Checking in: Little Free Pantry grows into an international phenomenon

Little Free Pantry founder Jessica McClard.

Photo: Dustin Bartholomew, Flyer Staff

Since we last checked in with Jessica McClard, creator of the first Little Free Pantry, her concept of creating small-scale, take-what-you-need food pantries for folks battling food insecurity has gone global.

She built the prototype at her church at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in east Fayetteville in May 016, and in just over a year, Little Free Pantries have popped up all over the world.

McClard says that she is aware of Little Free Pantries in the U.S. from coast to coast. They’re in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Netherlands. There are pockets of them in Australia and New Zealand.

So many exist, in fact, that McClard has lost count.

“It is hard to say,” she said. “There are at least 500 of them. I think there could be closer to 1,000.”

One of the reasons McClard isn’t sure how many of them there are is that, all along, her vision for the concept was for it to be an open-source, free-to-anyone who wants to help kind of initiative.

Her website includes free plans and instructions for building your own structure, and strategies for how to keep it stocked.

“For me, I’d just like to see more people do it,” she told us last year. “The last thing I want to do is stand in the way of anyone who wants to get involved.”

Little Free Pantry founder Jessica McClard stands next to her first pantry outside Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in east Fayetteville.

Photo: Dustin Bartholomew, Flyer Staff

The “stewards” of the pantries, as McClard calls them, have also taken the concepts and made them their own as well. She’s seen them called by new names, like Blessing Boxes, Free Little Pantries, and others.

This summer, McClard was honored by Tyson Foods as a “Meals that Matter Hero” for her efforts to fight hunger. The award came with a $50,000 donation, one that McClard will use to reinvest into her pantry project. Her hope, she said, was for that $50,000 to feed a whole lot more people than you can buy with the cash.

McClard said she plans to use about $10,000 of the money to purchase shef-stable products to help stock the pantries in Northwest Arkansas. The other $40,000 will go toward a web-based map to help identify the locations of existing pantries in order to make them easier to find for those who need them.

The map will have other functionality as well, including a way for stewards to create a profile and receive useful feedback from the folks who use the pantries.

“People will be able to be notified when the pantry is empty, or when the latch is broken,” McClard said.

Stewards will also be able to register a shipping address for folks who want to send supplies to the little free pantries.

McClard is also working on an online giving marketplace that will allow those who want to support the project financially to be able to give donations to the cause.

She is also continuing to take steps toward becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the hopes of one day hiring an employee or two to help facilitate even more pantries around the world.

For now, McClard is still a one-woman show, and the movement has continued to grow at a break-neck pace on its own. Over the last year, the project has received attention from a host of national media outlets. Just this week, McClard interviewed with The Today Show for a piece that will air soon.

“It’s what I do all day long into the evening,” she said. “It would probably be a lot more exhausting if I didn’t love doing it so much.”

McClard said she isn’t sure what the future holds for her vision, though she feels like the need for things like Little Free Pantry are increasing as proposed budget cuts on the federal level threaten programs that combat food insecurity.

“I’m afraid we are going to continue to see massive cuts to social safety net programs like SNAP,” McClard said. “I think people are asking, ‘Whose responsibility is it to take care of people?

“Part of the reason these little free spaces speak to people is that we want to take care of one another,” she said. “I’m a believe in these little free spaces, and I’ll continue to do the work of the pantry as long as there’s work to do.”

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit