The Little Free Pantry or Library: Innovative Models for Community Sharing

The Little Free Pantry and The Little Free Library are both inspired community initiatives that center on the spirit and act of sharing. While they have different origins and uses, they both invite community members to give and interact with each other in a unique and purposefully site specific, focused, and little context.

The Little Free Pantry:

The Little Free Pantry (LFP) is a project that started in the spring of 2016. It was designed to help neighborhoods join together around a small structure, such as the one pictured below, in order to give and take what they might have or need. The LFP site explains that this might be “for food or fun.” This is the pilot LFP in Fayetteville, AR which was constructed by built by Sammie Stephenson, Joe Utsch, and Josh McClard:

The site also explains that the purpose of the LFP may change depending on the location and socioeconomic make-up of a neighborhood. In areas of high-poverty, food supply may be the main focus, and in areas where everyday food and personal needs are often already met, the focus may shift to more of an afterschool snack or neighborly “cup of sugar” agenda. It seems likely that many neighborhoods will have a mixture of needs and donations, and luckily, the Little Free Pantry is designed to adapt and hold whatever its home community deems appropriate. The LFP site advises against stocking anything sharp, dangerous, bulky (such as clothing), or illegal. Some maintenance will be required for the monitoring of food goods, such as a daily visit to the LFP. Here are some donation suggestions they offer:

“…canned vegetables and proteins, personal care items, and paper goods go fast. Kid-friendly non-perishables, crayons, and inexpensive party favor items are great for summer…school supplies for August!”

Because LFP is inherently small, it is not intended to tackle persistent needs for hunger relief—rather, it is meant to be a little safety net in support of established food pantries. Because it focuses on community-specific connection and generosity, it is able to offer a friendly, creative, and un-institutionalized option to neighborhoods who want to increase their internal sharing.

If you are interested in building your own LFP, choose a location that is safe for people to visit and on which you have permission to build. This may involve getting local community approval or even a building permit. Working with other community members is a good idea from the start, so you can collaborate and even schedule, if you choose to, the stocking of the LFP. The pilot LFP was secured by 4×4’s, and they recommend you look up “Little Free Library Plans” online for specs on building one of these multi-use structures.

Speaking of a Little Free Library:

The Little Free Library Movement began in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009 when Todd Bol built a one-room school house model to honor his mother, who was a teacher. He then turned it into the first Little Free Library in his yard by attaching it to a post and filling it with free books. He teamed up with Rick Brooks, and with word of mouth enthusiasm and a growing band of early advocates, the movement began to spread and evolve. Here’s the Little Free Library’s mission, as stated on their site:

“To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.”

The original team hoped to create 2,510 of the little libraries, the same amount as the number of public libraries created under Andrew Carnegie. In the summer of 2016, they announced that they had reached 40,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide. You can learn more about The Little Free Library’s story in The Little Free Library Book.

Also in the summer of 2016, the Free Little Library announced that the city of Detroit plans to set up a Little Free Library in each of its 97 public schools. As Little Free Library explains, the amount of books per child and the eighth grade reading proficiency levels in Detroit are both areas of concern.

The Little Free Library site says that the first steps for installing a Free Little Library are to choose a safe and legal location and to ensure that there is a reliable steward or caretaker. The Little Free Library site also offers suggestions on how to develop your own library on a limited budget, and has a variety of models for sale:

You can search the Little Free Library’s map page to find one near you. And yes, there are Little Free Libraries in D.C.-here’s one below at 1717 Swann St. NW. A review of D.C.’s Little Free Libraries is on Urban Scrawl here.

Legality of Donations:

An interesting issue that sometimes comes up with donations, and particularly with food donations, is of liability. If a person or non-profit provides a donation of food that is found to later be harmful in some way to a recipient, are they held liable? The Little Free Pantry site kindly and thoughtfully directs its readers to The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 (BEA), which is described in detail in a food recovery guide by the University of Arkansas School of Law. The BEA “absolves those who donate apparently wholesome food to nonprofit organizations for ultimate distribution to needy individuals from civil and criminal liability related to such donations.” It also protects the non-profits, unless there is gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The guide further explains that after research was conducted, no case involving food-donation liability could be found.

The Little Free Pantry also recommends that you keep your pantry in good condition, consider purchasing insurance for the pantry, and consult a lawyer and/or the BEA if you are unsure about the rights and risks involved in this type of donation.

While there are nuts, bolts, and important safety factors to consider when taking on a Little Free Pantry or Little Free Library project, the rewards probably outweigh the risks, as both of these unique movements foster generosity, curiosity, and community cooperation.

Julia Travers

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