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Flagstaff students tackle food insecurity with ‘Little Free Pantry’

Melissa Sevigny
(Left to right) Nate Spangler, Janeece Henes, Elizabeth Brixen, and Norah Krueger pose with their newly installed Little Free Pantry.

One in six people in Coconino County experienced food insecurity before the pandemic. Job loss, inflation, and the nationwide shortage of baby formula have all made things worse for families struggling to make ends meet. A group of students at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy decided to address the problem…. in a practical and artistic way. In KNAU’s latest installment of Eats & Beats, stories about food and music, Melissa Sevigny reports on a class project to install a Little Free Pantry.

In a neighborhood just off the interstate, a group of students gathers on the busy street corner where they plan to install a cupboard-sized pantry with a glass door. Among them is 17-year-old Elizabeth Brixen, who helped paint the pantry in springtime colors of yellow, sky blue, and mint green. "It has some clouds and flowers on it, and that sort of thing. It’s pretty bright and colorful," she says.

A metal roof keeps off the snow and rain, and on one side the students have painted the Little Free Pantry motto, "Take what you need, give what you can."  

Little Free Pantries are a nationwide movement, but there are none registered in Flagstaff, yet. "We’re an art school," says Brixen, "so this was a good intersection between us wanting to do things for our community, and also being able to utilize our arts skills."

The idea is to bring food and basic necessities to people who aren’t able to get to a food bank or don’t feel comfortable going there. Nate Spangler, a freshman at the school, says, "Larger brick and mortar pantries and food banks are quite effective, but a lot of people do tend to fall through the cracks." Not everyone who is food insecure fits the formal definition of poverty, meaning they may not have access to federal programs.

Plus, food prices have risen by 10% over the last year—the highest inflation spike since 1980. That’s where Little Free Pantries make a difference. It was Spangler’s job to choose a location, and he found one in his own neighborhood. He says, "I look forward to being able to drive past here and know that I played in a part in this, and that something I did had at least some impact on my community. That feels good."

Melissa Sevigny
Janeece Henes stocks the pantry with food and basic necessities.

The student’s teacher, Janeece Henes, and volunteer carpenter Peter Smith arrive with a handful of shovels and a pry bar to dig the hole and install the pantry. Volunteers will keep it stocked with donations from the school and the Flagstaff Family Food Center to supplement what the neighborhood brings. Today, there’s peanut butter, oatmeal, chai tea, toilet paper… and, Henes points out, even a can of baby formula.

"That was an unbelievably generous gift to the pantry that someone would donate, when we know we’re in a huge shortage for baby formula," she says.

Her students researched food insecurity and volunteered at the food bank before coming up with the idea for this project. "The students just know how they’re nourished both in their hearts but they’re also nourished in their bellies and they just wanted to pay that forward," Henes says.

Sixteen-year-old Norah Kreuger adds, "It was just nice to plan something that’s ours, especially since we’re young, we don’t get that often, where we plan a whole project, and I think it was nice to have that."

Smith, the carpenter, puts the finishing touches on the pantry, and then stands back to admire it. "Look at the quality of their work," he says. "It's just a thing of beauty."

For Smith, working with the students has been an inspiration: "This thing struck me as insanely Flagstaff. Kids, and art, and taking care of the neighbors, helping out the people who need the help." And, he says, this Little Free Pantry is just the first. Another will go up at the Murdoch Community Center later this summer, with the hopes of many more to come.