An illustration of a grid of canned food
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

They highlight food insecurity, without doing much to take a bite out of it.

Since its founding in May 2016, Little Free Pantry has worked to address food insecurity at the neighborhood level in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and beyond. Jessica McClard launched Little Free Pantry after she began to see Little Free Libraries pop up along her jogging route. The concept is simple: Adapt the give-a-book, grab-a-book model to foodstuffs and household toiletries. Give what groceries you can, take what groceries you need.

As far as she knows, the Little Free Pantry she built at her church, Good Shepherd Lutheran, was the first in the country. The last time she checked, it was stocked with canned goat milk, instant-rice meals, feminine hygiene products, and lots and lots of oatmeal.

Those things only lasted an hour, she says. “Probably closer to 45 minutes. Items go in probably four to five times per day.”

The concept is hardly exclusive to Fayetteville. Little Free Pantries—or “Blessing Boxes”—have popped up in South Carolina’s Low Country, upstate New York, and suburban Portland, Oregon, as well as in metro areas such as San Jose. Each one serves as an indication of the widespread problem of food insecurity, and there may be as many as 1,000 around the country now. An organization in Tallahassee is currently crowdfunding a drive to build and stock nine “Help Shelf” boxes around the city. Just last week, similar efforts took root in Toronto and Auckland, New Zealand.

The Little Free Pantry model is feel-good, curb-side philanthropy. But some of the criticisms that apply to Little Free Library, which founder Todd Bol kicked off in 2009, also stand up against the free grocery box model.

First, some key differences between the two Little Free Something concepts. Little Free Library licenses the name “Little Free Library” to users; it isn’t free. The site also sells models that range from a scratch over $100 to well over $2,000. Little Free Pantry, on the other hand, publishes its design schematics for people to build their own grocery boxes wherever they live. (To be fair, anyone can build a book box that isn’t explicitly labeled as a Little Free Library without paying that organization.) The registration fee was one factor that irked a pair of Canadian librarians who published a searing critique of Little Free Libraries in the Journal of Radical Librarianship earlier this year.

Broadly speaking, LFLs and LFPs both depend on the kindness of homeowners to strangers. Most of them go up in the front yards of the charitable (and perhaps those with a penchant for performing their acts of kindness). As the Journal study notes, the people who build Little Free Libraries in Toronto and Calgary tend to live in the city’s toniest, wealthiest, and best-educated neighborhoods—places with greater access to well-stocked local libraries.

The fact that no one owns the concept of a Little Free Pantry—meaning that nonprofits or faith-based groups don’t have to pay a (nominal) fee to build a grocery box—may be an advantage that helps spur them along in poorer neighborhoods. At least some of the Little Free Pantry units going up around the country are finding their way to the neighborhoods where food insecurity is greatest. People’s Pantry Cincy recently built 10 free grocery stations in nine of Cincinnati’s low-income neighborhoods, for example.

There are other concerns specific to a movement built around individuals sharing canned food and toiletries. Little Free Pantry addresses several of them on its website. In particular, an LFP can’t accommodate quantity or variety—much less fresh fruits and vegetables—and therefore “should not be relied on for meeting pervasive need.” The site boasts that a Little Free Pantry “dissolves that professional boundary” between service providers and clients, but what that friction actually means goes unexplained. McClard says she is an advocate for repairing and strengthening the social safety net; Little Free Pantry is not a service in lieu of welfare.

“I’d seen the statistics. I’d looked at the Feeding America study prior to [launching Little Free Pantry]. Social justice particularly as it pertains to poverty has always been something that I’m paying attention to,” McClard says. “This is much more tangible. I’m placing the items in the pantry that are being taken by others. I have an awareness of it in a much more profound way than I did before.”

Liability is a special issue for grocery boxes. No one gets sick from a free book (no matter how much Jonathan Franzen’s critics may say otherwise). McClard’s site recommends that users consult the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, a law signed by President Bill Clinton to encourage people to donate food and groceries to nonprofit organizations by reducing their risk of civil and criminal liability. The law protects donors (and nonprofits) who give food in good faith that later results in harm to the recipient, except in cases of gross negligence or intentional malice.

This recommendation falls short of a guarantee that the law applies to Little Free Pantry boxes. However, a legal guide to food recovery produced by the University of Arkansas School of Law claims that no case has ever tried food donation–related liability. While retailers, restaurants, and other businesses in the food sector are on the hook for foodborne illnesses, the Bill Emerson Act provides a broad waiver to philanthropy. “Lawsuits arising out of the donation or provision of recovered food are extremely uncommon,” the Arkansas guide reads. Still, soup kitchens are subject to other regulations that don’t apply to leaving food in a box outside—regulations that make sure that people receiving help don’t get hurt.

The larger issue with Little Free Pantries is philosophical. What does curb-side philanthropy indicate about the nature of food aid in America? Last week, Tyson Foods—which has pledged to invest $50 million by 2020 in various efforts to fight food insecurity—donated $50,000 to Little Free Pantry, recognizing its founder, McClard, as a “Meals That Matter Hero.” It’s an investment in her philanthropic work (for which she receives no compensation) and an endorsement of an individual approach to food aid.

At the same time, Tyson Foods has also pledged hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions to the Republican Party, whose leaders aim to gut federal spending on food aid. Between 500,000 and 1 million of the country’s most vulnerable residents lost access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last year, owing to strict new reforms in predominantly red states. The Trump administration seeks $190 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade. In 2016, the political action committee for Tyson Foods contributed $136,000 to federal candidates—22 percent to Democrats, 78 percent to Republicans.

For her part, McClard is helping others in Fayetteville to help those in need. Yet every free grocery box that goes up—and this is no fault of hers—is an indictment of a meager social safety net. Book charity and food charity seem like categorically different things. No one reaches into a Little Free Library for Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News from a place of despair. A free grocery box is a sign of societal failure (especially an empty one).

If the worst criticism that can be lobbied at free grocery boxes is that they are an inefficient way to coordinate food aid—or that they serve best as a way of making homeowners feel like they are helping—then that is mild criticism. (Unless, of course, those homeowners vote against assistance for vulnerable families.) Grocery boxes can serve as a stopgap for people who temporarily slip through the gaps. But no one should feel great about them. A boom in their popularity should make us feel more worried than anything.

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