How to start a Community Pantry

Starting a shared pantry in your neighbourhood is an opportunity to create community connection in a time of disconnection. Gestures of connection are needed now, more than ever. The simple act of sharing is a powerful gesture of kindness, simple to do and will bring joy to you and your community.

Checking our pantry several times each day always brings delight in seeing how people are interacting by leaving homemade treats, supplies, and other goodies. The pantry is emptied and replenished regularly!

With a little planning, you’ll be able to have your own community pantry up and running too. These are my tips to get you started.

Location

Consider the placement of the pantry in your neighbourhood. You’ll need to make sure it doesn’t create a trip, thoroughfare or safety hazard. If you don’t have clear access on your own property, speak to your neighbours to see if they might be able to host the pantry.

Take care to only place the pantry:

  • in a location that you have permission to use,
  • that is easy to access for ongoing maintenance,
  • is visible,
  • has accessibility access considered,
  • in a manner that is safe (won’t create a trip hazard, injury, danger for children, etc); and
  • pedestrian traffic will not inconvenience neighbours.
We have a small recess in our fence line, within our property boundary which made for the perfect location for the pantry.

Choosing the Pantry

Once you have decided on a location for the pantry, you’ll be better informed as to the size and style of pantry cupboard to source.

If you’re handy, you might be able to make the pantry or involve people from your neighbourhood to do this. I chose to source a free cupboard from Facebook Marketplace. When choosing your pantry, consider:

  • the dimensions of the pantry, will it fit easily in the location with reasonable space around for people to leave goods;
  • is it sturdy and will remain so as it is exposed to the weather;
  • does it have plenty of open shelf space to easily display wares and invite people toward it;
  • does it have doors so you can close and secure the pantry at night to keep little nibblers like possums and other animals away from fresh produce, or will you take fresh goods inside for storage each night; and
  • is it of sufficient condition to enable surfaces to be cleaned daily so people feel confident in the quality and cleanliness of the wares?

I found a lovely old art deco-style cupboard for free in our neighbourhood. It was structurally sound with a beautiful pink counter-top, three internal shelves, two external shelves and doors. As soon as I saw it, I fell in love with it and knew it was perfect for us.

Preparing the Pantry

It has taken around a month to arrange the supplies needed to get our community pantry up and running. With the extended lockdowns impacting every aspect of our lives, some planning (and patience!) may be required so please be sure to factor this in. Bad weekend weather also delayed our opening as we wanted to have a full weekend of nice weather to ensure plenty of foot traffic and interest in the pantry.

A clean, well-presented pantry will work wonders for fostering a sense of community. Cleanliness is a baseline, but also think about what other things can you do to make the pantry welcoming.

Our pantry was in desperate need of painting of the doors, front and sides. I jumped online and ordered two small sample pots of paint in my chosen colours, which was more than enough to do the trick and have some left over. Factoring in 10 days for the paint to arrive was one of the early patience tests.

Other supplies you might like to have handy:

  • textas or markers to write on the pantry,
  • glue stick and cardboard for signs and labels (I recycled manilla folders from the office, destined for the rubbish),
  • rubber bands for attaching labels,
  • plenty of jars to store and display goods (you can usually find these for free on Facebook Marketplace or in community groups),
  • fruit punnets and other containers for baked goods and other pantry foods (thoroughly cleaned),
  • a tub to request donations of glass jars with lids;
  • hand sanitiser and good quality cleaning products for daily cleaning;
  • a water bowl for dogs; and
  • decorations or signage to assist people to locate the pantry, we used chalk on the sidewalk on opening weekend.

Stocking the Pantry

Choosing a selection of produce will create interest and cater to a variety of needs. I connected with members of my community who have abundance in their gardens of herbs, seedlings, plant cuttings and citrus fruits. I collected donations on the day before opening to supplement the food I was donating and invited everyone to drop by once the pantry was open.

Think about food that is seasonal, doesn’t need to be in the fridge, can easily be peeled or washed and is healthy. Food adults and children might enjoy as a snack on their walk, or to take home to supplement a meal or recipe. Some thought starters for you:

  • Vegetables such as all varieties of potatoes, carrots, beetroots, parsnips, zucchini;
  • Fruits such as bananas, avocados, apples, passionfruit, lemons, limes, whole fruit (small watermelon, rockmelon);
  • Fresh herbs;
  • Jams and preserves;
  • Granola;
  • Breads;
  • Dried fruits and nuts (safely sealed); and
  • An occasional sweet treat – I included some lollypops for children to help encourage them to participate in giving and sharing. As some supermarket collectibles were inadvertently added to my click and collect order, I also placed these in the pantry for the kiddies.

