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A New Type Of Food Pantry Is Sprouting In Yards Across America

Maggie Ballard of Wichita, Kan., and her "blessing box" filled with food and personal care items that she and others have donated.
Deborah Shaar
Maggie Ballard of Wichita, Kan., and her "blessing box" filled with food and personal care items that she and others have donated.

There's a small-scale charity movement starting to take hold in neighborhoods across the country. Think of those "little free library" boxes, but with a twist: These are small pantries stocked with free food and personal care items like toothbrushes and diapers for people in need.

They're found near churches, outside businesses and in front of homes. Maggie Ballard, who lives in Wichita, Kan., calls hers a "blessing box."

"I felt like this is something that I could do — something small that you know, would benefit so many people so long as the word got out about it," she says.

The bright red box is about 2 feet wide and is mounted on a post near the street. Ballard and her son check on it every day and restock as needed.

"My son is 6 years old, so it gives him a little chore to kind of watch it and see what comes and goes and who comes and goes, and maybe learn a little lesson from it," she says.

There's a door on the front of the box but no lock, so anyone can take what they need 24-7. In the beginning, Ballard was providing all of the food. Then word spread and donations from the community starting pouring in.

Stacey Schwanke has stopped by with food donations a few times since the box went up in October.

"We dropped off some breakfast food, some pasta, some sauce, some crackers and some soups," Schwanke says.

The food pantry idea has been spreading through social media over the past six months. Ballard's friend built hers after she saw a picture of one on Facebook.

Similar "yard-based" food pantries have gone up across the country, in states like Oklahoma, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida and Minnesota. Much of it seems to trace back to Jessica McClard, who created what she calls the "little free pantry" in northwest Arkansas.

"The products that are stocked are put directly inside the pantry and turnover is in about 30 to 45 minutes," McClard says. "The frequency of the turnover and the fact that other sites in town are also turning over that frequently, it suggests to me that the need is tremendous."

All of the items inside the boxes are free and there are no forms to fill out. Those using the boxes come and go as they wish. And that sense of anonymity is something you won't find at traditional community food pantries.

Ballard has seen only a few people using her pantry, because most visitors come when it's dark.

"Most of the traffic is in the middle of the night, I would say between midnight and 7 in the morning," she says.

Ballard says it's both awesome and sad to see the turnover of goods every day.

On Christmas Eve she watched as a family of three opened her box to find a bag of bagels and started eating them right there.

McClard says these community-supported pantries are multiplying because of their simple concept.

"We're all short on time and money, and this is a way that people can feel like they are making a difference," she says.

The food pantries come in all sizes. Some have religious connections and are located near churches. Others are adopted by businesses whose employees want to pay it forward. All are serving up food and supplies to anyone in need.

Copyright 2017 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.

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