Cincinnati dietician has created the People's Pantry program to turn old newspaper boxes into artful 24/7 food pantries

Lisa Andrews first started her efforts in Pleasant Ridge and is now getting requests from other neighborhoods as well as suburban communities

click to enlarge Lisa Andrews with one of her newspaper boxes/food pantries - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Lisa Andrews with one of her newspaper boxes/food pantries

Imagine that a piece of public art your neighborhood takes pride in —like a painted flying pig sculpture or a wall mural — could also feed the hungry. That’s the basic idea behind People’s Pantry.

Only the objects being used weren’t originally intended to be street art. They are old newspaper boxes finding a new life. In neighborhoods throughout Cincinnati, 11 boxes have been painted by local artists and turned into 24/7 outlets for free food distribution, somewhat like the Little Free Library movement. People’s Pantry was started last year by Lisa Andrews of Pleasant Ridge, who had heard online about a woman in Little Rock, Ark. who successfully began a similar project.

“I saw it more or less as a way to connect people,” Andrews says. “I’m a dietician by trade, so I’ve seen malnutrition and hunger, and (I) thought it was a really good way to connect people, because we were in an election year and (the opposing sides) weren’t really talking to each other. It just seemed to me like a no-brainer.”

After each box is painted by a local artist, they are placed in a food-desert neighborhood under the care of a “community champion.” Champions work to ensure the boxes are filled with goods, connecting with neighborhood organizations to run food drives and other efforts to fill each. “The point is to make it a community project,” Andrews says. Ideal donations include non-perishable food items and toiletries.

The newspaper boxes were donated by The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Herald and painted by such local artists/designers as Bob Dyehouse, who has done artful bike racks, and Sean Mullaney, also a toy and game inventor. Many of the artists are from the same neighborhood where their boxes are located or have some sort of special connection to the neighborhood. The People’s Pantry box in Northside, for instance, was painted by the students of Chase Elementary.

Aside from Northside, the other People’s Pantry boxes currently are in Lockland, Winton Hills, North Fairmount, Millvale, Camp Washington, East Price Hill, Over-the-Rhine, the West End and Walnut Hills. Andrews says People’s Pantry already has inspired groups in nearby Harrison and Forest Park to start their own free small pantries.

However, Andrews didn’t originally plan to have so many pantries around Cincinnati. She initially began with just the Pleasant Ridge Lil Pantry, which worked out so well that she pitched her citywide idea to People’s Liberty, the philanthropic lab affiliated with the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation. This secured a 10-month, $10,000 grant that covers supplies for local artists to paint the boxes and gift cards for the community champions to buy goods to fill them.

Although the grant-assisted 10 months are up, Andrews plans to add five more People’s Pantry boxes around the Greater Cincinnati area. She recently shipped boxes to an Amelia Girl Scout troop and a West Price Hill tattoo artist for painting. A Lebanon woman will also design a box with the help of her community. Andrews would like to place the completed pantries in Mt. Washington, Avondale and Northern Kentucky.

Andrews says the intersection of art and serving the community are what has made People’s Pantry such a successful project across Cincinnati.

“It’s a focal point and sense of pride for the community,” she says. “People post pictures and messages on our Facebook page that say, ‘I just filled the pantry today’ or ‘The pantry could use some love’ or ‘Our Girl Scout troop did a food drive for the pantry.’ It’s a good way to connect people and get them talking and take care of your neighbors.”

There is no way for Andrews to track how many people are actually using the pantries, so she measures the success by how much it gets a neighborhood’s residents excited about working on a project together.

“For people to see that it’s possible to be nice to your neighbor, be nice to strangers and care about people even if you don’t know them is the biggest success of this project,” she says.

For more People’s Pantry Cincy info, visit facebook.com/peoplespantrycincy

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