Since early 2020, I've found myself in & out of many free pantries. When I first became acquainted with these beauties, they were in the form of book boxes converted to little-free-pantries as a helpful & desperate attempt to get food quickly to neighbors. These are locations that are highly accessible: morning, noon & night. No paperwork to sign, no questions to answer, no income limitations. Just access.
I found a sweet college student named Sara who touched down a free fridge pantry (PVD CPMMUNITY FRIDGE) in one of the most needed communities, Broad Street, Providence. A few main roads away was the "Freedge": ReFri hosted by an art studio in Westminster before being relocated to the corner of Urban Greens on the West Side.
For a while I was filling the pantries 2-3 times a week I'd pick up food from around the community & save everyone a trip. Later partnering with Providence Bagel in North Providence to provide a large donation of bagels on Wednesdays & Sundays. It was certainly a treat for those who benefited.
Hand packing 300 bagels a week into 6 packs, is a feat all of its own. Long after the bags had been packed the lingering odor of toasted onion is one I will never forget. To this day I find petrified flakes of the potent vegetable mixed with poppy & sesame seeds, tucked into the crevasses of my 16 year old hatchback with the leaky exhaust. Every mile, better than the last.
For a while there was a community garden collecting the potatoes that had grown eyes, composting them back into the ecosystem. After a while, that had become a thing of the past. Mid 2021 I found myself teaming with the founders of the two pantries for some really cool projects. There was a little free library take over where we filled them with books & school supplies. When I formed Red.Lined I made certain that these locations were always first on the list. Little by little other organizations came, joined the fight for our inner city brothers & sisters & I watched this family of giving grow. Sadly both founders have since continued their post grad journeys outside of Providence & the pantries are loved & cared for by the non-profits that continue to show-up & individuals in a community that cares.
Rhode Island has one of the most dense populations of citizens to non-profits. When there is an exponential need to fill in the gaps between where government, inflation & where private business ends that is where non-profits begin.
The Farmers to Families Food Box program was an excellent initiative during the Trump administration, bringing boxed overstock directly from farmers into the hands of the underserved & jobless during the pandemic. I'm not one for legal talk, but, the long & short was, the government paid farmers for overstock & the public received free boxes of food.
Where there were great benefits to the boxes themselves you never knew what you were going to get. As much as I would love to tell you that it was simply nutritionally fulfilling, the truth was - there was a huge downfall in the system: it was repetitive & not well dispersed. During weekly distribution, citizens would have to seek out locations who had received a pallet that cycle. Sometime handing the boxes many miles away making it hard for someone without transportation on foot. On any given day the boxes contained 2 to 3 different types of potatoes, in a 5 pound bag. So to begin, the boxes were 10 pounds of potatoes. They typically included 2 packs of chicken hot dogs, government labeled mozzarella cheese blocks, a pound bag of grated cheese, a gallon of 2% milk, a 2lb bag of apples, a bag of onions, typically some variety of vegetable (mostly carrots) & a signed letter from former President Trump. The best part was the fully cooked chicken halves soaked in a "special sauce" that no one has yet to identify. Plenty more to list if we had the space, but always rotating the same types of items.
There were so many benefits to this program that it is hard to list them so, the short was … It worked, but only if you could find them & transport them.
Alternatively, it sparked a light in the community where we took what we needed & always gave back what we didn't. Many times families dropped duplicates and unneeded items right into these free accessible locations. We gave until we didn't…
To begin, let me say, I think most people are good.
I think most homeless people are good. I think most struggling families are made up of good people, & most well-off families are good too. It is a very small percentage of people who ruin good things for the community. Many times bad things are done out of desperation.
My first experience with Pantry-Pirates happened mid 2021. I had just finished a round of pickups & headed over to the Urban Greens pantry. I filled it with everything from kids snacks to produce & canned goods.
I'm never one to judge by appearance so I'll give only the facts. I had seen the 2021 shiny black Escalade parked on the corner & thought nothing of it. After all, I'd seen it before & assumed they worked inside the market. I filled the shelves & went to my car. As usual I got ready to post a Red Lined picture, just sitting for a few minutes. That is when I saw two beautiful ladies hop out of the front seats of the black SUV.
Mid 40's both ladies had hundred dollar hair, wearing minks: One was a jacket, the other was a wrap. Sunglasses, a red Prada bag dupe & both in heels. The taller 5’9” round framed woman reached to the top shelf & immediately pulled the entire case of 50 individual snack cups. Ok, not so bad. The shorter, more decked out partner followed it by emptying every cardboard box & refilling them with anything they could grab. They filled every amenity item including many duplicates. Every single Red.Kit, all the menstrual supplies, 4 boxes of family sized cereal (Reese's Puffs to be exact) 4 gallons of milk, 6 bags of potatoes, 4 bags of rice, 4 tubs of sour cream, multiple mozzarella blocks, all the greens left in the fridge & the entire lot of dry goods.
