Little Pantries, Big Impact

Thanks to a donation of retired newspaper boxes and a coordinated network for food providers, Dubuque’s Little Free Food Pantry program expands.

Outside the home of Matt and Chase Cornwall in Dubuque’s Point neighborhood sits what at first glance looks like a metal box full of newspapers. But instead of popping in change and pulling out a copy of the Telegraph Herald, passersby can just pull open the door and grab any number of kitchen pantry staples or hygiene products — all for free.

The retired newspaper box at Garfield Avenue and Humbold Street is one of 10 that is helping grow Dubuque’s Little Free Food Pantry program and fight food insecurity across the community. Dubuque County residents like the Cornwalls, who have lived in the community since 2015, have volunteered to host, stock and maintain the boxes on their properties as a way to bring needed resources to local communities.

An innovative way to meet needs

“I had seen Little Free Food Pantries all over town, and I really liked the idea of them,” Matt Cornwall says. “When I saw the opportunity to host one come up on Facebook, I thought it would make a nice addition to the neighborhood.”

The Little Free Food Pantry program gained momentum in Dubuque about two years ago at the beginning of the pandemic when many people found their ability to tend to basic needs strained, says Andy Spaniol, the program’s steward who is based at Lord of Life Church. The first pantries, which still stand today, were wood structures built on properties around the county.

Around the same time the program launched, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque began convening the Feed Dubuque County network in an effort to help the many local food providers coordinate their work and share resources. It was through this network that the Little Free Food Pantries grew.

“That food network meeting is so awesome, because everyone in this line of work is there, and it connects us with so many other resources,” Spaniol says.

The benefits of a network

That network also led to the latest Little Free Food Pantry effort. When the Telegraph Herald’s parent company Woodward Communications was looking to give its decommissioned newspaper boxes a second life, food provider network facilitator Jason Neises, who serves as the community development coordinator at the Community Foundation, worked to connect Spaniol with the people and resources that helped transform the old boxes into new little pantries.

“We were looking for something smaller we could place around the community that didn’t require any building,” Spaniol said.

Neises, along with Community Foundation intern and Loras Collage student Isabelle Werner, coordinated volunteers to help remove the interior mechanical elements from the boxes, while local business Triple J Liquidation donated materials to construct new shelves inside.

“By understanding the needs of the community, we were able to work with a variety of partners to zero in on a solution,” Neises says.

A positive response

To date, six of the 10 Little Free Food Pantry boxes have been claimed, including the one at the Cornwalls’ home. The response to both types of pantries has been encouraging, Spaniol says. Food donations pour in from people throughout the county, including many families who turn donating into a way of bonding with one another and the community.

In the Point neighborhood, the Cornwalls provide many of the pantry’s food and hygiene items, while neighbors make donations of their own. Items seem to be moving fast, Matt Cornwall says. Staples like canned vegetables go over well, while personal care products are the most in demand — he restocked them 10 times in the first three weeks. He encourages community members to leave donations at his door so he can build up his reserves and restock when needed.

“The only thing I wish is that the box was bigger,” he says. “That way we could do even more.”

If you would like to participate in the Little Free Food Pantry program or provide another form of support to address food insecurity, contact Jason Neises.

Here for you. Jason Neises Community Development Officer 563-588-2700