Take one, leave one: Free Little Pantries nourish 10 Cincy food deserts

Lisa Andrews was scrolling through Facebook one day when she noticed a feel-good video about a woman in Arkansas who started a “little pantry” where people could add non-perishable food items to a free-standing box for their neighbors to take when they needed.

“I posted the story on the Pleasant Ridge Facebook page and said, ‘I’d love to see this in our neighborhood,’” Andrews recalls. “People started saying they were interested and asking how we could make it happen.”

One person offered to build it, another offered a location and Andrews coordinated the efforts.

Little Pantries are free boxes where residents can drop off or pick up nonperishable food and hygiene supplies.“There’s a little bit of stigma involved in using a regular pantry,” she says. “People have to go through a lot of paperwork. The difference with this is that the community takes over, and it’s a way to connect and take care of each other on a really basic level.”

Andrews, a nutritionist who facetiously refers to herself as “Nutri-Girl,” could have been content with the success of the Pleasant Ridge Little Pantry and stopped there. Instead, she put on her Nutri-Girl cape to fight hunger in neighborhoods across Cincinnati.

People’s Liberty soon backed her efforts, providing $10,000 to help create 11 “People’s Pantries” in Cincinnati food deserts — which are defined as low-income neighborhoods that have no grocery store within a one-mile radius.

People's Liberty grantee Lisa Andrews was awarded $10,000 to fund her Little Pantries neighborhood food project.“Lisa is all about focusing on her community and giving back,” says People’s Liberty program director Aurore Fournier. "Given her background in nutrition, it made sense for her to tackle this kind of project. Our big question at People’s Liberty is how to create civic leaders. Lisa’s project focuses on this.” 

Local artist Jason Beidleman suggested repurposing old newspaper stands as pantry boxes. The Cincinnati Herald and the Cincinnati Enquirer agreed to donate old units, and Gallery Askew owner Sean Mullaney helped rehab them. The boxes were then delivered to local artists who went about transforming them into food-bearing community art installations.

“It’s like giving (the artists) this giant canvas to play with,” says Andrews.

Andrews secured safe, easily accessible pantry locations in Camp Washington, East Price Hill, Millvale, North Fairmount, Northside, Over-the-Rhine, Roll Hill, two in Walnut Hills, the West End and Winton Hills. Perhaps more importantly, she identified champions in each community to take ownership of their pantry’s success.

“The idea of creating these champions…being able to identify those people in the neighborhood, is very powerful,” Fournier says. “It’s like this ricochet where you talk to someone and then they talk to someone and more and more people get involved.” 

These neighborhood point-people will be trained to engage community members through social media and encourage local churches and groups to conduct food/hygiene product drives.

“I’d also like to see grocery stores get involved,” Andrews says. “Even if they set aside a bag of groceries once or twice a month, that would be better than nothing.”

Andrews and her team commissioned a number of local artists and children to design the recycled newspaper stands.The first People’s Pantry will be installed at Chase Elementary in Northside on May 24, and the goal is to have all pantries in place by mid-June. Andrews encourages anyone who works or lives in the pantry neighborhoods to support them and engage others to do the same.

“Spread the word,” she says. “And if you want to do it in your own neighborhood, we want to help.”

“People can help in very small gestures,” adds Fournier. “ You don’t have to commit hours and hours of volunteering if that’s daunting for you.” 

To People’s Liberty, this is yet another important role of the pantries. “We like how a simple idea will impact not only the people in need but also the people who would like to give some sort of help.”

Since December, Andrews has devoted 15-20 hours each week to People’s Pantry Cincy and has learned valuable lessons. “If you really want to make your idea work, talk to other people who can help you along the way,” she advises. “I’m not really good at asking people for help.  That’s been difficult for me, but I’m getting better.”

She’s also learned to ignore the critics who doubt that the food will be used by people who really need it. “The food will be gifted to someone else. It’s not my place to tell them when or how to us it. To me, if you have one person who’s benefiting vs. five people who steal it, you still helped one person. That still matters.”

To learn more about People’s Pantry Cincy, visit the group’s Facebook page and follow @peoplespantrycincy on Twitter and Instagram.

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Read more articles by Holly End.

Holly End is a freelance writer and published author from Pleasant Ridge.