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We closed the Little Free Food Pantry October 26, 2023

After three years, we made the decision to stop doing this project.

I started this project as a way to serve humanity, and as a way to prevent food waste and provide food to people in my neighborhood. It was also a public art project.  I tried to make it as beautiful as possible. I made postcards, and posters for it over the years, and did all of the graphic design for the exterior of the pantry and printed and replaced the weatherproof signage. It was a labor of love.

 

Overall, I feel a mix of pride in what I created, and also relief that the project has come to a close. I did this project with Henry, Stella, Kai, Colleen, Alex, Dianne, Becca and Jady. There is no way I could have made this project happen without you!! Thank you to the countless neighbors who took the time to drop food off. Your generosity had a ripple effect. The pantry became a point of contact for us to all connect with each other, and that is the part that I miss the most. 

 

I want to thank my neighbors on Rose Street and Belvedere. You all have been VERY patient. The pantry attracted at least 50 people a day. I know this had an impact on your lives, and it was not always positive. The main issues were noise at night and the food related garbage that people left behind. 
 

How did it work? 

Since it was open 24 hours a day, our food pantry filled the gaps in the food system. It was a place people could go to get food when all other agencies were closed. People came at all hours of the day. I would see cars stopping at 10pm, and lots of people in the morning and throughout the day. 

 

WHO USED THE PANTRY? 


Seniors on a fixed income, single moms & dads, nannies, day laborers, high school kids, people who are in between jobs, people who are living in their cars and folks who are experiencing homelessness. Lots of people came by bike. We would see the same people come in their cars every day. 

If you are thinking about doing an outdoor free food pantry or outdoor fridge -- you may bump into the same problems that I am going to share below.

 

But first, I feel it is important to tell you that there are so many positive things about doing a food project like this. The concept of neighbors helping neighbors does actually work. We built trust with the people who used the pantry every day. They knew that all the food there was safe. Anything that was not in good condition was removed. My husband Henry and I both had the opportunity to witness people pulling up in cars and filling the pantry with new food they had bought from TARGET or Trader Joe's or Costco. Whenever this happened, I would feel a spark light up inside me. It gave me hope.  We figured out what people in the community needed. What foods worked, and what foods didn't. I loved that people would bring food from their gardens, and fruit trees. The place where addressing food scarcity meets food rescue is a sweet spot, and I feel that the Rose St Food Pantry offered that.

I was always amazed at how quickly food would disappear when I stocked the pantry. Sometimes it was a matter of minutes.  I'd cross the street, and someone would already be there, taking what I had just left there. It was fun, like a game. Let's see how long it takes before it's empty again. I am happy to not be playing that game anymore. I would stock it 3 or 4 times a day.  I was constantly sourcing food for it, and socks and hygiene stuff.
 

So why did I close the pantry? 

A combination of things. The time commitment of running a food pantry that was always open 24 hours a day was too much for one person. It required a lot of labor, and a ton of my time. 

People who used it every day were not in a position to donate food. I understand that. But the concept of Take what you need, Leave What You Can does not really work. Looks good on paper, but the reality is the people who came twice a day would often take more than their share. Or some folks would just clean it out and take everything.

 

There was nothing I could really do about it except ask them to think of their neighbor, and to think of other people. But when you are in survival mode, that is not really a priority for most people. Some people felt it was ok to take advantage of a community resource meant to feed multiple people. They did not get the concept, and that is why I believe that giving the food out in person is really the only way it really can work. I think that doing a Free Farm Stand or a Free Food Pop Up is the way to go. Open up your pantry at set hours, and give the food and supplies out in person. If I could rewind the clock, that is how I would do it. But... we started it in 2020 in the early days of the pandemic so it just didn't even cross my mind.

 

I resourced and gave out $80K+ of ACME bread, BOMBAS socks, fresh produce, coffee beans, hygiene supplies and shelf stable food over a 3 year period.  That is a conservative estimate. We moved a lot of food!!
 

I thank ACME bakery, Berkeley Food Network, Berkeley Food Pantry, STARTER bakery and Berkeley Free Clinic for donating thousands of dollars of socks and food. It all flew off the shelves!!

Who knew that running a food pantry is all about cleaning and breaking down boxes? 

 

There was a lot of cleaning involved.  It had to be done daily, or else it is no longer a safe, hygienic place to distribute produce, bread, canned goods or anything else that turns up.  

The shelves had to be cleaned or it would start to look pretty sticky and crumby. And no one wants food from a pantry that is not clean.  

I was spending 20 hours a week picking up food, bagging food, dropping off extra food and socks (to Dignity on Wheels and Berkeley Free Clinic) and then on top of that, cleaning up the mess that people left behind every single day. It started to grate on my nerves, the cleaning part of it. 

 

People would leave wrappers, food and garbage on the ground regularly. The same people who used it every day did not think it was their job to pick it up or contribute in some way, or give back. I asked for help, and some people would get angry that I was asking.

