Neighbors helping neighbors

Have you ever heard of the Little Free Library movement? This "take a book, leave a book" philosophy helps promote literacy in communities by providing free access to reading materials. The popularity of this phenomenon inspired Joyce Levingston, graduate student in Leisure, Youth and Human Services, mother and employee at the Institute for Youth Leaders here at UNI, to join in a very similar movement: Little Free Pantries (LFP).

Joyce Levingston

These food pantries are critical in addressing food insecurity and creating a sense of community togetherness that is needed to advocate for concepts such as charity, justice and a sharing economy.

The Cedar Valley's Little Free Pantries initiative was designed to address the challenge of food insecurity in Northeast Iowa, as well as to promote a program of community engagement. Little Free Pantries is "for neighbors helping neighbors," especially in high poverty areas. The concept is simple: Build a pantry, place it in your community, fill it with food and every-day items and then tell people about it. It is free and easy access of food to solve short term and immediate food insecurity issues. In other words, it is a "short term safety net."

"Being aware of the statistics in Black Hawk County and the area schools in the Waterloo community inspired me with the idea of Little Free Pantries," said Levingston. "Some schools have 90 percent of their students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. I asked a couple of people what they thought of the idea of Little Free Pantries and if they would use it, and they all said yes. I asked my neighbor who is a carpenter to donate his time to help me build them, and local lumberyards donated the materials."

Nearly all food pantries require applications before people can use their resources. Most also have set hours of operation, which limits access to their services. That's where Little Free Pantries come into play. Anyone may access them at any time. Instead of being a "client" at a food pantry, people are recognized as a "neighbor." This helps mediate the stigma that often accompanies the need for food. These food pantries are critical in addressing food insecurity and creating a sense of community togetherness that is needed to advocate for concepts such as charity, justice and a sharing economy.

"The difference between Little Free Libraries and Little Free Pantries is that you don't have to register for them," said Levingston. "All someone has to do is request one and then we go put it up. I have four people on my wait list and I am hoping to add those to the community later this spring."

Items don’t need to just be food. They can include sanitary products, diapers, light bulbs, school supplies and other every-day items that people could need. Some current locations you can go add food and supplies to include the Jesse Cosby Neighborhood Center and on the block of Newell Street in Waterloo. "I have already seen the utilization of the pantries," said Levingston. "The community does a great job keeping them full."

Levingston hopes that more nonprofit organizations will help out with the LFP initiative since many in the community also do work for food insecurity and they already serve so many people. She plans to stay at UNI and to focus on higher education and food insecurity problems, and also hopes to help bridge the gap between the Waterloo and UNI communities. "Change happens in unity."

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