A black Oldsmobile rolled up on 70th Street South in a Tacoma neighborhood. A middle-school-aged boy jumped out and approached what looked like an oversized birdhouse with a glass door, painted sky blue and rust.
His mom called out, asking what was inside. There wasn’t a whole lot: a can of diced tomatoes, packets of instant oatmeal. She asked for the tomatoes — they would be a welcome addition to the burritos she would make that evening.
These are the type of interactions that occur at Kelly and Kurt Norton’s Little Free Pantry, a box on the corner where people in need can come and pick up grocery items like beans, oatmeal or fresh eggs from a neighbor with chickens down the street. It was a way for neighbors to help neighbors when things were tough.
The need has only increased as the coronavirus and associated lockdown has deprived people of income and made grocery stores dangerous for older people and those with underlying health conditions.
The Nortons set up the Little Free Pantry and a Little Free Library (where people can freely come to leave a book or take a book) about two years ago. The library came first, but Kelly Norton works in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. She kept seeing these little pantries when she went on a walk at lunchtime.
“I got on the website and the only one in the area was in a bar,” Kelly Norton said. That wasn’t accessible enough for her, so she decided to add the pantry on the other end of her house. She and her husband chose the spot carefully — it wasn’t right in front of the house and there was space to park, so people could use it without feeling like they were being observed.
There has been some backlash from neighbors, recently amplified on various Facebook pages. They refer to the pantry as a “bum feeder,” among other unsavory things. Homeless people do use the pantry, but it’s mostly frequented by people like the little boy and his mother in the black Oldsmobile, families who need help to get by.
“There’s not a lot we can do. This problem is bigger than us,” Kelly Norton said. “The pantry is being used to face our current situation.”
The library and the pantry are named after the Ventures, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band whose founder, Don Wilson, grew up in the home where the Nortons and their bloodhound-mix Honey now reside.
Initially, the Nelsons were concerned that the decorative guitar picks might get stolen. They had a few extra doors for the pantry and library in their garage, just in case they had to replace it.
But that didn’t happen.
The pantry and library aren’t completely without problems. Kids have come by a few times with acts of mischief, like dumping a jar of tomato sauce in the pantry. When that happened, Kelly Norton went out to talk to them and ask them for help cleaning up, which they did.
The pantry is meant to keep the community together, to support one another in times of need. People who frequent it also donate when their situations are better, stocking it with nonperishable goods, the Nortons said.
That is part of the goal of the project: bringing people together to try to combat larger societal problems, said Jessica McClard, founder of the Little Free Pantry movement.
“It’s a desire for reconnection to one’s neighbors and an intentional creation of space for neighborliness at a time that we are less connected,” McClard said.
McClard was inspired by the Little Free Library effort, much like the Nortons. It led her to think what else could happen in those small, wooden boxes.
“I took the Little Free Library as a model and read about the experience of those stewards,” McClard said. “Even at that time, I saw there was some contention around those projects. It didn’t really seem like the risk was enough to outweigh what could potentially be the good that could come from doing this.”
That was four years ago. Now there are hundreds of little free pantries across the U.S., helping people out and bringing communities together.
“It’s been a positive experience,” Kelly Norton said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.