Community Pantry Spreads Food Justice in Wilkinsburg

Photo credit: Free Little Pantry, freelittlepantry.org.

About one in every seven people living in Allegheny County encounters food insecurity, according to the Pittsburgh Food Bank. That means households must often choose between paying their bills and buying enough food to last until their next paycheck. The number is higher for Allegheny children, who experience food insecurity at a rate of about one in six.

Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America wants to change that, and they’re starting with a community pantry located outside their Wilkinsburg office. The pantry follows the same concept as a Little Free Library but offers food and other consumable items instead of books. (And, unlike many Little Free Libraries, it’s located in an area that could use the support.)

The group’s Eco-Socialist committee built the pantry outside its Community Forge office space last summer after a previous trial run in Braddock. DSA member Sabrina Spiher Robinson manages the pantry’s inventory, organizing donations to keep it stocked with canned and dry goods, personal hygiene products, small clothing items, and other items the local community may need.

While it operates on a much smaller scale than traditional food pantries, the community pantry has other benefits. It’s open 24/7, which means people can use it at their own convenience. Plus, it’s unattended, meaning users can retain their anonymity.

The Little Free Pantry, a group that promotes the community pantry concept across the country, explains why this is important: “Food pantries operate as service providers, those who use them as clients. The LFP dissolves that professional boundary. Whether stocking or taking stock, everyone approaches the LFP the same way, mediating the shame that accompanies need.”

While this anonymity means DSA doesn’t get direct feedback from the community, it seems not everyone is a fan of the pantry. It’s been vandalized multiple times since its introduction last summer. Last November, it was vandalized four separate times over the course of one month. These acts of vandalism included graffiti on the outside of the box and damage to the box that included its door being torn off.

It’s certainly possible that these were all malicious acts from unhappy community members, but DSA member Emerson O’Donnell is staying optimistic. While the graffiti was a definite act of vandalism, O’Donnell claims the physical damage could have come from a car accidentally hitting the pantry.

Either way, the damage isn’t stopping DSA from continuing to do what it feels is right for the local community. Committee members have rebuilt the pantry each time, strengthening it to withstand both physical damage from people and from Pittsburgh’s weather. For now, the rebuilding seems to have worked: The pantry hasn’t been vandalized for almost two months.

Regardless of the damage, most people seem to be happy to have the pantry around. Spiher Robinson says that often, when she’s restocking it, people passing by say things like “thank you for the work you’re doing.”

Additionally, the pantry’s ever-changing inventory speaks for itself. “People definitely use it,” says Spiher Robinson. Not only does she often see that items have been taken from it, but she also notices things in it that she hasn’t added, meaning other community members are also replenishing it.

And one of the ultimate goals is for members of the community who have a little extra to share it with those in need. Spiher Robinson says it stems from the Marxist idea of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” which is a guiding principle behind many of DSA’s actions.

Pittsburgh DSA hopes to build a second pantry sometime this year and is currently scoping out businesses in other high-need areas of the city that they can work with to host a second location.

If you want to help keep the pantry stocked, there are donation collection points at Full Pint Brewing Company and Caffe D’Amore in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. DSA also accepts donations at its Community Forge office. If you can’t make it to either of these locations, email info@pghdsa.org to find out how you can donate online.

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