In downtown McKinney, near the end of a long row of antique shops, clothing boutiques and locally owned restaurants, is a large wooden cupboard sitting on the sidewalk. Words painted at the top read, “Little Free Pantry: Take what you need leave what you can.” Inside are hundreds of food items, stacked neatly in rows: cans of soup, vegetables and fruit, boxes of rice and pasta, jars of peanut butter, bags of rice and beans.
If the Little Free Pantry sounds familiar, that’s probably because it reminds you of the Little Free Library project that has become popular throughout the Dallas area in the past several years, where passersby can drop off books in the miniature libraries that line the streets, or they can pick one out to take home. The Little Free Pantry uses the same concept, except it involves food instead of books.
On Tuesday afternoon, a man with frosty white hair and a plaid shirt wanders up to the cupboard, takes a plastic bag out of the bottom drawer and starts to rummage through the shelves. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone, he says, and he doesn’t have to. That’s the beauty of the Little Free Pantry – the privacy. It isn’t a nonprofit group or associated with one, so there are no official rules or regulations. The Little Free Pantry was created and maintained by a McKinney woman, Kim Sanchez, who is the landlord for several of the shops in downtown McKinney.
The Little Free Pantry sits in front of Hugs Café, a restaurant that employs adults with disabilities and is owned by Sanchez’s friend Ruth Thompson. People can come and go from the pantry as they wish. They can take or leave items in anonymity, although some folks do like to step inside Hugs Café to tell their stories to the staff.
“There was a gentleman who came in yesterday and asked about the pantry,” says Maria Caccavale, the general manager of Hugs Café. “He said he’d like to make a donation and said it’s an awesome thing we’re doing because he was once in the position of needing food. Normally when you go to a food pantry, they give you a lot of rice and beans, so he liked that there are fruits and vegetables.”
The food supply varies depending on what and how much neighbors give that day, but for now there’s plenty to go around. Sanchez has even been forced to store excess food in her garage.
“I figure the excitement will wear off,” she says. “I’m hoping it doesn’t, but if it does it will be nice to have the overflow.”
She checks the pantry twice a day to arrange the shelves and make sure there’s enough variety. Sanchez uses her judgment in moderating the pantry, taking out “inappropriate” items, like alcohol or expired or partially eaten food. There are other items as well, such as bottles of shampoo, cans of baby formula, diapers, feminine hygiene products and other toiletries.
Sanchez got the idea for the pantry from the Little Free Library campaign.
“My church is doing the Little Free Library,” she says. “So I Googled ‘Little Free Library’ to see what one looks like and a picture of a pantry popped up. I thought, ‘Now isn’t that the coolest idea ever?’”
Not long after, she found an old TV stand on sale for only $35. It was perfect. Sanchez, along with her husband and father, repurposed the TV stand into a pantry by adding Plexiglas to the front doors and a sloping roof for drainage. Sanchez put the pantry out on Sept. 12 and created a Facebook page. Food began appearing and disappearing within days.
“We put stuff in and then we go back a couple hours later and it has disappeared,” Sanchez says. “It’s kind of like the tooth fairy. You know that people are coming and going, but we don’t really see them, so it’s very magical how it happens.”
The hope, of course, is that it stays that way. Recently someone started raiding the Little Free Library boxes in Dallas. Just a couple weeks ago, all the books were taken from several of the miniature libraries and in some cases the boxes were vandalized. Now, the city is planning to regulate Little Free Libraries. Over in McKinney, Sanchez says she isn’t worried.
“If somebody takes everything that’s in it, then they must’ve really needed it,” she says with a shrug. “I’m going to be OK with that. I’m just going to restock it. If somebody vandalizes it, then I’m going to repaint it. If somebody destroys it, then I’ll rebuild it.”
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It’s important to her that’s it’s available to everyone at all times, especially since most people give or take items at night.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I lock it at night, but why would I put a lock on a free pantry?” she says. “I keep it open 24/7 because if you need food, you might not feel comfortable coming in the middle of the day.”
Sanchez believes downtown McKinney is the ideal place for a Little Free Pantry because there’s a lot of crossover between the haves and the have-nots, but she hopes the idea will go beyond McKinney as well.
“We wanted to inspire people beyond McKinney and we’ve been reached out to by people in Leonard and Celina,” Sanchez says. “They want to know how to build the pantry and how much it costs. It’s cool that it’s starting to spread.”