Two years of sustenance through Little Free Pantry

Opinion: John Rice

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

We're approaching the two-year anniversary of the Forest Park Public Library's Little Free Pantry. The pantry is located on the east side of Desplaines Avenue, just north of the library's entrance. It resembles one of those little free libraries but, instead of books, it's stocked with non-perishable food items. The food is free to the public and is intended to alleviate the food insecurity many of our villagers face. One in seven Cook County residents suffer from food insecurity. 

The Little Free Pantry movement began in May 2016 and has spread nationwide. Over 40 million Americans endure food shortages. About half have incomes below the poverty line but a sizable number do not qualify for the SNAP program. This is the population that can benefit most from the pantry. 

Our pantry is the brainchild of Library Director Pilar Shaker. She did not originate the concept, as many libraries are installing pantries, but she helped make it a reality. The library enlisted the help of Tom Kunkel, head of Urban Pioneer Group, to construct and install the pantry. Kunkel recruited some local Boy Scouts to help on the project and earn community service badges in the process.

They used reclaimed wood and other recycled materials to build the unit, waiting for warm weather to dig a hole and erect the pole. The pantry was completed in April 2018. Library staff members gave it a jump-start by initially stocking the pantry. It's been consistently stocked ever since. 

The library does not monitor who gives and who takes. I tried unsuccessfully to identify donors. I'm proud to live in a community where anonymous people voluntarily provide food for the less fortunate. 

Shaker, though, inspects the pantry daily to make sure it doesn't contain perishable food, or breakable containers. Jars of sauce, for example, are removed by staff members and brought to the Community Center.

Alicia Hammond, the library's Community Engagement manager, has been hands-on with the pantry since its inception. She first pitched the project to Kunkel, who was excited to lend a hand. She noted how community partners, like Urban Pioneer Group, can add so much more to library projects. The pantry is a relatively low-maintenance program for the library and no library funds are spent on it. 

Hammond is pleased by how the local populace keeps the pantry filled. During harsh weather and the holidays, people are especially generous. They have donated scarves and gloves in the winter and frozen water bottles in the summer. 

The library also encourages patrons to donate food items at the desk. Donors are rewarded with reduced library fines. The pantry's recipients aren't necessarily homeless, or poverty-stricken. They may be going through temporary tough times, like after the loss of a job. There is also increased need during the summer when kids are not receiving school lunches. 

The local pantry has a major advantage over more regulated pantries, like the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It can accept outdated products that are still useable. Kunkel and others have discussed placing pantries at other locations throughout the village. Mayor Hoskins said he would welcome additional pantries on village-owned property. 

Kunkel has also spoken with members of the Casaccio family, who own and operate the Living Fresh grocery store at 7520 Roosevelt Road. They are forced to discard large amounts of outdated food items that are still useable. They would rather donate these items to little food pantries in Forest Park.

As Hammond pointed out, people can't think or learn if they're hungry. 

That is why I'm dubbing the library's little pantry "Food for Thought."

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