Feeding the soul with tiny, free food pantries

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Megan McManamen and Erin Galloway want to talk about something that might make people uncomfortable.

It happens in kitchens everywhere in America, in grocery stores and in dining rooms at all times of the day.

Food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It’s also a lack of reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

“I feel like people don’t think about it,” Galloway said. “Luckily, a lot of people have never struggled with food insecurity, but when you don’t know what it looks like or you don’t see it, it’s easy to ignore the problem.”

With a vision, a community that cares to help and four old newspaper dispensers, a small group of people in Campbell County is trying to help a demographic one emergency meal at a time.

The plan

There are several options in Gillette and Campbell County for people who struggle with hunger, food insecurity and other situations that lead a person or family to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

Those include the Soup Kitchen and the Food Pantry at the Council of Community Services, various food drives from the Food Bank of the Rockies, Blessings in a Backpack and dozens of food drives put on by private businesses and nonprofits throughout the year.

However, there can be a certain stigma with those food drives or donation-based services for people on the receiving end.

Food drives and soup kitchens are very public. It takes a certain person to swallow his or her pride when the time comes to hold out a hand and ask for help.

Gillette always has been a giving community, with thousands of dollars donated to charities and nonprofits every year, but food insecurity remains hidden from the public.

Galloway and McManamen are the co-managers of the Saturday Farmers Market. Together, they hope to not only help people and families in emergency food situations but also start a dialogue about what kind of help is needed in the community.

The plan is Free Little Pantries.

The idea is to have four pantries that are old newspaper dispensers from the News Record that will be stocked with shelf-stable and nutritious food, personal care items and basic household necessities.

The Free Little Pantries will be just like Free Little Libraries, but instead of books they are stocked with food.

Anyone can access the Free Little Pantries whenever the need arises.

The pantries will be located at Lakeside Park, Sunflower Park, the Salvation Army and the Council of Community Services. It’s a joint project between the Saturday Farmers Market, Cent$ible Nutrition, the Council of Community Services and a number of other organizations and businesses in the city.

Helping paint and prime the pantries were New Vision Window Tinting, Accessories, Auto Body & Collision, Gillette’s Sherwin-Williams Paint Store and Home Depot.

The students who painted and designed the four pantries were in the Campbell County Students 4 Change group at Campbell County High School.

The choice to have the pantries in those locations was a strategic one.

The Farmers Market partnered with the city of Gillette’s GIS Division and used demographics to pinpoint areas of high need in the community.

For instance, Lakeside Park is in an area of high need based on average income, distance to local grocery stores as well as free and reduced lunch used by students in the area.

Sunflower Park was chosen based on anecdotal evidence, McManamen said, as well as the free and reduced lunch statistics provided by GIS and the park’s proximity to subsidized housing.

“We wanted them to be in parks because those are places where judgment is suspended,” McManamen said. “Anyone can go to a park and not feel stigmatized or discriminated against. They’re very open spaces in our community.”

The two park pantries were also chosen because they are far from the Council of Community Services and Salvation Army.

How it will work

A couple of weeks ago, the Saturday Farmers Market had its first food drive for the pantries on the market’s opening day of the year.

From now on, all donations can be dropped off at the UW Extension Office.

The two park pantries will be filled with those donations by the Cent$ible Nutrition team. The other two will be stocked by the Council of Community Services and Salvation Army.

What will be available in the pantries will change based on the season, McManamen said.

The goal is to always have shelf-stable items and even household necessities, but once it gets cold, the pantries may turn into Free Little Freezers “and you might find a package of hamburgers in there,” McManamen said.

Galloway said the hope for the pantries is to reach the people in a certain demographic who find themselves in the gap between not qualifying for SNAP incentives, or food stamps, and being able to provide for themselves all the time.

Even though the gap will hopefully be community services that will not exclude anyone in the community.

“If you do qualify for services but find yourself in an emergency situation where you come home on Friday and thought you had something in the pantry but it’s expired or your kids ate it and you need to feed your family,” Galloway said. “You can make a quick trip to a nearby food pantry and find something that will take care of your immediate needs.”

The message the Free Little Pantries will use is “take what you need, leave what you can.”

“We want people to always try to keep in mind that there are other people in the community that are struggling,” Galloway said.

Another thing that Galloway and McManamen want to stress about the pantries is that they are meant to be there in emergency situations and are not long-term solutions for struggling families.

“There are (permanent solutions) and we want to make sure those resources are available and those people can get connected to those groups that can help them,” Galloway said.

“We also want to raise the visibility of food insecurity in our community,” McManamen said. “We’re hoping these pantries start a conversation about this.

“Sometimes people don’t want to admit that there is an issue,” Galloway said. “That issue does not need to be stigmatized. It’s not anyone’s fault. We need to come together and figure out how to solve this issue.”

Whatever the solution is, four little free pantries are a start.