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Little Free Pantry takes aim at hunger

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An example of a Little Free Pantry similar to what Claire Buss wants to make.
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By all accounts, Claire Buss is a giver.

From her job as a patient therapist to her work on mission trips to her friendships, Buss is in it to make a difference.

Now, she's counting on her friends and community to help her make a difference, in the form of a Little Free Pantry .

Think Little Free Library , without the books. Instead, people leave and take non-perishable food and household goods, including toothpaste, garbage bags, deodorant and toilet paper — inside what in the very simplest terms is a box on a post. Those with surplus supplies leave them and those in need are welcome to take them.

All items are free for the taking.

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"I knew that there was a need for it," Buss said. As part of her job in the emergency department at a local hospital, "I was seeing more and more homeless people and people who had food insecurity issues. I'd been thinking about it for a while, and it needed to start coming to life."

She spoke to teachers, who told Buss "they have kids who don't know where their dinner's coming from, where their next meal is coming from, or if they're going to have enough food over the weekend. Adults are struggling, but there are kids in our community that are struggling, too."

Buss spotted the website of the Arkansas woman who originated the idea, "and I let the wheels start turning."

Enter Lee Fleming, of R. Fleming Construction , who will build the first pantry.

Buss, a friend of the family, "has always been a super-giving person who looks out for everyone else," Fleming said. "When she told us about the project, we tried to figure out any way we could to help get her started."

The two will meet later this week to discuss the logistics of the pantry, including the appropriate size, what it should be able to hold and the amount of support needed to bear the weight of potentially heavy canned food and other supplies.

Of course, Arkansas and Minnesota are two entirely different animals when it comes to climate.

"One thing we're trying to figure out is how to make things not freeze," Fleming said. "We have some insulation and things like that, and we're going to brainstorm to see how we can make this work," but the pantry may have to hold only items that won't freeze, then regroup in the spring.

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The family business builds custom homes, "but we don't want to have too much pressure on us," Fleming laughed. They're fortunate to have connections for donations of labor and supplies, he agreed.

"People helping people," he said.

That includes Annie Henderson, co-owner of Forager Brewery , where the first pantry will be located.

"Claire brought the idea to me and just wanted to talk through it," Henderson said, "and we thought it was the ideal location to do a prototype, then decide where the next one will be. This one is a test-run to see how much it's used and the sustainability of keeping it filled."

Fleming's work will be installed in front of the business by Dec. 11, just in time for a "pack the pantry" event to show off the new project.

Forager will offer free sleigh rides for anyone who brings a nonperishable item or toiletry for the pantry, as well as other family-friendly activities for parents and children.

Henderson sees many residents walking or riding bicycles to the nearby Kwik Trip, people who may need to "shop by the meal" as money allows. She hopes the Little Free Pantry will provide them options for things they may not be able to afford, "thing you might not think of: deodorant, tampons, toothpaste. To some people, those are a luxury.

"I thought it was neat that she wanted to do something for those less fortunate, in a different way, an innovative way," Henderson said of her friend. "I thought it would work out well for us to stock it year-round, and ask our staff to help. It's a constant reminder to staff, as well as customers, that we're more fortunate than others, and should be more giving."

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Buss would love to see four or five pantries up and running by April, she said, and is looking at areas such as Dwell Local near Cooke Park , Kemp's on Broadway and near Kmart .

"There's a huge stigma with homelessness and food insecurity in Rochester," she said, "so that's why we chose a public space instead of someone's neighborhood. Not a lot of people want to admit they struggle to put food on the table or they don't have deodorant or toothpaste every day."

In addition, pantries on privately owned land aren't subject to local, state or federal permits and licensing, since the products aren't being sold, nor is the food being prepared.

Still, Buss knows there will be critics.

"The only thing I can do is educate them about what's really going on in their city, about the people that are struggling, and see if I can just hit a note with them," she said. "You might not agree with this, and that's fine, but there are people who need help. We have Channel One (food bank), we have Salvation Army , so obviously Rochester knows it's an issue. We need to create a dialogue about it that's going to help these people."

Also needed? Sponsors, whether it's Scouting groups, church groups, neighborhoods or service organizations.

Fleming encourages other business owners to step forward.

"It's going to a good cause, especially this time of year when you're just feeling thankful for what you do have, and thinking about other people who may not be as fortunate," he said. "It's nice to give back, and it's something Claire always puts out there. It doesn't matter if it's the holiday season or not, she's always very giving."

More than that, Buss said, it can bring the community together.

"This is something I believe in, and I believe in taking care of people and being compassionate toward those situations," she said. "You don't have to agree with why they can't put food on the table, but I think it's human nature for us to take care of each other."

If you'd like to sponsor a Little Free Pantry — either the structure, the contents, or both — email Claire Buss at LittleFreePantryRochMN@gmail.com or send her a message on  Little Free Pantry-Rochester, MN .

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Claire Buss

Related Topics: FOOD
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