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E154: Micropantries and Community Resilience during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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January 21, 2022


Today, we’re going to speak about micropantries as a form of community resilience in the face of the food insecurity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our guests today are Reverend Wendy Miller Olapade of the United Church of Christ in Medford, Massachusetts, professor Norbert Wilson, who’s Professor of Food Economics and Community at Duke University, and lead author of a recent paper on micropantries in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Sara Folta, with the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, Science, and Policy.

Sara Folta

Sara Folta is an associate professor in the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and associate dean for diversity and inclusion. Her research focuses on public health nutrition, or the utilization of community-based strategies for improving dietary intake, physical activity, and body composition. She has particular expertise in behavioral psychology, communications, and qualitative methods. A major line of Folta’s research involves community-based interventions to improve heart health among women. A second area of research includes behavioral strategies to improve health and well-being among older adults, particularly through the development of physical activity interventions. Folta’s third line of research involves community-based interventions for obesity prevention among children. These studies, in which theory-based communications strategies were a major component, are notable for the use of the eco-social model in which multiple levels (individual-organization-community-policy) are targeted.

Norbert Wilson

Norbert Wilson is a Professor of Food, Economics, and Community at Duke University, with joint appointments in the Duke Divinity School and the Sanford School of Public Policy. His research touches on several food issues, such as access, choice, and food waste, food safety and quality issues in international trade and domestic food systems. Wilson is an ordained vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church USA. Additionally, his work is moving to explore equity in food access. He has published in AEA Papers and Proceedings, World Development, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Journal of Public Health, Food Policy, Agricultural Economics, and other publications. Before joining Duke Divinity School, Wilson was a professor of food policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy (2017-2020). He was also a professor of agricultural economics at Auburn University (1999-2016). While at Auburn, Wilson served as a deacon at St. Dunstan’s, the Episcopal Student Center of Auburn University (2011-2016). He was an economist/policy analyst in the Trade Directorate (2004-2006) and the Agriculture Directorate (2001-2002) of the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) in Paris, France. In 2014-2015, Wilson was on sabbatical leave at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.

Pastor Wendy Miller Olapade

Since 2013, Rev. Wendy has led Sanctuary United Church of Christ in Medford to become an emergent, post-modern faith community whose purpose is affecting deep spiritual transformation and spreading love and care. As Lead Pastor, Rev. Wendy has envisioned numerous new ways of ‘being the church’ such as ArtChurch, Faith and Film and a “Medford Cares” program. As Community-Connector-in-Chief, Rev. Wendy has inspired and led grassroots action such as SafeMedford; Medford’s Big Table, Big Ideas; and a city-wide micro-food pantry mission – taking Sanctuary-To-Go every chance she gets.

Interview Summary

Sara, let’s start with you. Can you describe what a micropantry is? I know a lot of people won’t be familiar with that term, and explain why you decided to study these as a community coping strategy during the pandemic.

Sara – Sure, so the best way to describe them, I think, is if people are familiar with little free libraries, they’re very similar to that. So the usual structure is a box on a pole, and the box you would fill with food. Sometimes they have other configurations and people have done things like convert old newspaper boxes and so forth, but the general idea is that it’s a small box in a neighborhood where people can put food and take food. They’re also sometimes called blessing boxes or little free pantries.

The way they work is there’s often a volunteer or an organization that takes oversight of them and has primary upkeep, but they’re anonymous and open to all to contribute or take from them. And the way I got interested is because there’s actually one in my neighborhood. And honestly, I became pretty obsessed with it. Early in the pandemic, I started taking walks around the neighborhood as I was working at home. I’d go by this one and just became very fascinated with what’s in there, what’s going in, what’s coming out, and started putting stuff in myself. And as I learned more, I realized there were these little free pantries or micropantries all across the city. And then I realized they were across the country, too.

So, as a nutrition professor, I’ve studied food choice among very low income folks, and I was also very much aware of how the pandemic had disrupted the food supply. And realized that micropantries were a part of the solution and had many advantages, in fact, in a pandemic situation. So I became very curious about their role. You know, I thought it was an interesting phenomenon to learn more about, and what I put in, I saw it go out, and I wanted to know the stories behind what was coming out.

It’s a fascinating concept. And so, nobody from outside the community is stocking this, a bank or a food pantry or anything? It’s all done by people who are residing in the community, it sounds like. We’ll talk about the study that you did and published, but before we do that, before you started officially studying, what kind of things did you observe about the kinds of foods going in? Was there a lot of in and out? Was it heavily used?

Sara – You’re right in saying that it’s not stocked by a food bank or a pantry. It’s entirely neighbors helping neighbors, so it’s people in the neighborhood putting things in for their neighbors. And there’s obviously a lot of nonperishable canned goods and such, and certainly saw a lot of that in the micropantries. And I saw very high turnover. I think that was one of the things that really caught my eye at first and fascinated me, you know, was just seeing even stuff I would put in, I’d go a couple hours later and it was already out. Going on my morning walk, and then the next morning, everything had completely turned over and there were new things in there. So realizing what a need it was filling. You name it, it was in there. A lot of it was very healthy food, I saw a lot of canned beans, like legumes, some canned fruits and vegetables, relatively healthy for a non-perishable. I also saw, every so often someone will put in sweets, which drives me crazy. Not that people don’t want sweets every now and then, but that it would cause an ant problem in the micropantry. So, you know, everything in moderation, but not when it comes to the feast for ants, I guess.

