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Filling a niche: Free Little Pantry dispenses food, toiletries around the clock

Pastor Rick Martin restocks the Free Little Pantry outside the Alexandria First Free Methodist Church. He estimates the pantry serves 3 to 4 people some days and 15-20 people other days. Anyone is welcome to take from it. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)1 / 2
Items in the Free Little Pantry vary depending on weather. When temperatures are cold enough, it sometimes includes perishables such as sandwich meat. It generally offers toilet paper and toothpaste. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 2

You've heard of Little Free Libraries?

Now Alexandria has a Free Little Pantry.

Since July 30, a white cabinet mounted outside the entrance of the Alexandria First Free Methodist Church at 402 Eighth Ave. E. has dispensed food and necessities, including dried beans, pasta, toothpaste and soap. During the fall, it offered fresh produce. During cold weather, it includes perishable goods such as sandwich meat. Like a Little Free Library, it's open around the clock, seven days a week, with no forms to fill out and no questions asked.

"People put stuff in, people take stuff out," said Pastor Rick Martin. "As a church, we will fill it as people donate funds to it and we make sure it's good quality stuff that's in there."

Aid workers say the pantry fills a niche in providing food and toiletries in Douglas County.

"In starting a little free pantry, maybe what that is doing is servicing a population that doesn't have access to food somewhere else or doesn't know what it can access somewhere else," said Jen Jabas, executive director of the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties.

Her agency serves 200 families in Douglas County a through a monthly food drop, but that's at a certain time and place, she said. Those who might work during that time or lack transportation might not be able to get there.

Families can get 50 pounds of food per person at the Douglas County Food Shelf, although they can only visit there once a month and may not have a ride there.

"Anytime you can have something in close proximity to where someone lives, it reduces barriers," Jabas said.

Martin first heard about Free Little Pantries in a church magazine. They have caught on across the United States. His tiny congregation of 25 members decided to add it to the low-key ways they help individuals in need.

Their church tends not to seek the limelight, he said. In fact, when the Echo Press contacted the church about the box, Martin said he debated how to respond. But then he figured some publicity might be part of a higher plan.

Martin was sent to pastor the church in 2003 with instructions to either close it or keep it running. It had been there since 1891 but its membership had fallen. That it's still running, he said, is a testament to his congregation's desire for a spiritual experience and its close work with individuals who need help.

"We know people get hungry and we wanted something anonymous and simple to deal with," he said. "We believe in Jesus Christ and his model to take care of those who are hungry."

Like a Little Free Library, the box's contents are available to anybody. The church has posted a sign next to the road calling attention to it, and has distributed 4,000 business cards with pantry information. On the glass front, a sign tells visitors that the pantry is designed to provide one or two meals a day, and asks them to take just what they need for the moment.

"I've seen elderly people use it, I've seen college kids use it," Martin said. "They come from all over the place. ... I filled it at midnight one night and before I leave I check it at 7 a.m. in the morning and stuff's gone out of it. We know people are using it at all different times of the day."

Sometimes, those who take feel compelled to leave something, even if they don't have much. Once, someone left matchbook covers that might have come from a cherished collection.

Is it difficult to keep the pantry stocked?

"The Lord has blessed us well," Martin said.

He said they fill the pantry at least daily.

There are times the church has chosen not to include items in the pantry, such as mouthwash marketed for children.

"We were all surprised it had alcohol in it," Martin said.

Since food stamps and WIC don't cover things like diapers and toilet paper, those are the kinds of items that fly off the shelf fastest, he said.

Because the cost of toilet paper was eating into the food budget at The Douglas County Food Shelf, it no longer stocks it unless someone donates, said executive director Vicki Bump. There's no question that a need for food exists in Douglas County, she said, including among homeless families living in cars. The county food shelf serves 15,000 people a year, and that number is growing, she said.

"We are getting more and more older people, which is good, because older people are pretty private, they say they don't want any handout," Bump said. "I had a lady yesterday, she just couldn't thank us enough. She said, 'You've saved my life so many times.'"

While nobody knows for sure how many people are using the Free Little Pantry, or who they are, Jabas offered some tips for those who might want to stock it. Those in need might not have can openers, so peel-top cans are good, as well as providing inexpensive can openers. Bottles of water work, as do sealed cereal or soup cups, granola and fruit bars and plastic silverware. With cold weather settling in, handwarmers would also be nice, she said.

Neighbor Gabriel Schmidt, a cook at Doolittles Woodfire Grill who lives across the street from the church, said he sometimes sees people using the pantry when he's home.

"It's what people should do, to have things to help each other out," he said.

Hunger in Minnesota

In Minnesota, about 10 percent of households report lacking resources to provide food for one or more members, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.