Self-Serve Food Pantries Help Feed Local Communities

Posted on by Brittany Edelmann, Northwestern University student
Five teenagers stand beside a freestanding wooden container filled with food. A label on the box says "TLC little free pantry"
High school students (from left) Eva Gottesfeld, Rebecca Levy, Yair Gritzman, Jonathan Hus, and Noah Rubin stand in front of a “TLC Little Free Pantry” with a quick response (QR) code and instructions posted on the front. (Photo credit: Yair Gritzman)

This student-authored post is published by CPR in partnership with Medill News Service and the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies, or positions of CPR or CDC.

Summer Faerman was on a walk in early 2020 when she saw a small wooden box at the entrance of a neighborhood. She investigated.

The box was a free library, where people could take a book for themselves and leave them for others. The idea inspired Faerman to create something similar—a self-serve food pantry.

Faerman started with one pantry in front of a Salvation Army. It was a strategic choice. The Salvation Army is known in the community as a place to donate goods. It’s also a block away from a local elementary school and a public housing development.callout

Over the past year, one pantry has turned into 52 TLC Little Free Pantries (LFP) located around South Florida. The newest opened last Veteran’s Day in Boca Raton at a mental health center that treats veterans.

LFPs are open 24 hours. There are no questions asked, no judgments passed, and no forms to fill out, explained Faerman.

The pantries are based on the honor system. The words “If you have, give. If you need, take” are posted in multiple languages, including Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish, on the boxes.

People who take from the self-serve food pantries also give, Faerman said. She’s seen people, including members of the local synagogue and passersby, put food in the boxes.

With the pantries being always open, Faerman ran into a problem. When there was just one box, she was able to keep up with demand.

As new pantries opened, it became more difficult for Faerman to keep them stocked. That’s even with the help of volunteers.

In January 2021, Faerman heard from a group of high school students in an engineering club at Donna Klein Jewish Academy with an offer to help. She explained to them her problem of knowing when the pantries were running low. The students suggested creating quick response (QR) codes for the pantries.

QR codes, explains Yair Gritzman, a senior in high school and member of their engineering club, were a simple and inexpensive solution to keeping tabs on the pantries’ inventory.

Gritzman and his schoolmates enlisted the help of their engineering teacher and the Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems Engineering at Florida Atlantic University. Together they launched “Report That Pantry”.

Report That Pantry is a website. QR codes placed on each pantry link to the site, where users of the code can report the level of food inside the pantries to LFP volunteers.

The QR codes, which link to the website, are now being used by self-serve food pantry projects in other states, including Oregon, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio, to restock their pantries faster.

Faerman said the QR codes make it so that “if there’s one [a pantry] that’s bare, it’s not bare for long.”

People appreciate that they can go at any time and take as much food as they need, said Faerman. Children share how excited, not embarrassed, they are to go to the pantry and pick out food. Thank-you notes are left inside the pantries as well.

Faerman hopes to implement more self-serve pantries soon. For now, she’s focused on keeping the ones they have stocked with food with the help of the website.

Faerman hopes people find inspiration in the TLC LFPs—as she did in the free library—and replicate it in their communities. Building a self-serve pantry is easy and opening an account on “Report That Pantry” is free. People are only limited by their willingness to get involved.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in September 2021 that of the 13.8 million food-insecure households in the U.S., 36.5% of them reported using a food pantry in 2020. USDA defines households as food insecure if they have “difficulty providing enough food for all members at some time in the past year because there wasn’t enough money for food.”(2)

Food assistance is available for low-income individuals and communities. Call USDA’s National Hunger Hotline for information on meal sites, food banks, and other services near you. The number is 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273) for Spanish. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST.




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Posted on by Brittany Edelmann, Northwestern University studentTags , , , , , ,

2 comments on “Self-Serve Food Pantries Help Feed Local Communities”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Having a self service food pantry is an amazing idea. With the rate of homelessness in communities, having self service food pantries will ensure that people are able to have a meal when they do not have money to buy food. This is also essential for people who have health issues such as diabetes, who need to ensure that they have something to eat to manage their condition. I also like the idea of if you are able to give, give. This allows an unlimited amount of food available for people. I look forward to seeing more self service pantries in my local community.

    Nutrition can help prevent disease. Having access to healthy food options including fruits and vegetables can reduce illness. With the rising cost of food and struggling economy, having a free food pantry can make all the difference in the lives of those in these communities. Many people may be too proud to go to the food bank or use government assistance, this provides a solution for them and many others. The fact that a teen saw a problem and came up with a cost effective but outstanding solution, gives me hope in future generations.

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Page last reviewed: April 25, 2022
Page last updated: April 25, 2022