The Cupboard Under the Stairs

Two Saturdays ago I was part of a Leadership Panel for the local Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter GIRLS (Girls Inspiring Respect, Leadership, and Service) Academy, a day-long retreat for 5th and 6th grade girls. Each panelist responded to questions like, “How did you get where you are today?” and “If you could offer advice to your 5th or 6th grade self, what would it be?” Then, the girls asked questions, among them, the ubiquitous, “If you could travel anywhere in the world, were would it be?” (South Africa)

Part of my response to the “from-there-to-here” question was, “Read books. And lots of kinds of books.” Shortly after, I watched a girl with red hair and freckles work up the courage to ask, “What one book would you recommend we all read?” My answer was spontaneous and obvious. Harry Potter.

Late last night, I finished Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. Brown loves JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, too, and writes about it a couple times in her latest. When struggling to convey new, research-supported ideas, Brown imagines Rowlings’ voice saying, “Give us the stories that make up that universe. No matter how wild and weird the new world might be, we’ll see ourselves in the stories” (4). The second time as an example of connection through collective pain, Brown describes the scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when the Hogwarts staff and student body, gathered around Dumbledore’s body, raise their wands to dispel the dark mark. “Wands Up” (124,5).


Both Brown’s observations are relevant to the project, but a couple pages early in her book prompted me to even more reflection on Harry Potter and Little Free Pantry. Brown writes about how not belonging in one’s family “is still one of the most dangerous hurts,” having “the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth” (14).  A page later she writes, “Sometimes the most dangerous thing for kids is the silence that allows them to construct their own stories—stories that almost always cast them as alone and unworthy of love and belonging” (15). One of three outcomes then occur. 1. Numbing or inflicting pain. 2. Denial and passing on of pain. 3. Courage and empathy (14).

The Dursleys kept Harry Potter in a cupboard under the stairs. The series inspires not because Harry, “The Chosen One,” defeats Voldemort. It inspires because for Harry outcomes 1 or 2 are most logical. Instead he is sorted into Gryffindor, a house known for its courage, and as Horcrux, he embodies empathy with the one most responsible for both his individual pain and his world's collective pain; he literally understands and shares Voldemort’s feelings. In Order of the Phoenix, just after Belletrix Lestrange kills Harry's godfather, Sirius BlackHarry says to Voldemort, “You're the one who is weak. You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” Harry escapes the cupboard under the stairs.

Little Free Pantry is another cupboard, and I like to think it offers another counter-story to those who see themselves as alone and unworthy of love and belonging. In a world where numbing or inflicting pain and denial and passing on of pain are increasingly normalized, I am certain it is a weird, wild, new space calling all who interact with it to courage and empathy. 

My advice? Read books. Have courage, girls. Pantries Up. 

Dumbledore's Army Forever


Today’s my birthday. Folks I know say they feel either older or younger than their actual age, which may be because most either dwell on the past or dream of the future.

I feel younger…hipper than my 43-yr-old self.

Last night to celebrate early, my husband, Josh, and I ate burgers at Art’s Place, a Fayetteville fixture and total dive with the best burgers in town. (Locals, I’m choosing Art’s Place over Hugo’s ten times out of ten, smoke and all.) Halfway through my burger and already feeling indigestion (still with me as I write), I said, “I know MTV is still on, but I haven’t thought about it in years.”

This and the indigestion are two ways I know I’m not as young or as hip as I feel…rather imagine.

My two daughters are practically grown.

But I also feel like the new-ish mother of a 1 1/2 -yr-old. Giving this nascent movement the attention it needs takes all my time. I worry too much…have sleepless nights. I am re-learning everything. I love Little Free Pantry profoundly.

Commonly applied to parenthood, the saying, “The days are long but the years are short," is a call to the present.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I do give myself gifts sometimes. I learned it from my 90-yr-old Grandma Myrtle, known to purchase, wrap, and place Christmas gifts from herself to herself under our family tree. This year for my birthday, I am giving myself the present.

