If the global pandemic taught us anything, it’s that cooperation and collaboration are at the root of community resilience. This isn’t only true during a crisis. As communities become more complex and the number of challenges they face increases, it is important to create a foundation of support that residents can lean on at any time: Enter little free fridge or pantries.
One of the ways communities can do this is to establish a little free community pantry (LFP) and/or a little free fridge (LFF) (also known as a freedge). Both LFPs and LFFs are small structures stocked by community members for community members who need food. They are similar to little free libraries as they rely on the goodwill of neighbors to keep them stocked and in good condition, they do not hold large inventories, and people can access them at any time.
What are LFPs?
LFPs are generally housed in wooden structures with glass doors so people can see what is inside without having to open them. These are stocked with canned goods, dry foods, and non-perishable items. LFFs may be housed in wooden structures but they may also be located in an open shed or similar structure near a power source. These contain food items and produce that need to be refrigerated.
In areas with food insecurity, little free structures like these provide a lifeline for those who don’t have access to food to meet their day-to-day needs (though they shouldn’t be relied upon for meeting ongoing needs). In more affluent areas, LFPs and LFFs are often stocked with snacks and those “forgot to grab at the grocery store” items you might need at a moment’s notice.
The first LFP was established in 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but now hundreds of LFPs and LFFs are scattered across the United States and even around the world. Join the movement, and create one for your community!
Step 1: Get up to speed on legalese and logistics
Before setting up a little free structure on your property, make sure there aren’t zoning laws against such structures. Check with your city about any special permits you may need. Fill out any necessary paperwork and be prepared with answers to questions about safety and maintenance. Be persistent and follow up on your paperwork as it moves through the approval process. If you belong to a home owner’s association, you may need special permission or additional paperwork to establish a LFP or LFF.
Every state has specific rules related to the type of food that can be shared in LFPs and LFFs. While lawsuits related to donation sites like LFPs and LFFs are uncommon, you should check with your state, county, and city before establishing and stocking your food share site. (Freedge has compiled state-specific guides to help with this process.)
Generally speaking, America’s Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects food donors when donations take place through a non-profit entity. This law extends to food businesses in some states. Canada protects person-to-person food donations from lawsuits. This handy guide produced by the University of Arkansas School of Law outlines additional legal information related to food recovery.
Step 2: Choose a location
When choosing a location, remember that the goal is to provide for the community. Pick a place anyone can easily access safely at any time of day. Avoid areas with high crime or high vehicle traffic. Places with high foot traffic, like street corners with sidewalks, are particularly good, but don’t place little free structures on easements or aprons between the sidewalk and street. In addition, avoid placing them behind gates or walls.
Choosing a place with tree cover can keep midday sun at bay during the hottest times of the year. If you live in a particularly hot location, position the little free structure so it faces north or east. LFFs need a nearby power source.
Step 3: Build Your LFP or LFF
Little Free Pantries has created both a comprehensive materials list and step-by-step assembly guide for the actual construction of your LFP if you need guidance, but you can build and decorate your storage space in any way you choose. Make sure you build for longevity, though, as people will likely be opening and closing it several times a day in all types of weather conditions all year round. Make sure wood is sanded down completely and free of splinters. Use several coats of paint, and seal the edges and corners. Use caulk to prevent water from leaking into the structure.
LFFs may be as big as full-sized refrigerators or just a large drink cooler with a consistent cooling mechanism. Unlike LFPs, LFFs need to be plugged in, so budget for that expense either personally or with contributions from the neighborhood.
Both LFPs and LFFs should be painted brightly and clearly labeled so that everyone knows they are welcome to take advantage of the service.
Step 4: Keep it stocked and cleaned
It’s important to keep your little free structure filled and accessible to the public. This is where community buy-in and contributions come in handy (see step 5).
LFPs should be stocked with cans, boxes, and bags of non-perishable items. Keep an eye on seasonable changes and weather conditions that could cause some items (like peanut butter or chocolate) to melt or freeze. LFFs can house produce and refrigerated items, though fresh meats and dairy often aren’t allowed in LFFs because they can contaminate other foods.
In addition to food, some LFPs keep a supply of hygiene products like toilet paper and toothpaste as well as household items like sponges and laundry detergent on hand. Others use them to make kid-friendly items and school supplies available. Depending on your community’s needs and the size of your LFP, these might be worthwhile additions for your neighborhood.
Because this is a community effort, no donation is too small. All those single cans of beans and packages of spaghetti add up! Your neighborhood can boost its bounty by taking advantage of buy-one-get-one deals at the grocery store.
Maintenance of the little free structure is also important. Request that people note the day of donation on the items they drop off (which is particularly important for refrigerated items), but don’t expect everybody to do this. Encourage the community to keep the little free structure in good condition by keeping it organized and discarding any items that are damaged or have gone bad. Make sure it is cleaned at least once a week, especially if it receives a lot of traffic.
Step 5: Spread the word
Don’t expect your LFP or LFF to fill itself. Let your neighbors know you plan to install one so they know what to expect once it’s made available to the public. Encourage them to support the site by stocking it, caring for its upkeep, and using it when they need it. Little Free Pantries created both a “Coming to Your Neighborhood” flyer and “How Does This LFP Work” flyer that you can use to help educate your community about this initiative.
Reach out to local cafes, restaurants, and grocery stores and let them know about the little free structure as well. They may have additional restrictions regarding donating leftover or extra food, but it doesn’t hurt to make them aware of the LFP or LFF in the neighborhood. After all, it takes a community to support a community!
Related story: How to create a free farm stand in your community