A Little Free Pantry showed up quietly this week on the curb of our church driveway. With little fanfare, what first looked like a Little Free Library was filled with basic necessities--toilet paper, cereal, toothpaste, deodorant, canned goods.
It's still new enough we're learning how it will work. It's also a new enough concept it has garnered a lot of attention. The local news did a spot on it, and our council president who installed it has had contacts from places like the Salvation Army offering to stock it. It's gone viral on Facebook, and social media more generally.
As the idea has taken off, we know more and more communities are planning to build similar pantries. Which left me pondering the question: What does it really mean to give? To receive?
One thing I know from long experience: If you are regularly in the habit of giving, it is very hard to receive. If you see something like the free pantry, you immediately assume you are a giver... you ask how you can donate.
If you are in need, however, it is difficult making the transition to receiving position. Questions come up: Am I qualified to take something? Is it okay to take a lot? Is it bad to take something?
The truth is, everyone who goes up to it has some need. Even if you fill the pantry with donations from your own kitchen, you fulfilled some need in yourself to give.
In some ways, the pantry is a Rorschach test on people's sense of human nature, charity, and need. Unlike a traditional food pantry, where one group of people places themselves in the position of donor, and another group comes asking in the position of client, this Little Free Pantry is an open source pantry, blending donors and recipients into an amalgam of dangerous yet freeing reciprocity.
If you think about North American urban culture in global and historical perspective, the fact that there are food and necessity deserts is an anomaly. Read narratives of the Depression, for example, or really most of American history prior to the rise of suburbia, people regularly stopped at the back step of houses or apartments and asked for food. Most kitchens were little free pantries, within reason.
But those days are gone in most suburban contexts today. A culture of shame(?) or fear(?) keeps people from walking through a neighborhood and asking for what they need.
In a gated and fearful world the idea of a Little Free Pantry has traction because it creates space for an intersection of needs. Those who need to give can do it safely. Those who need to take can do so with less shame.
One comment on the 5 News site read, "someone will take it all..."
Yes, that's the point. And whoever does so will give the greatest gift of all. They'll meet the needs of those who desperately want to refill it.