So, Reverend Wendy, let’s shift over to you now. So I understand that you organized a citywide micropantry system in your town, Medford, Massachusetts. Can you talk about what this is and who it reaches?

Wendy – Well, thank you so much for including me in this conversation. And I just need to say to Sara and Norbert and you, Kelly, what an honor it is that somebody took the time to pay attention to this. I’m sitting here in my office, a little choked up by the story of Sara’s interests and her work. And when I got the chance to see the paper, you know, it was very powerful to see the outcome of what, from my perspective, as a pastor who is not a nutritionist, although my mother’s a nutritionist, ironically, but, you know, a pastor whose purpose was to just spread love and care, who feels, and forgive the reference, Jesus told me to do this. You know, out of our faith, a colleague of mine, Tom Hathaway, who serves the other UCC church here in Medford, actually installed the first micropantry by his church in the Hillside neighborhood next to Tufts. I got jealous and said, “I want one of those at my church.” And so, this all happened before the pandemic. We installed the micropantry that Sara was obsessed with was the third one that we installed, that we helped another church install.

So it started out as having nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with our sense of loving our neighbor. Jesus calls us to do that, and so we should find ways to do that. The intention to give people who are not a part of the church meaning and purpose in their life. And so, you know, one of the things that is so meaningful about doing this is that everybody can spread love, even if they’re not a believer, if even if they’re not involved in our church. They can, as somebody said to me once really early on, I can’t do much, but I can put a 50 cent can of beans in that micropantry and show my kids that we have the responsibility to love our neighbor. So that was really the starting point.

When the pandemic happened, when other people started to see the opportunity to give, to serve, to care for their neighbor, our motto is take what you need, leave what you can, and this system allowed for a really just way of doing that. So, you know, a lot of the other systems require that you show up with your ID and you sign up with your address and so on and so forth, and there are many members of our community who don’t feel a sense of safety in doing that, whether it has to do with their immigration status or just their lives are such that they can’t show up, they don’t have the car to go to the pantry or whatever, right? They don’t have the time away from work to show up when the pantry is open. So this 24/7, 365, no questions asked, nobody’s measuring how much you take, it’s just available, created access in a way that other parts of the system don’t have. And don’t get me wrong, this is not a solution to the food security, but it is one little way for neighbors to help neighbors.

So once we started to put a few of them out there and really use social media to publicize the availability of it, people started to say, I want one in my neighborhood. I want to do that. And so, it began to build, and then the pandemic just exploded the need and people’s commitment to serve. We had help from the department of public works in our community. The mayor got involved and started to ask them to build the boxes. We worked to find these sponsors, so each micropantry – we have 17 of them now in the community, this is a city of about 60,000 residents –  we have 17 of these micropantries, and each one is “owned” by a different community group. Some of them are owned by faith communities. Some of them are sponsored by Boy Scout troops and Girl Scout troops, and a community service group at the high school. So there’s a wide range of people who, quote, own making sure that things stay safe and filled and clean, and, you know, it’s a pretty amazing thing. Like we don’t do a lot of management, but my church maintains a website and maintains the social media system that keeps them visible and keeps people engaged.

This is really inspiring to me, and I’m going to ask a question that you partially answered already, and here’s the question. So there are very tangible benefits, obviously, to something like this, because people who are without enough food are able to get at least some of it through these micropantries, so that’s terrific, but there are also a symbolic benefits to this that you pointed out, that the people in the community can get directly involved in addressing food insecurity by giving what they can. Is there symbolism that’s important, too, for the recipients of the food? Do you think it matters to the people who are taking the food, who it came from, the way the community is involved, what do you think about all that?

Wendy – What a beautiful question, Kelly. Yes, I absolutely do. I’ve heard anecdotally, and I know Sara has, you know, sort of referenced this in her work, the recognition that my neighbor cares enough to help me. I’ve heard from many, many people who have reached out in gratitude to say thank you, thank you for giving me a place to show up. Thank you for helping my neighbors to support me at a time when things are really, really difficult. Thank you for normalizing love of neighbor. So that’s a beautiful question, and, absolutely, yes.

It’s so nice to hear that. Well, and then the community ownership of it extends also beyond the two individuals, let’s say, who are dropping the food off and then receiving the food. There’s also the community organization, so it’s nice that there’s so much community involvement and ownership in this.

Wendy – When I talk about how many people this touches, I’m talking in the thousands and thousands and thousands of people. There are hundreds of people who drop cans off in each of those micropantries, and you multiply that times 17 micropantries, times 365 days a year. That’s a lot of people being served and a lot of people who are able to serve, and that feels pretty good.