Today, I am 43.


As I’ve mentioned, I am a reader. Some years ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. (Who doesn’t need more happiness?) Rubin is also a bibliophile, salt and peppering her work with literary allusion when not extrapolating from literature outright, so I enjoy her work. Her system for achieving more happiness was far too systematic for me, though. Guessing that may’ve been feedback she received; her next book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, is all about doing more of the things that make us happy and less of the things that don’t. Turns out habit formation is no more forumlaic than happiness and largely depends on who you are. Rubin identifies “Four Tendencies” influencing habit formation—Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, Rebels.

All this preamble to say I am a Questioner. Among their characteristics, Questioners are “often willing to do exhaustive research” (20). Yep.

I’ve also mentioned I love the podcast On Being. Last week’s episode, “The Opposite of Good Is Indifference,” featured a conversation between Krista Tippett and Arnold Eisen about 20th century mystic, religious intellectual, and social change agent, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. A quote attributed to him has resonated with me all week:

                Words create worlds.

A Questioner, I spend my evenings researching food insecurity (hunger?), poverty. Every source agrees, words matter. How we talk about ________ matters. 

In nursing school, we were taught conflation of the individual with his or her diagnosis de-humanizes. That patients are “clients.” So in the anti-poverty, anti-hunger field. In 2006 Mark Nord with the USDA led efforts to replace the word “hunger” with “very low food security.” Despite immediate backlash, the new terminology stuck. “Food insecurity” is considered more accurate in the American context if less emotive. “The hungry” or “homeless” is thought reductive. Emergency food organizations serve clients, not “poor people.”

I’m still pretty new to this. It’s taken some time for me to learn the jargon, and a Questioner, it really matters to me that my words be well-informed. What kind of world does “food insecurity” create? I ask that question having just read the Medium article, “Saying ‘People Experiencing Homelessness’ Will Not Influence Change.”

I’ll have to keep researching, ruminating on this. What I know, though, is many doing this work, myself included, probably don’t spend enough time talking with the food insecure/hungry. And our questions might sometimes be the wrong ones, generating answers that create a world where people are still hungry and homeless. 


My youngest daughter, Charly, is in 8th grade. This week her junior high celebrated its Spirit Week. Monday was “Dress Like a Book or Movie Character” day; Tuesday, "Tie Dye" day; and so on. Because Charly, like lots of kids, gives me ten minutes’ notice before these types of things, we didn’t have time to tie dye. She wore her older sister's rainbow-striped t-shirt.

Most evenings Charly and I walk our dog, Baron. Charly really talks to me during our walks, and we both protect this time together. Tuesday evening, she told me a kid she was passing in the hall leaned in to her face and said, "Faggot." She had on the rainbow-striped t-shirt. It didn’t hurt her feelings; she said this kid often bullies. It did make her mad. At first because he came into her personal space. She yelled after him, “That’s not very nice!” By the time of our walk, though, she wanted to “take him down” on behalf of those he bullies.

My mom’s been teaching 35 years. Her response to the incident is as follows:

There have always been and will always be kids who parrot the cruel misconceptions they hear at home. It often gives them a feeling of power to label others and see them as “the other.” Their words say much more about them than about the individual they have labeled, judged, and slammed. What to do? Parents and students need to tell teachers. They have an obligation to address such behaviors. As far as what kids do at the time? There is no point in engaging. In fact that is what those who bully thrive on. They want to argue. Perhaps the best thing is to give them the evil eye and walk off. Don’t give those who bully the satisfaction of knowing he/she got to you.

It definitely happened to me. I turned into my mother. I said almost the same thing to Charly as we talked about what she should do if she is a target for or witnesses this behavior again. 

