CRCW’s Little Free Pantry celebrates first year

Last Updated on 8 February 2022 by Ann-Marie Nye

According to the Trussell Trust’s mid-year statistics, 5,100 emergency food parcels were provided to people every day from April until September 2021 on average by food banks in its network.

An increase of 11% compared to the same period in 2019.

It was because of dire statistics like this, which reflected the increasing poverty in her community, that Maria Lee, a Church Related Community Worker (CRCW) at a project based at Church of Our Saviour, a United Reformed Church/Church of England LEP in Chelmsford, spearheaded the setting up of the Little Free Pantry.

The grassroots initiative began in the US in 2016 and is for neighbours helping neighbours. People can access it any time and works by neighbours leaving extra food items in the pantry for someone else who needs it. It differs to other foodbanks in that there is no need for vouchers and there is no time limit in using it.

The pantry recently celebrated its first year and at times the generosity of neighbours kept it so stocked up, others struggled to add contributions.

Sadly, however, it also repeatedly became the target for vandalism.

In her latest reflection, Maria talks about what it takes to overcome the frustration and despair that developed as a result and how to respond to situations such as this with the right attitude.

Read Maria’s reflection in full here below:

I love this quote, often attributed to Vivian Greene: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”

This quote sums up beautifully the lessons I’ve learnt during the Little Free Pantry’s (LFP) first year.

This is not the only LFP in Chelmsford. You may recall its sister project, which opened in North Avenue in 2019. Admittedly, it was slow going at first, as it took a while for locals to accept it, but we were delighted to see it in regular use after just a few weeks. The principle of LFP is simple: take what you need, give what you can!

Church members and the local community generously donated lots of items, and we received some great support on social media. I met a grandmother who approached the pantry with her granddaughter and explained what this pantry was for and helped her put some donations inside.

On another occasion, one resident told me that she had struggled to add items to the pantry because as often as stock would become low, it was always fully filled up again in no time. Finally, it had some space, so she brought her contribution along before it was added to by others: how sweet!

This highlights the success of the project but, as the quote suggests, there can always be setbacks and challenges to overcome. It became evident, due to the wonders of CCTV, which was situated outside the church building, that a local boy was becoming a regular visitor to the pantry, but for all the wrong reasons. He wasn’t there to make use of the items on offer or contribute to them, but simply to destroy them. The vandalism which took place also occurred at North Avenue pantry, too.

After so much positive feedback, this situation was heart-breaking.  I wonder what you would do in this situation.

Many of the church leaders and the pantry team reflected on the best way to respond. Their first reaction was denial, as many didn’t want to admit that someone would purposely want to damage this wonderful project.  Of course, both the church and local community were incredibly disappointed by the vandalism.

The local community was understandably upset by what had happened, and some were keen to take immediate action by talking to the boy’s parents and reporting him to his school. I was also very disappointed by the situation and could see why locals were angry and frustrated by it.

I think, however, it is important to respond to situations such as this with the right attitude and a light touch approach. Instead of asking: Why did this boy do it? Why do young people act this way? Why has this community not changed? We needed to come together and look at it from a different angle.

Church ministry and Church Related Community Work is not aiming to change the community. Community ministry is about inviting people to journey out, to interact with local context and Christian text. In other words, the church’s role is about identifying local issues and envisioning a different future through discipleship.

Ann Morisy references in her book, Beyond the Good Samaritan (1997) that community ministry is to enable people of faith and those of little or no faith, to have a conversation based on their experience. She affirms that the dialogue must be a priority within the community, she calls ‘the commitment to dialogue’. It means that Christians involved in community ministry need to be open to the possibility that their faith and their view of the world will be changed as a result of that dialogue and their encounter with those in need.

I am sure that there are many ways to handle the vandalism. I took the advice of the approach in the dialogue. I invited the neighbours to discuss the vandalism via the notice board and on social media without naming the person. Neighbours became involved in conversations. They understood the situation, and some made some positive actions, such as monitoring the pantry and contacting the pantry team if they observed any incidents.

At the North Avenue pantry, we had to take the door away after the vandalism, and interestingly, people used the pantry more cautiously without it. We had some feedback that it is rather convenient to use without a door. So, the team decided to extend the roof above the pantry to avoid things getting wet and remove the door for good.

In this sense, the concept of the project has evolved from helping those in need to transforming the community spirit. I learnt how to overcome, in the midst of the hardship, with dialogue, and I am pleased that the community has become part of this lesson.

I’d love to know what lessons you have learnt and what challenges you have overcome in your church and/or community?