A New Little Pantry on Capitol Hill

Liz Gregg speaks at the dedication of Hobbes' Little Free Pantry. Hobbes, the family cat, makes an appearance. E.O'Gorek/CCN

Every five years, Liz Gregg gives herself a significant birthday present, something that goes out into the world.

One year, she learned to compost, acquired a composter and invited the neighbors to use it. Five years ago, she had a Little Free Library installed.

On Nov. 7, Gregg celebrated her latest birthday with the dedication of Hobbes’s Little Free Pantry in her front yard at 521 Seventh St. NE.

She said she made her choice because of the need exposed by the pandemic. She was further inspired by the power of the Little Free Library to inspire connection between neighbors as they gave and received.

Gregg’s front yard is in an optimal location for a Little Pantry, along a heavily-trafficked pathway used by people going between H Street and Eastern Market who could no longer use the Northeast Library for shelter or resources.

But more than anything, she wanted to draw attention to the need in our midst, particulary poignant as we near the celebration of Thanksgiving.

The largest amount of money spent on a single holiday in the US is spent on Thanksgiving. As it approaches, Gregg hopes folks will keep other, less-laden holiday tables in mind. She encourages people to buy an extra cornbread or gravy mix, cranberry sauce or sweet treat to add to someone else’s menu.

The little pantry was up for a month prior to its dedication, she said. As she worked in her front garden, she would often speak to those who craned their neck to look at it, or even stopped on their way by. She’d explain it to everyone.

“I can’t tell you how many people —white people, she said —would shrug their shoulders and say, really, does anyone actually take the food?” she said. Those same people would donate and be shocked to see those items disappear within hours.

“I wanted to provide the evidence that they can do something supportive right here in their corner of the world,” Gregg said. “That was my point.”

Gregg’s spouse, Eric Mader, said Gregg is the right person to put out the message. “She’s the perfect person for this sort of thing, because she’s a good communicator,” he explains. “She’ll get the word out.”

When beginning her project, Gregg reached out for help via social media, getting support in return from Patrick McClintock. Active with Capitol Hill Village (CHV), McClintock has helped establish two other Little Pantries on the Hill, at 14th and E Streets SE and at 16th and D Streets SE. In August, an unaffiliated pantry was placed on the 600 block of South Carolina Avenue SE, just behind the Southeast Library. Throughout the Hill, several Little Libraries have also been converted into pantries during the pandemic.

“It’s very spontaneous,” McClintock said of the eruption of Little Pantries “people are pleased to get a chance to do it.”

He says the biggest challenge in erecting a pantry box is dealing with the humanity of the need. “It’s really moving. We try to find something that’s useful, but realize at the same time that it’s really only a symbol of the food insecurity that’s all around us in DC and all around this pathetic country.”

Food insecurity is a stark reminder of the inequities in the District. In 2020, the Capitol Area Food Bank Hunger Report estimated that 82,020, or one in ten District residents, were experiencing food insecurity, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic.

The dedication was an opportunity to bring attention to the project.

At that event Father William Gurnee, Pastor of St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill (313 Second St. NE), blessed the pantry at the dedication. He said the pantry was a place of learning, and an opportunity for people to be a blessing to one another.

“Often it is difficult and exhausting for those in need to ask,” he noted. “By placing this little free pantry here, we are giving people dignity and allowing them to access the goods of this world without fanfare. In addition, we allow those who donate to do so without calling attention to their good deeds.”

Sprinkling it with holy water, Gurnee blessed the pantry and those who contribute to it as a sign of hope and as a place of hospitality on Capitol Hill.

In her remarks, Rabbi Hannah of Hill Havurah (212 East Capitol St. NE) referenced the tradition of giving food in the Torah, saying it was indicative of the abundance that some of us live in and the opportunities that some have to give. Together, Rabbi Hannah and those gathered sang a “first-time” blessing, Shehechiyanu, to give thanks for the dedication, before children climbed a small step-ladder to fill the pantry.

When the Little Pantry first opened, Gregg said, she bought $200 worth of food but could only keep 15 to 20 items in the box.”More often the box was empty or close to empty,” she said. Since the dedication, donations have taken off, she said. As long as people donate 3-5 items a day, she said, it could be kept stocked until January.

Since the pantry was installed in October, Gregg’s met many of its patrons. Many tell her their stories, she said.

“They are saying, “I found it through social media. [or] I’m three days away from a paycheck. I don’t have enough for my family. Mom’s just gone to the hospital, she’s no longer working, we don’t have her money, things are getting really tight for us.”

What’s needed in the Little Pantry:

  • Rice, couscous, pasta
  • Canned protein: tuna, salmon
  • Cheese that can be kept at room temperature
  • Canned beans, vegetables, fruit, soups
  • Fresh fruit (in rind), ie oranges, apples
  • Hamburger helper, “all kinds of meal kits that help a meal stretch.”
  • Jello, pudding, cake mixes; candy (Everybody deserves to have a sweet treat now and then)
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Personal care products (wrapped soap, floss, toothbrushes)
  • Pre-packaged cutlery and napkin sets from takeout orders
  • Packaged socks, underwear

Also needed are things that are not edible but are essential, Gregg said, like new socks and underwear, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Gregg points out that even when food can be obtained cheaply, mothers often have to make difficult choices while shopping, especially as feminine hygiene items are so costly. “When they buy their products, it’s very expensive, and they have to choose between that and meals for their children,” she said. “You can guess what they choose.”

Gregg knows it’s the Little Pantry is just that —a little thing. But its role is not to solve hunger, she said. “It is to connect our neighbors to the food insecurity of our other neighbors all around us, who we know and who we build our community with —but we may not be aware that they’re struggling with food insecurity,” she said.

It’s a safe place to get intermittent, modest support that brings attention to the issue. Sometimes, the little things make a big difference.

Hobbe’s Little Pantry is at 519 Seventh St. SE. Overflow donations can be made in bins on the front porch. Learn more about the Little Free Pantry Movement by visiting https://www.littlefreepantry.org/