They left only 2 cans without labels, an open box of Zatarain's rice & some loose produce. They also made a hell of a mess & a hell of an impact. I can't say what these two women did with these items. I can't say they needed them or didn’t OR if they had 6 kids or 16 for that amount of food. What I do know that- this was not fair. Not fair to the patrons of the fridge, not fair to Red.Lined's donors & not fair to me, who had spent hours of my day & dollars in my tank, to have it all swiped in one fell-swoop.
So, in my many years of pantry filling I thought I'd offer some insight on the best ways to help fill free & accessible pantries through the mistakes that I have made & the lessons that I have learned.
To note: free pantries, not fully monitored or regulated, are treated differently than a true food pantry that you would find at a church, Community Action Programs or the local food bank. Donors are protected under the Good Samaritan Act & the risk is assumed by the patron. Please keep that in mind as I walk you through my experience with these particular types of pantries.
#1 Know the patrons
Ask, that's all. When you see someone taking food, say hi! "How are you? Do you like that sour cream? What do you make with it? What other items can I bring here for the patrons?" These are all great ways to get to know the pantry-goers while offering dignity, caring, kindness & friendship.
#2 Don't over-fill
Overfilling causes an abundance of issues. Ants for one, especially if anything is open like a box of rice. Overfilling also opens the opportunity for Pantry-Pirates to operate quickly & take a lot at one time.
#3 Bring something to put on bread.
Bread is excellent. Actually one couple on bicycles said "It's the best option, I can grab a loaf & take a ride, I just wish I had something to put on it." They were just happy to have the meal but, knowing that they have peanut butter or jelly, even a slab of baloney is perfect.
#4 Break it up.
Yes, separate what you can.
If it's a box of individually wrapped ANYTHING, take it out of the box. Protein bars, oatmeal packs, fruit cups, baby food packs, jelly cups, juice boxes. Pantry-Pirates have less selling market when the items are open & separated than when they are fresh in a box.
#5 Always get the smaller packs.
YUP you read that right! Homeless folks usually have very little storage, many times, no storage or are most literally vagabonds. If they open a pack they either finish it, or leave it before walking to their destinations.
The same goes for amenities. Single use packs are amazing. Those little trials of soap, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste etc. No risk of spillage in backpacks, no pilfering from other homeless folks, no Pantry-Pirates selling at the Sunday Flea Market.
#6 Underwear & Socks (pstt... We're Running a Drive Right NOW!!)
BIGGER IS ALWAYS BETTER! Always get bigger sizes. Yes, we can assume some people are petite but the average woman is a size 14 which equates to an underwear size eight.
Size 8-10 Women's
TUBE SOCKS Open packs Ball Up Pairs, & leave them just like that in the pantry - You can also ziplock items and label them.
#7 Keep it clean
Bring some sanitizing wipes with you when you can,
Ditch anything that is clearly open & shouldn’t be consumed.
Drop off small bottles of Hand Sanitizer
#7.5 Don’t mess w/dairy
If it is out of code it is probably not good anymore & it should be thrown out. Some families may not know to check the dates. I have personally seen kids take items, yogurt, milk & they don’t know to look.
#8 Don’t leave bags & DEFINITELY don’t leave boxes.
A homeless person will not take a full bag of items, they’d have to carry it around with them or store it. A family may, but, they typically are going to the pantry with an intention, they bring a bag & they don’t tend to take more than they need.
#10 Pads or Tampons?
Both are used equally in pantries. If the person has running water, tampons seem to be the choice. If they do not have running water, it is less messy to change a pad. Pads are used most often in school children so pay attention to how close to a school a pantry is. Again,
Remove them from the boxes because boxes can be sold.
Split them up into ziplocks holding about 10-15 of EITHER pads or tampons. If you mix pads & tampons - many time, they will be rifled through.
#11 Pasta & rice is great - if it’s cooked.
Ready Serve is always best. We cannot assume that people have running water or a heat source.
Try to donate sauce with a pull-tab.
#12 Everyone Deserves Dignity & a treat
Pastry is great, especially if it is individually wrapped (like a twinkie).
Don't be afraid of razors, men need a shave.
Just because a person is homeless or struggling doesn't mean they don't deserve nice things, & sometimes donors are super generous. Yes, many times brand new Jordan shoes have been donated to Red.Lined & then gifted to the homeless. or others in need.
#13 Don't post it on social media - right away
Pantry-Pirates follow your accounts, they scroll and lay0waiting. Posting immediately opens the opportunity for those who have social media and bad intentions to get quick access to newly filled locations
TOP NEEDED ITEMS:
Size Women: 7 - 10 OR MENS: L, XL, XXL Underwear
Socks: Tube socs, 6packs or smaller
Individually wrapped pads & tampons
Small quantity food item or individual servings.
Canned goods with the pull tabs
Can Openers ($1.25 at Dollar Tree)
Used Winter Jackets, Cleaned & folded
Smaller jars of peanut butter & goes-with-its like jelly, fluff, nutella
Single Use Razors (no - they won't hurt themselves or others, it’s not prison - it’s housing insecurity)
I hope these things have brought some insight & encourage you to give, knowing where you can be a help & tips to ensure your donations get into the right hands.
Remember that you can give tampons & pads though our Amazon Smile Wishlist which Red.Lined divides & distributes in the most accessible ways.