of what factors contribute to the success of the LFP concept.

“Just the thought that anyone can pay it forward,” she says. “There’s one thing that our church really strives for — to not take dignity from anyone when we’re trying to help them. I think that a lot of the assistance that’s out there ends up removing dignity from the individual. Since people are coming to the pantry, they don’t have to have any kind of interaction, they’re not having to ask for anything. And, finally, it’s low maintenance. For us, I think those were really key things.”

Huffman-Gilreath and her fellow congregants were responsible for the second LFP in existence — and thousands have come behind them.

“It only takes a spark to start a fire,” she notes. “I think what Jessica has done is start a fire, and it’s been awesome.”

Community cares

When McClard was designated a “Meals That Matter” hero, Renata Shelton, then a Tyson employee, was in the crowd that listened to her talk about the LFP concept.

“It moved me, seeing how much she had touched everyone, all the way up to the corporate level, for a cause that has become increasingly important,” says Shelton. She pitched the idea of a Little Free Pantry to her all-women book group, and they quickly set out to learn how to build the box themselves — with the help of the tools at the NWA Fab Lab.

“We had never had building experience before,” she says. “It was incredibly empowering, to learn from start to finish how to do that. We even feel capable of building small houses by ourselves at this point.”

Shelton found the perfect spot for the LFP while walking her dog — right on the Scull Creek Trail, adjacent to the South Creekside Apartments, by the Marion Orton Recycling Center.

Shelton and her group hadn’t even finished the project when they got an indication of how popular it would be.

“We had put the post in the concrete and we put a sign on the post to get people excited, and people started donating at that point,” she says. “They just put bags of food around that post. “

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. The box has been vandalized twice, requiring the door to be replaced.

“There were people at the apartment who said it was someone who was homeless who was upset it was empty,” she says of the second incident. “I was a little discouraged at first, but Jessica said, ‘When you think about the kind of rage — to walk up to the pantry, hoping for food, and there isn’t food, to just walk away, that takes a lot.’ They’re already going through experiences of rejection and deficit all day long, and within that perspective, I was able to understand the pain and anger and hunger of someone relying on the pantry as a last resort. So we got really determined and rebuilt it, and at that point we decided we would always rebuild it and keep making it better.”

Shelton is eager to help others achieve what she and her group have done. She’s hosting an information session at the NWA Fab Lab on “insights and best practices.” Interested people can text Shelton at (479) 263-5800. She also hopes to work with the Fayetteville City Council and the Parks and Recreation Department to allow more LFPs to go up along the extensive trail system in the city.

Shelton says she thinks part of the success of the LFPs is the simplicity of the acts they encourage.

“You immediately have agency in contributing to the well being of the people in your community. You not only have agency, you also have anonymous agency, and the ability to not feel shame in a small contribution — just leave what you can.”



Little Free Pantry

stocking suggestions

“People often think about the canned items, but less often about personal care items like toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant — also, toilet paper and other paper products. Things for babies and feminine care products. If I kind of think, ‘Gosh, that’s expensive’ when I’m looking at the sticker price in the grocery store, that’s one of the things people need. I think it’s best for you to buy extra of what you’re buying anyway, because if I have to alter my routine in the store too much to stock the box, I’m going to do it less frequently.” — Jessica McClard

“Pull tabs on cans, because not everyone has can openers. Sets of plastic utensils, wet wipes, hygiene products. One of the ladies in the church travels extensively and every time she goes to a hotel, she grabs the little sets of shampoo and conditioner. During the school year, sometimes we’ve put crayons, pencils, different things kids can utilize. And when it’s cold out, socks, hats and gloves — different things that could bring comfort to someone.” — Jene Huffman-Gilreath

“People leave anonymous notes for anyone who might want to take them — notes of inspiration, solidarity, encouragement or community. The weird thing is those notes are always taken. People leave poetry, letters, stories — they are always gone. [Other useful items include] tampons, sunglasses and books.” — Renata Shelton

Categories: Cover Story