Meet the Woman Behind the Global Grassroots Initiative, The Little Free Pantry, Helping Those in Need

Jessica McClard founded her grassroots food initiative on May 12, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark., with just a little pilot box and a big idea.

"I feel like I'm always forgetting to buy an onion at the grocery store," McClard laughs. "There was a time when people knew their neighbors and could ask for a cup of sugar and I don't know that people really do that anymore and I think it would be amazing if the pantry could be that space for people."

Working tirelessly, 25 hours a week, in addition to pursuing a full-time job as a financial associate at Thrivent, the mother of two founded The Little Free Pantry (LFP) with the mantra: "A single little free pantry is little, but a lot might be big."

The website reads: "Duplicate freely."

McClard shares the magic behind each new pantry, telling MAKERS that, "Part of the real magic of what this does, is that it has the potential to build community, and it’s just been such joy to see the way that communities have come together and coalesced around these projects to try to provide a kinder place for their neighbors."

McClard, on average, gets three to four emails each day about new pantry pop-ups. MAKERS caught up with her in an exclusive interview about the initiative that has taken form not just across the country, but has expanded globally into places like Australia and New Zealand.

Q: Tell us about your background; what sparked your interest in starting something so big like this?
A: This was just about two years ago now. I was running my usual route and I noticed the first Little Free Library on my route. Being a reader, I stopped and browsed. In a matter of just a couple of months, it seemed there were at least three on my route, so at one point I actually had to stop and I had to walk home because I had so many books. At the same time, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s "Tipping Point" and it was clear to me that the concept of the Little Free Library had tipped — and I have opinions about why I think that is, and I wondered if the same concept could be used to address another quality of life issue, and food was just what immediately came to me.

I really believed it could work and I actually really thought through almost all of the objections or issues that people would raise around it, and finally those reasons weren’t compelling enough for me not to try. It's a relatively low-cost project so I decided that if it didn't work, then I wouldn't really even be out that much money. I need to see if my idea would work.

Q: How often do you stock the pantry?
A: I stock the pantry just like anyone else in the community does: probably every 14 days I'll put something in there. It's at my church and I'm there quite a bit so it’s pretty convenient for me to keep a few things in the back of my car and stick them in but I don't stock it more than. I have a number of supporters that supply it on a regular basis and I would say I supply about as regularly as they do.

Q: Who does the LFP Serve the most? (Note: McClard notes the homeless population grew 25 percent last year.)
A: Generally, I think it's probably low income families because there is a commuter culture where many of the places are being installed.

Q: You mentioned you have two daughters. Tell us more about them.
A: They are 15 and 12, but they are nearly 16 and 13. They both have spring birthdays.

Q: What do they think about the pantry?
A: My younger daughter is an artist, and I met with a couple of architects last week as I'm going to finally get great plans for the pantry because I get asked for those all the time. The ones that I have are pretty simple. The architects said it would be helpful if they had sketches of the pantries so my daughter did all my sketches for me.

Q: How do they view you as the original founder of the project?
A: In September, I was on the "Harry show and my girls got to come to New York with me to be on that show so that was a—it's been a really cool thing to experience with them. Whenever I was on the show they panned to the audience to my two girls and they both had tears in their eyes so I know they’re extremely proud of me.

Q: What would be a piece of advice you'd give to your daughters about helping others and following their "little" big dreams?
A: I think I would want them to believe in themselves and have the self-confidence to take that risk, and not be deterred by the feedback they receive from others.

Q: Would you define yourself as a feminist or how do you define feminism or yourself in general?
A: Oh yes, definitely!  As I mentioned before, I would actually define myself as an activist and I'm raising my daughters that way, too. I'm active in the promotion of women’s issues, but also immigrant and LGBTQ issues.

Q: What was your original goal with the pantry? What were you trying to achieve and were you hoping it would turn into something so giant?
A: Yes. I absolutely was. I would have been satisfied had the pantry just had local success, but before we even went in, I had hoped it would be as ubiquitous the Little Free Library. I was inspired by the one box and then the three boxes in my very own neighborhood, and I guess we have a tagline for the project that 'a single little free pantry is little but a lot might be big.' It's kind of my unofficial slogan I have. 

Q: Doing something like this shows how cruel the world can be to people at some times, so what keeps you going? What is something that has happened or a moment that showed you that your project has made all a powerful difference?
A: I can't even remember why I was having a bad day — it wasn't a bad day, I try not to have bad days — but a difficult day, and someone sent me a photo of a pantry that had just launched because her 6-year-old son asked for it. And that was exactly what I needed in that moment. She sent a video and picture of him and the pantry and it was such a sweet and hopeful and redeeming thing to receive in that moment. I absolutely love the opportunity to interact with kids about this because they just get generosity.

Q: To clarify, you mean they understand the concept of it?
A: Yes. And that judgment is not an obstacle.

Get to know Jessica McClard by watching her MAKERS Storie video here.

NEXT: #MadeByMAKERS: Female Food Makers »

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jessica McClard