The idea behind the Little Free Pantry movement is simple: Take what you need, leave what you can.
By Sharon Holbrook
It’s a problem no one wants to talk about: not always having quite enough food at home. But it’s a widespread problem, and one that touches Shaker Heights, too. That’s why Shaker residents Amy Bouthilet and Katie O’Brien-Hawkin decided to establish two Little Free Pantries here – small, self-serve outdoor boxes with nonperishable foods and personal hygiene items that are available at all times to both donors and recipients.
Bouthilet and O’Brien-Hawkin met when their children attended preschool together, and in talking they realized they had a common interest in addressing food insecurity. The national model of the Little Free Pantry seemed like a natural fit for Shaker.
“The Little Free Pantry is all about neighbors helping neighbors, and Shaker has so many members in the community that want to help,” says O’Brien-Hawkin.
The women approached Shaker City Council Member Tres Roeder with the idea in late 2017, and things moved quickly from there. With Roeder’s support in guiding them through the necessary approvals, and with his suggestion to approach Rev. Roger Osgood at Heights Christian Church, the process moved rapidly. In May 2018, the first Little Free Pantry opened on Winslow Road at the rear of the church, and in September 2019 a second location opened in partnership with Christ Episcopal Church on Warrensville Center Road. The locations are handicap accessible as well as discreetly situated for the privacy of recipients.
The response from the Shaker community has been fantastic; within a few weeks of being established, food and toiletry items were moving out of the pantries very quickly – nearly all items turn over within a day or two. Still, donations have kept pace with what’s needed, even during the increased demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are so fortunate to live in this community where neighbors look out for one another,” says Bouthilet. “We have had so many individuals step up, whether it be making a donation to a Little Free Pantry as part of their weekly grocery routine, offering to help build the physical structures, helping their child collect and donate food, or helping to spread the word by posting pictures on Facebook.”
Longtime Shaker resident Armina Robinson (above) is one of these dedicated individuals. A nurse by profession and the mother of three graduates of Shaker schools, she stops by the Little Free pantries up to four times a week to drop donations. She can’t help it, she says. “When I found out that people in our neighborhood are needing food…it just drives me.”
Like others, she’s found that the pantries are fostering greater connection, and she often posts on Facebook to let community members know when one of the pantries is full or might “need a little love,” as she says, from donors. Her heartfelt messages are filled gratitude for the ongoing generosity of the community. Every post receives many comments and often inspires someone new to join in the effort.
Besides individual and family donations, food drives sponsored by schools, scout troops, and local businesses such as RMS (the developers of Shaker’s Van Aken District) have become a significant and steady source of food for the pantries. Bouthilet and O’Brien-Hawkins encourage Shaker residents to keep sharing the news of the Little Free Pantries so that those who might need some food assistance, even if only temporarily, know about this resource.
“Unlike many other food assistance programs, the Little Free Pantries are open 24/7 and require no application or paperwork,” says O’Brien-Hawkin. “As the signs say, we just ask that people ‘Take what you need, leave what you can.’”
If residents have questions or want to host a food drive, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donate to the Little Free Pantries
Suggested non-perishable food items (no glass please): peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, canned fruits, applesauce cups, canned tuna or chicken, oatmeal packets, cereal, canned soup, pasta, and pasta sauce. Toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, and soap are also accepted.
Christ Episcopal Church: 3445 Warrensville Center Road
The pantry is at northeast corner of the building. Put donations directly into the pantry. If it is full, plastic tubs are located under the front portico facing Warrensville Center Road.
Heights Christian Church: 17300 Van Aken Boulevard
The pantry is located on the Winslow Road side of the building. Put donations directly into the pantry. If it is full, a large plastic tub is located outside the church’s rear door on Winslow Road.