On Feb. 5, the city of Riverside installed its first of 26 community pantries to help fight food insecurity. Dubbed the Little Free Pantry program, the project was launched in collaboration with Riverside Mutual Aid and the Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP). The first free pantry in Riverside is located at 6807 Palm Ave. in front of Sandals Church in Downtown Riverside.
Riverside Mutual Aid, a community organization that coordinates mutual-aid responses for impacted communities in Riverside, were contacted by the city of Riverside with an idea to launch a network of pantries modeled after the Little Free Library initiative that has been implemented in many cities across America. The purpose of the food pantries is to provide communities with everyday food and personal necessities.
UCR alumni and member of Riverside Mutual Aid Aram Ayra spoke in more detail about the project. He stated that the collaboration came about organically, because of similar work the city and Riverside Mutual Aid’s respective organizations were doing in Riverside. “We had separately been working to address COVID-related food insecurity in Riverside, so the Little Free Pantry project was a natural intersection point for all of us,” stated Ayra. Staff from the Community Engagement and Economic Development Office reached out to Riverside Mutual Aid and invited them to become a part of the initiative’s development and official rollout.
“We actually managed to go from idea to ‘built reality’ pretty quickly on this project. The City staff and our organizations worked to secure Federal CARES Act funding, develop a project rollout and build the first Little Free Pantry at the Palm Avenue location within the span of a few months,” stated Ayra. He went on to state that Riverside Mutual Aid is “blessed” to be able to work with city, staff and organization partners who shared their urgency to connect COVID-impacted Riverside community members to the food resources they needed.
With a project of this scale, Riverside Mutual Aid had to consider everything, from how the pantries would be distributed to how they would be built on-site. Each pantry comes in a ready-to-assemble kit that requires some minor installation and were purchased with Federal CARES Act funding issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. They worked to select a building format that would be accessible to as many small businesses, nonprofits and community groups as possible. Riverside Mutual Aid Network partnered with Riverside city staff, IEHP, members of Sandals Church and Girl Scout Troop 1056 to build the first Little Free Pantry.
“The beauty of the Little Free Pantry program is that it gets neighbors directly involved in addressing food insecurity in their community,” stated Ayra. The program recruits “stewards” to manage the Little Free Pantry once it has been built on a host’s property. Stewards are members of the community that volunteer to clean, stock and host food drives for their neighborhood Little Free Pantry. Ayra stated that Riverside is home to 26 unique and distinct neighborhoods, so the goal was to install at least one Little Free Pantry in or near each neighborhood.
The Little Free Pantry program invites small businesses, community organizations and concerned citizens across the city to apply to host a Little Free Pantry in their neighborhood. Based on those applications and available regional food insecurity data, they then work together to determine areas with high-need where the Little Free Pantry could most assist with food assistance. The current pantry at Sandals Church was chosen due to being in a high-traffic, high-need area and having a large number of stewards willing to volunteer to maintain the pantry.
“In the short-term, we hope this project will connect neighbors in need to neighbors who are willing to assist with critical food resources. Long-term, we hope this project will inspire more grassroots initiatives that will tackle hunger in our Riverside neighborhoods and develop sustainable local food systems,” stated Ayra.
The Little Free Pantry program is meant to fill the gaps in food resources that exist in Riverside and ensure that our residents have more access to food. Ayra stated that the Little Free Pantry eliminates the “strings attached” and shame that sometimes accompanies receiving help and places all neighbors on equal footing. He stated, “We hope that the 26 community pantries will put resources closer to individuals and families in need, and make obtaining food more easily accessible to them.”
The Little Free Pantries act as both an immediate food resource and a long-term focal point for community members to rally around in order to address food insecurity in Riverside, stated Ayra. He stated, “COVID-19 exposed gaps in coverage that already existed prior to the pandemic and highlighted the difficulties that many of our neighbors face on a daily basis. The installation of the food pantries is the first important step in addressing food insecurity and creating the sustainable food systems that our communities need.”