 

In retrospect, it is my fault that I did not set it up in a way to make it easy for our regulars to clean or bring empty bags. I wish I had set up a system where one person would commit to helping me clean for the month (and we could rotate the schedule) and that way I could focus on getting more food for the pantry. 

Mutual aid only works if there is a group of people who are actively caring for the project on a regular basis. I think a project like this would work best on a kibbutz, where everyone knows each other and supports a real world activity of public food sharing and preventing food waste. Or you could start a free food pantry with a group. You are all responsible for it. I was fortunate to have a supportive husband, and a few neighbors who pitched in when it really mattered. Gabe, who lives across the street from us cleaned up broken glass on several occasions. No one asked him. He showed his support with action. It really moved me.

The Honor System sometimes works. 
Mostly, it doesn't.

 

When you leave a stack of gold bricks on a table, with no one supervising how they are distributed -- guess what happens? People take as much as they can carry.  I would see parents pushing $800 strollers taking 6 loaves of ACME bread. Just packing it into their stroller. Henry and I would watch this, wide-eyed... and wonder: "What are they going to do with all that bread?!!!"

 

So I will say it again: The Biggest Takeaway from doing this for three years, is that it makes a lot more sense to give food out at a pop up, where there are people who are handing out the food and making sure people don't take more than they need. 

 

The open model (take what you need, regulate yourself and follow your moral compass, no questions asked) makes it impossible to keep it stocked with food at all times and in fact, the more food you offer -- the more you will see just one person who comes along and takes everything. That was a hard thing for me to learn and accept. That I cannot teach this, or expect people to share.

I would stock it with enough food for 20 people and then one person would come along and take it all. I can't tell you how many times this happened. I lost track. 

I caught a few people red-handed several times emptying the contents of the pantry into their backpacks. I was infuriated. I would say to them: "LEAVE SOME FOOD FOR SOMEONE ELSE!!"  and feel really upset because when this happened, it doubled my labor. It would happen every so often and it was hard.

And then there were the folks with mental health issues who would come and throw food everywhere, on the ground. That was the final straw. When you work your ass off, getting food from a local bakery and food bank and then when you go to stock the pantry there is food everywhere for you to clean up....  and it happens over and over again. Rice, flour, apples, beans... thrown all over the sidewalk. Sometimes people would smash glass jars. That sucked and it was messy.

 

Seeing food wasted, disrespected and thrown on the ground was my red line. One day, I came home from doing errands and went to the pantry to stock it with some food. Someone had taken all the food, and thrown it all over the sidewalk and it was definitely very intentional. Kind of like the guy who used to come by, open up a can of food from the pantry and then dump it into the middle of the road. He would throw CLIF bars into the center of the road as well. I was baffled by this behavior. He was wasting perfectly good food. 

Anyway, when this latest explosion of food on the ground happened, that was the moment for me when I thought, "That's it, I'm DONE." I even took a photo of it. I knew this was the tipping point. It was time to pack it in. 

One Last Story

And finally, there was a guy that everyone knows on my street because he gives out anti-abortion pamphlets to everyone he meets. He's in his own world and completely unaware of his actions.
 

He would leave his hateful and delusional propaganda on all 4 shelves shelf of my food pantry.  Every single day, for months. I probably recycled 200 of his fucking pamphlets. I asked him to stop. Had face to face conversations.  He stopped for awhile, and then it would start again.

 

Why do I mention him?

Well, because that is part of the deal. If you do this, there are going to be challenging people like Ray. His pamphlets were vandalism. They were a violation. They had pictures of dead fetuses inside of them and he was putting them right beside tomatoes, cans of soup and mac and cheese. Not cool.

I mention him because his actions pushed me to the point where I was ready to pull the project. But I just kept asking myself: Really? You are going to close because some religious nut just won't stop putting his propaganda in the pantry every day? Is that all it is going to take?  I did not think that was a good enough reason to quit. So I tossed them in the recycling and kept it going. 

You see the best in people, and the worst.

 

I've met a ton of my neighbors and have made new friends with people who work in the realm of food distribution and street outreach. I still find notes in my sketchbooks about doing a project like this one and I am glad it happened, and it took on a life of it's own. It became a reliable, trusted destination where people could find really great food.

Would I do it again? Yes. I would. Just not in the same way!! 

"The Little Free Food Pantry on Rose Street is literally around the corner from me! I'm on Cedar Street, and I walk by there while bringing the girls to school or walking my dog, usually multiple times a day! I was actually about to drop off some nut butter there today. I've always wondered about the amazing souls who put so much care into creating this wholesome space in our city. I love it so much! I appreciate the inspiration they give me and truly value the connection they've brought into my world!"

- One of our neighbors who posted on Nextdoor

 

WHO USED THE PANTRY? 


Seniors on a fixed income, single moms & dads, nannies, day laborers, high school kids, people who are in between jobs, people who are living in their cars and folks who are experiencing homelessness. Lots of people came by bike. We would see the same people come in their cars every day. 

Read the article about our food sharing project in Berkeleyside

Berkeleyside
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