Little free pantry ‘fills in the cracks’
You may be familiar with the concept of the “little free library” — those small outdoor cabinets stuffed with donated books intended to feed the imaginations of young and old alike — but the sobering reality of the nation’s roaring economy is that it’s given birth to a disturbing new permutation of the popular donation-based book boxes: the “little free pantry,” stuffed with food intended to feed Western North Carolina’s increasingly poor and hungry children and adults.
“It started with sort of a winter project, a tote with scarves and gloves and hats and things,” said Kitty Currin, who with her husband has owned Our Place Inn in Maggie Valley Since 2015. “Then Beverly Banks found out about our little project and asked if we would like to host a slightly bigger version with food and other necessary items.”
The big blue shed wasn’t there when the Currins bought the place, so they built a small shanty that still wasn’t quite large enough; they then shipped that one off to Clyde and built the one that now occupies a few square feet in front of their inn, right off Soco Road, last December.
“There are 15 to 20 individuals in a day that will come through sometimes,” said Currin. “There are all different kinds of people that come through. We do have a lot of older folks that are taking care of grandchildren and some of the (social) services don’t apply to them, so they have to visit food pantries.”
Currin’s shed contains a wire rack, stacked with cans of beans, corn, peas and tomatoes, as well as dry pastas and a few potatoes. She said that sometimes the food on the shelves is in and out the door in 48 hours or less.
Indeed, during the 30 minutes Currin spent explaining the purpose of the little free pantry, two separate carloads of people pulled up, entered the shed, and left with groceries.
Banks, a volunteer who helps stock the pantries, said that most of the food they get comes from individuals, but that there was some institutional support behind the effort.
“They see that the changes that we’re making in the community, well as the statistics, the numbers that we’re making, especially with hunger and with domestic violence situations,” she said.
Food isn’t the only thing that can be found in the shed, either. A small display of flyers and pamphlets lines one wall, offering resources to people who might need them.
“This is just more of an emergency place,” said Currin. “It’s to fill the cracks in the system that some people fall through. It’s really important to pair them up with different resources they may need. For some people it’s as simple as they just need to be able to find a few extra places to eat, and some people need more help. They might need REACH, which is the sexual abuse and family domestic violence agency, or things like that.”
Racks of clothing and a few pairs of shoes also line one side of the shed, so that people who have job interviews or court cases have something presentable to wear.
“Right now it’s winter so we’re looking more for jackets and warm things,” said Currin. “I have a section of kids clothes, too. Again there’s all different kinds of people from babies up to teenagers and adults that come here.”
A story in the Nov. 20 issue of The Smoky Mountain News based on reports issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said that between 23 and 29 percent of children in the state’s seven westernmost counties are living in poverty, and a similar percentage suffer from food insecurity.
The epicenter of the issue in this county of 60,000 people remains Waynesville — perhaps because it’s the largest city in the county, perhaps because the needy are more visible there — but the problem transcends municipal boundaries.
“I guess people don’t think about the need in Maggie Valley because there’s an extreme wealth gap,” Currin said. “There’s a lot of really rich people and vacation houses here, but there’s also the people that are homeless and transient.”
While Haywood County is particularly blessed compared to its more westerly neighbors, more than one in five children in the county are still poor, and hungry.
That’s part of the reason Haywood’s other two little free pantries are both in front of Head Start facilities — one in Clyde, and one in Waynesville; the working poor can have trouble reaching the region’s food banks, many of which operate on the same 9-to-5 schedules as their employers.
“That’s one of our big priorities,” said Laura Inman, another volunteer who helps stock the pantries. “Beverly and I both have had kids in the school system all these years and so we’ve gone around and figured out what the gaps are and we noticed that, hey, we’ve got parents that are working so if they need to go there after hours, then they can get food. These (the Clyde and Waynesville pantries) are also within walking distance of other groups of people in these communities that can go there and get food if they need it.”
The pantries’ close association with educational institutions also helps out when school’s out.
“The saddest part of sending kids home and kids being home on snow days or Christmas break or spring break is that every day that that kid’s out of school, chances are they don’t have food to eat,” Inman said.
Despite historic highs in the stock market, and historic lows in unemployment, data from the DHHS report indicates the problems of hunger and poverty aren’t getting any better in Western North Carolina.
Inman says that as long as the community continues to support the little free pantry effort, they’ll do what they need to do to help the hungry in Haywood — holiday or not.
“If we identify more need, then that’s what we’ll do,” she said. “That’s why it’s nice to know that we have that community support. People want to help.”
Little free pantry locations
There are only five little free pantry locations in Western North Carolina — including in Asheville and in Sylva — but three of them are located in Haywood County.
• Clyde: 384 Jones Cove Road
• Maggie Valley: 4077 Soco Road
• Waynesville: 489 Pigeon Street
If you or someone you know needs a little extra food, stop by the little free pantry any time, and be sure to visit www.littlefreepantry.org for an interactive map that lists little free pantry locations nationwide.
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