Posted Mar 23, 2021, 12:33 pm
Standing side by side in the midday sun, two women sort through a box
filled with peanut butter, bread, rice and all kinds of canned goods.
“Here’s some cat food,” Elvia Schwenke says.
“Oh, yay!” Laura Stiltner replies as she stacks the items into eight
old school lockers that sit outside the Oracle Community Center. “Take
what you need. Leave what you can,” an adjacent sign reads.
The metal lockers have been converted into little pantries that serve
one big purpose: to fight food insecurity in the unincorporated
community of about 4,000 north of Tucson.
“We started seeing a lot of families that were out of work, the kids
being home all the time,” said Stiltner, who with Schwenke serves on the
community center’s board. “It was kind of motivation to say: We’ve got
to do something to help people that just need food and basics right now.
“It makes you feel good inside to know you’re helping people.”
Oracle launched the project in September as a part of the Little Free
Pantry movement, one of several efforts worldwide in which people
donate food and goods and house them in a neighborhood space to be used
by anyone who needs help.
Tina Acosta, 56, who works for the Oracle Fire District, first heard
about the movement on the radio, before COVID-19. Once she saw the
impact of the pandemic on her neighbors, she shared the idea with
others, including Stiltner, who “took the ball and ran with it.”
The community center provided a space and has done most of the work filling and maintaining the pantry.
“We have homeless just like every community, or people who may have a
roof over their heads but they still need help,” Acosta said. “I just
hope that it catches on, because it’s such a great resource. It’s not
any one particular organization or affiliation. It’s just people trying
to help people.”
Before the pandemic was declared last March, food insecurity across
the country had fallen to its lowest levels in 20 years, according to
Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United
States. But COVID-19 likely reversed those gains.
The organization projects that more than 50 million people – 17
million of them children – experienced food insecurity in 2020. In 2019,
the numbers were 35 million and 11 million.
Food insecurity occurs when people can’t access enough nutritious
food to live active, healthy lives. It can be found in big cities and
small towns alike.
Oracle is in Pinal County, which is projected to see a 27% spike in
the number of food-insecure residents from 2018 to 2020, an increase of
almost 15,000 people, according to Feeding America. Across Arizona, 260,000 people were considered food insecure last year, an increase of 28% from 2018.
Community members had a big part in building the Oracle Pantry. The
Fire District donated the lockers, which had been sitting in storage,
and local artists decorated them. Volunteer handymen built a roof to
protect the lockers during hot summers. And once javelina started
figuring out how to get food from the bottom row of lockers, food
products were moved to the top row to keep the critters out.
Donations for the pantry also are community-driven. At first, Acosta
and the center staff kept the lockers filled. Over time, other residents
started contributing, even adding such items as handmade beanies to
keep heads warm during winter.
To restock the pantry, the center periodically holds Fill the Truck drives, such as the one planned Saturday at the Dollar General in Oracle.
“Of course you’re hoping that the community is coming through and seeing that they’re empty and filling the void,” Acosta said.
The community aspect is part of what inspired Jessica McClard to
pilot the Little Free Pantry movement in 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Years earlier, McClard needed government food assistance to get by, and
she still remembers the stigma she felt whenever she used the bright
“I really did feel ashamed,” she said.
Wanting to help others, and inspired by the Little Free Library concept – a neighborhood book-sharing movement – McClard started the first Little Free Pantry near her church.
Thanks to news media attention and the internet, the idea soon took off. Five years later, a map on McClard’s website shows 1,800 Little Free Pantries across the U.S., a number the pandemic has further increased, she said.
“For a long time, food insecurity could remain largely hidden at the
margins,” McClard said. “Now there are so many people that because of
COVID-19 have been impacted economically and are now experiencing food
An added benefit of the neighborhood pantries is they provide a
socially distanced way to help people safely during the pandemic.
“We knew that a lot of the avenues that people traditionally used to
volunteer, whether it be through a food bank or pantry or some other
type of organization, were really struggling with the loss of
volunteers,” McClard said. “This was a place where people could go and
do something for their neighbors and still … be somewhat protected from
Cori Runyon, an Arizona State University graduate student, started a
pantry in south Tucson in 2017 as part of a mentorship program focused
on social justice. She aims to provide essential goods that people might
not get at a food bank, including feminine hygiene products and toilet
Over the past year, Runyon has seen an increase in food donations
from individuals and organizations like Food Not Bombs, a group
providing free vegan and vegetarian food.
“They’ve had such an influx in donations of food that they’re trying
to get it out to other projects that are getting food out there,” she
The south Tucson pantry, tucked between a barbershop and the office
of a civil rights group, is a wooden box painted bright blue with a sign
welcoming people in English and Spanish. At one point, those using the
pantry covered the doors with thank you messages, Runyon said.
“They all express a lot of appreciation,” she said. “Lots of positive feedback from the community.”
When it comes to addressing food insecurity, Runyon believes her
pantry has made an impact, even if that’s providing a small snack to
someone who would otherwise have nothing.
“I don’t think it’s having a grand scale effect or data-changing,”
she said. “But it’s just a little thing that can help someone here and
“I’d encourage other people to start food pantries in their own
neighborhoods. There doesn’t need to be one organization that’s in
charge of all this. … Every community should step up to care for its own
less-privileged community members.”
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