As I bake regularly, I considered what freshly baked goods would be suitable for sharing. I baked a huge batch of cookies and placed these out progressively thoughout the day. The cookies were batched up in cleaned fruit punnets, with all ingredients listed. To keep the cookies fresh, I only placed four containers at a time in the pantry, with the remainder stored in an airtight container inside my house.

Jams and preserves have been prepared to restock the pantry on days I might be too busy to bake or when the shelves might be getting empty.

Check local food swap community groups in your area. The lovely Hartwell/ Burwood Food Swap Group supported me by donating a generous array of fresh herbs, citrus, potted plants and seedlings, as well as marmalades for opening weekend. They’ve generously extended their support by ongoing contributions and have been enjoying the benefits of donations made by others, too.

Finally, consider the environmental impact of your pantry. Set a great example by avoiding mass-produced products and single-use packaging, if you can. Be resourceful in collecting and reusing containers and packaging.

A recycled flower box and a homemade sign for daily bake updates.

Food Labelling and Hygiene

If sharing home-prepared foods such as baking, jams and preserves attach a label that clearly lists all ingredients. You might also want to include other information on the label that includes date made, ‘how to use ideas’ (for herbs, sauces, jams), storage (refrigerate after opening, eat within 2 days, freeze for up to 3 months, etc). If you have a website, hashtag or @tag if you’re on social media these might be useful to include too.

Handling food for others needs extra attention to hygiene and safety. It should go without saying that utensils, surfaces and storage containers should all be sterilised. Gloves should be worn when preparing and handling food.

Only ever share and prepare fresh food and ensure food is capable of being stored outside safely.

Pantry Maintenance

Consider opening your pantry on a weekend that has a good weather forecast. Nice weather means more passers-by and the pantry goods will stay in better (fresher) condition. Also choose a weekend that you can dedicate to monitoring and maintaining the pantry, to learn and observe about how people interact.

You might need to top up water in jars holding herbs, upright any jars that have blown over in the wind, re-arrange supplies, re-stock supplies or ensure pathways are clear and free from hazards.

Of course, you might want to chat at a safe-social distance, if permitted to do so. We had a number of people yell thanks over the fence, message on social media and I had a lovely, elderly neighbour knock on my door. I ended up chatting to her for an hour, walked her home, delivered some cookies later in the day and will be popping back tomorrow to collect some jars and plant cuttings.

Daily Maintenance

Morning thoroughly clean all surfaces of the pantry and allow to dry while organising other items. Sweep or clean around pantry surrounds to make sure path is clear, clean and free of debris. Ensure any baked or fresh food are clearly labelled and appropriately packaged. Take items out to the pantry and arrange them on shelves. If collecting jars with lids for storage, place out a tub. Make sure hand sanitiser is available.

Mid morning and mid afternoon check pantry to see if water needs to be topped up in any herb jars, the pantry is orderly and tidy, pathways are clear. Once your pantry has been operating for a few days and you’re comfortable everything is staying in good order, you can skip this step. Although, this is one of my favourite parts of the day. Seeing what has been taken and replenished really makes me smile.

Evening (dusk) secure any fresh food inside the pantry or take indoors to avoid animals being attracted to the area. Arrange any items that can stay out overnight (such as potted and fresh herbs and plants, jar tub) safely away from walkways. Assess freshness of produce, can it be added to the pantry the following day? Or, does it need to be reimagined into something new? Fresh herbs might be made into a pesto or dried and popped into jars, citrus and fruits could be added jams, preserves or cakes, veggies made into stocks, pie fillings or fritters.

Resources

There’s so much inspiration available online and very likely in your community. I used a combination of online and local community resources to understand how to best start, operate and maintain the #MVGPantry:

Ask me! I’ve been involved in community projects of some sort most of my life. I am more than happy to share my learnings with you. Simply add a question in the comments contact me via email or any of my social media channels. I’d be delighted to assist you.

Connection

Take time to nurture the connection with your community. Your pantry might be a hit from day one, or it may take your neighbourhood a little while to become familiar and comfortable visiting the pantry.

Don’t wait to have everything ‘perfect’ until you start. A pantry in the community that’s perfectly imperfect is far better than waiting to include all the elements on your wish list. I’ve made tweaks each day in response to the way the community has interacted and I’ll share these in a week one wrap-up post shortly.

I can say that as I sit to write this post at the end of the first day of opening the pantry, my heart is happy and I feel a sense of contentment. Living in Naarm/ Melbourne, which has sadly suffered the longest period of lockdown in the world, so many are feeling isolated and craving connection. The simple gesture of the pantry has created that connection through the love language of food, sharing and kindness. You can read more about that in this post reflecting on week one of the pantry.

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