You may be wondering how this relates to the LFP Project. The project provides no end of opportunities for labeling, judgment, and slamming of others. (If you haven’t seen it, find media coverage and check out comments.) Pantry stewards are project teachers. That means when we are informed about this kind of behavior in our communities, part of our work might be to educate and re-direct. For those not in our communities (in the comments), the evil eye is probably better.

Complicating matters, ALL OF US judge. Like junior high, the LFP Project presents an additional opportunity to actively choose trust, grace, and compassion instead. That’s so much harder It's also the project's covert, grand work.  

  • Please talk to kids about standing up to those who bully, even if you already have. I recommend my mom’s advice. She’s wise.

Little Free Pet Pantries

The Humane Society of Columbiana County and volunteers recently launched a "blessing box" dedicated to provision of items for animals. The project is called "St. Francis Blessing Box."

A bit about St. Francis...Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals and the environment. He even preached to animals, believing all creation to be brothers and sisters.

Appropriate that this group would name its project in his honor.

Until four years ago, I thought folks were kind of silly about their animals. We had a cat. Cookie. He is alright. It wasn't until Baron, a 100-pound German Shepherd, came into our home that I "got it." For so many people, living with a companion animal dramatically improves quality of life. I think about this when I drive past the rail-thin gentleman who panhandles at the intersection nearest my office. He pushes a shopping cart of belongings, among them, two small, brown tabby cats. According to Pets of the Homeless, 5-10% of homeless people have cats or dogs, that percentage rising to 24% in some places. I think about the comfort Baron brings me from the comfort of a home and plenty. I imagine for many poor and homeless folks, that comfort is even more valuable. 

Helping pets of poor and homeless folks helps the folks themselves. Sometimes maybe more than food, and I am grateful to those, like the Humane Society of Columbiana County in Salem, Ohio, who "get it."

In addition to his care for creatures, St. Francis took a vow of poverty, living among and ministering to the poor and sick. He famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." Maybe he should be the patron saint of pantries, too. 

Read more about St. Francis Blessing Box here:


Feeding the Soul: On Being with Krista Tippett

Some learning can only occur in relationship, so I go to church. For me, it's good for me. Like broccoli. I prefer solitary learning, which is interesting considering the LFP is a massive group work. I particularly prefer solitary spiritual practice. I read religious texts. I run by myself. I spend time in nature alone, often while running. And for the past two years, I listen to the weekly podcast "On Being with Krista Tippett." The iTunes Description of On Being is as follows: 

On Being takes up the big questions of meaning with scientists and theologians, artists and teachers — some you know and others you'll love to meet. Each week a new discovery about the immensity of our lives.

It's accurate, and I don't really know who I am without it (so I should probably contribute). What prompted this post, though, was the August 31, 2017, episode, a rebroadcast of Krista Tippett's 2008 conversation with the late Irish poet, John O'Donohue. The episode, entitled "The Inner Landscape of Beauty," concluded with his recitation of "Bennacht," included in To Bless the Space Between: A Book of Blessings.

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

Post- Hurricane Harvey, while the Pacific Northwest burns, Hurricane Irma (the largest Atlantic hurricane on record) careens toward Florida, Mexico experiences its largest earthquake in a century, and on and on, I needed both this reminder of nature's gentleness and this blessing. I think we all do. 


Steward Stories: "My Hundred-Dollar Bill," by Marla Cantrell

Steward Stories: "My Hundred-Dollar Bill," by Marla Cantrell

Marla Cantrell is an award-winning writer and the managing editor of Do South Magazine. She’s also an Arkansas Arts Council Fellow in Short Fiction. Marla fell in love with The Little Free Pantry when she wrote a story about two pantries in her area that had just opened. She has since become a regular contributor to the Little Free Pantry in Alma, Arkansas, her hometown.

Steward Stories: People's Pantry Cincy, Lisa

Lisa C.Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, and Owner Sound Bites Nutrition, LLC, writes: 

As a dietitian, I’ve always been interested in food justice.  Working in a hospital for years, I witnessed how poverty affected a person’s food intake (or lack thereof).  I’d also traveled to Central America a few times and was deeply affected by the hunger of the people living there.  To know that Cincinnati ranks 2nd in childhood poverty was just not acceptable to me.

