Amy Hand puts hard boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mandarins, canned beans and tuna, tampons and toothbrushes into a baby blue wooden pantry on stilts next to the street in front of her house. “Take what you need, leave what you can” is hand written in black paint on the side of the pantry facing the street.
Three minutes later, a man comes riding down the street on a bicycle, holding a plastic garbage bag full of his possessions over his right shoulder. He pauses at the pantry, takes some food out and rides away.
Hand’s pantry is one of 17 in Eugene-Springfield, which are organized by the local nonprofit Burrito Brigade. The organization delivers free vegan burritos to hungry people in Eugene and Portland every Saturday and Sunday. It relies on donations.
Little Free Pantries bring neighborhoods together and help those who don’t have the ability to drive long distances to get free food, says Jennifer Denson, Burrito Brigade’s executive director.
Hand, the front-of-house manager of Gratitude Brewing, says that while food boxes are often available at places like FOOD for Lane County, they rarely contain ready-to-eat food that unhoused people without kitchens can use.
Hand fills her Little Free Pantry with things that are ready to eat or easy to prepare with a microwave: instant ramen, instant mashed potatoes, frozen burritos, etc. She also puts in essential hygiene products like toothbrushes and tampons. She says around 30 people stop by the pantry every day.
Burrito Brigade’s Denson also stocks the pantries with day-old, expired or otherwise hard-to-sell food donated from local businesses.
The Little Free Pantry concept started in 2016 when Jessica McClard, a mom in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was inspired by the Little Free Libraries she saw popping up all over her town, according to The Washington Post. There are now about 600 Little Free Pantries around the world. Burrito Brigade started making its Little Free Pantries in August 2018.
Willamette High School’s woodshop class builds the pantries. Burrito Brigade provides the construction materials.
Since people started panic-buying and hoarding food because of COVID-19, the pantries are emptying faster than ever before. People who are normally food-secure may be struggling to eat now, too. There have been thousands of layoffs in Oregon in the last week, and many stores are out of affordable food.
“Your neighbor could be struggling, and that box of mac and cheese or that loaf of bread or whatever might get them to the next paycheck,” Denson says. “Not just unhoused people are hungry.”
Denson now stocks the pantries with burritos on Saturdays and Sundays. Because of how quickly they’re emptied, she says she’s not worried that they’ll go bad.
Hand got her Little Free Pantry in November 2019. She’s been stocking it with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hardboiled eggs every day since then.
“I’ve been a server all my life. My mother’s Italian,” Hand says. “I get great joy out of feeding people.”
Paul Safar, a piano teacher, composer and performer, hosts a box outside of his music studio in another part of town. He says people come to his pantry about every hour.
When he got the pantry in August, he filled it regularly, but now, neighbors pitch in and keep it filled.
Safar says a couple living in their car nearby once approached him to tell him how grateful they were that somebody had put a blanket in the box. They’d been getting cold at night in their car.
Another time, a man who appeared to be homeless dropped off a flashlight in the pantry that he didn’t need.
Hand also says that people who take food from the box also sometimes drop off food of their own.
Burrito Brigade is going to try to keep providing food for those who need it during the COVID-19 crisis. But the last time Hand went to WinCo, most of the affordable canned goods she normally buys were sold out.
Hand says the demographic the pantry usually serves is people who shop only when they get a little bit of money. They can’t stock up on food.
“All the reasonable things at local convenience stores are being stripped down, and I don’t think it’s for the population who needs it the most,” she says.
Hand urges people to keep talking each other during this crisis, and to not become self-centered and hoard food. She implores people to leave some affordable items on the shelves when they go shopping, so that those that can’t afford anything else don’t starve.
“There’s enough to go around for everybody,” she says.
Burrito Brigade is looking for more hosts, especially in the Bethel and Gilham areas and in Springfield. Email EugeneBurritoBrigade@gmail.com, or message Burrito Brigade on Facebook for more info.