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Last Modified: February 14, 2023
Feature Image for Little Free Pantries in Alberta Libraries: Pasta, bread, and cans stacked on a table. "Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach" is written in white text on a blue background below the image.
Little Free Pantries in Alberta Libraries

by Jessie Bach

If you have been reading my column for the past few years, you know by now that libraries are about more than just books. They are community hubs that are all about the latest technology, tools, sports equipment and other “things,” programs and clubs, and so much more. Increasingly, libraries are also about giving back to the community and helping people access necessities like computers and the internet, warm clothing, and even food — in the form of Little Free Pantries.

A shelf stocked with various pantry staples, including Kraft Dinner, Mr. Noodle Soup, and Rice a Roni. A Little Free Pantry is just like a Little Free Library, except they are stocked with food! If you live in one of Alberta’s larger centres, you may have seen Little Free Pantries popping up in your neighbourhood. Here’s a map from the Little Free Pantry official website that shows their proliferation in the United States, and several locations here in Alberta too. The original concept is that the pantries are stocked and used organically. People who have food to spare add items to the pantry — this could be food that they have purchased for the purpose, or food from their own pantries (unopened and not expired, of course) — and those who are hungry take the food that they need.

Public libraries provide an ideal location for Little Free Pantries. They are safe spaces, out of the elements, and supervised by staff. They are all about sharing, and they have the know-how and community connections needed to set up a new service successfully and cost-effectively. They are also places where many people experiencing poverty already go to access important services.

I first heard about Little Free Pantries in Alberta’s libraries when I interviewed Andrea Newland, Library Director at the Sylvan Lake Municipal Library, for a Library Profile post here on Beyond the Stacks. She told me about how they started their Little Free Pantry back in 2016, after noting an increase in hungry children coming to the library asking if they had any food. Since then, their pantry has grown to include household necessities like toilet paper and dish soap, as well as a fridge for perishable or frozen food items. A few months later when I profiled Grande Prairie Public Library, I heard that they too host a Little Free Pantry. Director Deb Cryderman noted that their pantry has two purposes — to address hunger in the community by providing food for those who need it, and to raise awareness of the issue with the public through its presence in the library. In Strathmore, donations received during their Food for Fines program, where patrons can have their overdue fines waived if they bring in a food item, were used to stock the Little Free Pantry located right near their entrance.

To find out some more in-depth information about what it takes to set up and run a Little Free Pantry, I connected with Sarah McCormack, the Director at the Banff Public Library, where they have been operating their pantry for over six years.

Jessie Bach: How was the Little Free Pantry at the Banff Public Library established?

Sarah McCormack: The Little Free Pantry began back in 2016, just after the creation of the Banff Food Rescue (BFR). We initially partnered with them to redistribute non-perishables and bread products that were close to their expiration date. Since then, the pantry stock has expanded to include personal care items like shampoo, conditioner, soap, feminine hygiene products, diapers, condoms, and more. We have had toothbrushes and other oral care products donated by local dentist’s offices. Most recently, we have even been able to include fentanyl testing strips.

JB: How do you keep the pantry stocked?

A close up of the pantry shelf, stocked with Kraft Dinner, Rice a Roni, and other food items.SM: This has been one of the most difficult aspects. There is the element of “take what you need, leave what you can,” and community members do bring in items for the pantry. We cannot rely on that, though, because community members in need seem to vastly outnumber those who are able to contribute.

As I mentioned above, our main partner was originally the BFR, however, they themselves are receiving fewer non-perishables lately and are seeing greater need at their regular evening distributions. We partnered with the Primary Care Network to distribute sexual health packets that include condoms, lubricant, and sexual health information. We also work with granting organizations — for example, we received a community grant from the Town of Banff late last year intended to help stock the pantry.

Some local organizations have mounted small food drives to collect non-perishables for us — this past year we were grateful to receive donations collected by the Bow Valley Credit Union and the Mineral Springs Hospital staff. We also occasionally receive financial donations.

It costs an estimated five to six hundred dollars per month to keep the Little Free Pantry stocked — and ideally, we could use more than that. Keeping food in the pantry is an ongoing concern.

JB: What else does it take to keep the pantry up and running?

SM: Staff time. Money. Donations. A champion — a person who is determined to make the program work and who will find a way to do it. Without a champion, this valuable, gap-filling program would not survive. Staff support is integral to keeping these important social programs and services running.

JB: What has the response from the community been like?

SM: We have had a truly wonderful community response. Even those who do not use the Little Free Pantry are happy that we provide it. Rural libraries often take on varied roles, depending on the availability of other services and supports in the community. I find that our social programs, and programs like our Library of Things, address needs in our community that would not otherwise be met.

Unlike the local food bank which is only open one day per week for one hour and requires proof of need, our pantry has no barriers to access and is available seven days a week. Community members from all walks of life come into the library to access our vast array of programs, collections, and services. Those who use the Little Free Pantry can do so with relative anonymity; they are not monitored or judged when they walk through our doors.

On multiple occasions, we have heard of unhoused individuals crediting our program with helping them to remain fed while looking for housing and a job. Others have told us they are happy to have a place to bring food items they can’t use so that they will not go to waste. The positive stories are many, but due to the no-barrier access to our pantry, we do not have much in the way of quantitative data.

JB: What should people do if people want to donate or help with the pantry?

SM: Anyone can bring in food items to donate — we just ask that they be sealed and un-expired. We also accept monetary donations via cash, cheque, credit and debit, or online through our website.

I would like to extend a big thank you to Sarah at the Banff Library for answering my questions about their Little Free Pantry! If you’d like to help your local library support those in need in your community, drop in or check their website to see what services they provide and how you can contribute.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym. 

Feature image credit: Julia M Cameron (via Pexels).