This past fall, I stumbled on a Facebook video of a woman in Arkansas that had started a mini food pantry.  It was similar to the mini libraries where you take a book and leave a book if you have one, but with non-perishable food items.  I copied the link, pasted it to my neighborhood Facebook page saying, “I’d love to see this in Pleasant Ridge”, and the dominoes fell.

The next thing I knew, neighbors chimed in that they’d like to help.  A man named Tony said he’d build a pantry.  The Presbyterian church got involved and placed it on their lot.  It was the perfect spot--right on the bus line and across from the neighborhood school.  I watched how the neighbors collaborated and filled it.

I’d heard through a friend about grants being awarded by People’s Liberty, a philanthropic organization in Cincinnati.  I was inspired by the pantry in Pleasant Ridge and wrote a grant to have 10 more food pantries placed in low income, food desert neighborhoods.  To my surprise, I was a finalist and chosen for a grant!  I was over the moon.  I assembled a small team and we got to work in December, 2016.

My friend Jason had a great idea of recycling single copy news boxes into mini pantries.  We’d strip them down, paint and prime them, place new shelves and clean windows and have artists decorate them all differently.  We’d find a champion to reach out to their community to donate non-perishable food and toiletries to the pantry.  First task- finding boxes.

Through a series of phone calls and networking, I made a connection at the Enquirer.  The Enquirer agreed to deliver eight metal boxes to Sean Mullaney- a team member with an art gallery and warehouse.  We worked on the boxes but had one problem.  We had 10 neighborhoods and 8 boxes.  

I’d been in contact with a man in Ashland, Ohio, who was the “keeper of boxes”. He gave me contacts in Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and Dayton, but no one had boxes to spare.  Dayton was using theirs for little libraries.  “Great” I said, clearly defeated.  

Thank God for social media.  I posted a picture of the Enquirer box and why I needed two more.  After various comments, someone suggested I contact the Cincinnati Herald.  It took a few phone calls before I found 2 boxes we could have.  I could not believe my luck!

We officially have 11 boxes in 10 food desert neighborhoods.  One of the churches we partnered with had a box on site, so we just needed to reconfigure the shelf inside.  What luck! Follow our story.


Steward Stories: Jack

On a Thursday night in August, Jack's entered in a pig wrestling contest.

Jack likes playing with his rabbits, Kelly and Tulip. He likes playing video games and reading. "Amulet" is his favorite series. He writes stories and reads them to other people to make them laugh. He loves exploring mountain woodlands.

All this seems pretty typical for a 10-yr-old boy from Greybull, Wyoming, but Jack is not typical. If you ask him what he likes to do when he's not helping others, in addition to the above, he'll say, "When we go on road trips through cities, I always bring my wallet to give to people on the street."

Jack does yard work, sells t-shirts and popsicles at events, and accepts donations to support his regular charitable work. This year, he is hosting a back-to-school supply giveaway. He buys Christmas presents for kids in foster care...gave away 10 turkey dinners at Christmastime, too. And after being turned away from local food banks for being "too little to help," Jack started his own mini-bank, "Jack's Box." 

Jack's own words when asked why he spends time helping others and why kids should serve:

Hi this is Jack. I would probably say why should anyone in the world mean less than anyone else? We are all equal. Other kids should help because when you help others, it makes you feel awesome to know you helped them and made them smile. Even if you can't start your own box, you can still donate food or money. You can also help if you see someone who is on the street who doesn't have money or food. You can give them some of yours. You should help because God created us all, so we are supposed to take care of each other.

Googling "kids + role models" yields titles like "Top Ten Best Role Models for Kids" and "Why Are Positive Role Models Important for Young Children." My role model is 10-yr-old Jack.

Thank you, Jack.