Norbert, let’s turn to you, and I’d like to ask you a question. So I know that one theme of your own research focuses on the economics of food insecurity. And so, from that perspective, what did you learn or what surprised you during the research for this paper that we’re talking about?

I wanted to start by saying thanks to Sara for bringing this topic to me, and it was good to reconnect with you, Reverend Wendy, to learn about this project. And I’m so appreciative of the work that you and others in the communities are out there doing. As a researcher who’s tended to work on quantitative studies, so grateful for the opportunity to work with Sara on this qualitative study, to understand the stories behind the numbers, to understand how people are really living with the challenges of food security. And I think there’s something really important about what our study did in reference to what happened nationally. So this is in the middle of the pandemic, lots of people were greatly concerned about food insecurity, we saw the lines up and down food pantries or food banks reported in the news, and we sort of anticipated that food insecurity rates would go through the roof, at least the official numbers. And I think many of us were surprised when the national numbers came back, that they were no different in 2020 as they were in 2019, which was surprising for some people. And one of the things that a lot of people have argued is that there were a number of support programs, unemployment insurance, the child tax credits. There were a number of policies that the federal government implemented, and Feeding America and the Food Banking Network really did increase their service to provide help for folks.

But when we were doing these interviews, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things that we learned is that folks are really struggling. I was amazed to hear how some families had sent, if you will, their child to their parents, to go live with the grandparents, because the kids weren’t in school, and the family, the parents, couldn’t afford to provide the meals through the day, but they knew that their grandparents could, that the grandparents could do it. And seeing how families made these major shifts in their lives just to meet these needs. Now, these are individuals who were participating in the food pantry, in the micropantries, so I am not questioning the numbers at the federal level.

Now, I will say there was an increase in disparity where black and Hispanic households were more food insecure in a greater rate than white households, and so there’s something important that did happen during the pandemic, and I think that there’s going to be a lot of research that’s going to actually understand that better. But the fact that families were really trying to make ends meet in really innovative and complex ways, some early work that Sara and I had done really reflected on the complex ways that families were helping their families eat using food pantries and using complex systems with the grocery store in terms of benefits and coupons. And we worried that, during the pandemic, all of those complex systems fell apart, because you couldn’t go to the store like you once could. The challenges of supplies were in question, and so, I was so grateful to see communities find innovative ways of helping people meet their food needs through these micropantries. And as Reverend Wendy made it very clear, it wasn’t going to solve the problem, but we did hear from patrons who used the micropantries that it did meet some of their food needs and it helped stretch the meals that they were able to get. And so, that was really important to hear, that even that small bit of help was important.

I was really struck by listening to not only the people who were able to get food, but those people were also people who were able to give food, and I think that’s a very different model than what we normally think of when we think about food pantries. There was a sense of pride and community fellowship and the notion of mutual aid was something that came through in some of the interviews with the patrons of these micropantries. They realized that some things they didn’t want, and so they were able to leave food that someone else would want, and not in the sense of didn’t want because it was something wrong with the food, but rather they knew that that wasn’t a preference of their family, and knew that other families could benefit from this. This idea of security and dignity of being able to give and not just receive was an important thing that I’ve heard, but it was also striking to listen to the people who were setting up these micropantries – this sense of community and wanting to support folks, regardless of background, and having a real interest to give people the freedom to take food as they need it, not to monitor, not to surveil, but just put it out there. Hopefully, someone’s going to take it, and then, when there is a need for more, giving more. It totally changed the way I understood how we can do the work that we’re doing.

Lastly, I’ll say I really do hope that there is further work in this space to understand how these systems work. It really challenged the way I thought about what communities can do and maybe even what they should do, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to learn from both folks like Reverend Wendy, and then, also, with Sara Folta, who brings an important lens in terms of understanding how people are making good choices when it comes to food.

Thank you, Norbert. There’s something that you all have reminded me of, which is that, so often, the solutions to problems, including food insecurity, are very top-down oriented, where governments of one sort or another, or foundations or universities, or somebody, declares what a solution to a community problem might be without the community getting an opportunity to exercise its own ingenuity and determine what its own solutions might be. And this is a very community-driven solution that sounds creative, effective, inspired, involved. There’s so many wonderful things about it. I really appreciate hearing about this. So, Sara, we began with you, let me end by asking you this question. In addition to the things that Norbert said came about as a result of this study, what do you think some of the takeaway messages might be?

Sara – I guess the other takeaway is not only people needing the food, but neighbors needing to give the food, you know? In this sense, in the pandemic and all of our lives disrupted, another thing we heard was I want to do something, I want to give back to my community, I want to help my community, I want to care for my neighbor. And so few ways to do that in the pandemic, especially in the early days, and so, during the isolation of those early days, it gave a concrete way to connect neighbor directly with neighbor. So, I think, on both sides, it really so much achieved that sense of community that got so disrupted.

Access the paper here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2021.11.002

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