July 21, 2020

Kathy Hay and her husband work hard to provide for their three children, but their pantry sometimes runs low. Many families face the same challenge in their rural Washington community near the Idaho state line, and aid organizations struggle to keep pace with demand.

One day, when Kathy saw empty shelves at a food bank near her home, she decided to do something to help. She had read online about little free pantries, a grassroots movement that invites people to replicate its model in their own neighborhoods, and she determined to set one up in her backyard in 2019.

She installed shelves for canned goods and other nonperishables, and she plugged in an outdoor refrigerator for milk, eggs, cheese, and fresh produce. Then she spread the word: Neighbors could take or leave as much food as they wanted.

The concept, inspired by little free libraries, started in Arkansas in 2016 and quickly spread to more than 700 locations nationwide. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised unemployment nearly everywhere, a free food exchange made sense in Kathy’s community due to a poverty rate that hovers around 20%. And the urgency has only grown: In fact, many little lending librarians began converting their library boxes to pantries when the pandemic hit.

Neighbors quickly embraced Kathy’s foresight, but local regulators were not pleased. As word spread about the pantry, Asotin County officials showed up to inspect the operation. Kathy had been vigilant about cleanliness: All the food was safe and unspoiled, and no one ever got sick. Despite no demonstrated risks to health or safety, inspectors demanded changes.

In response, Kathy spent nearly 40 hours building a new pantry on poles to address county concerns about pest control. And she removed the fridge, cutting off donations of fresh fruits and vegetables—something the inspectors demanded she do unless she installed a commercial-grade kitchen.

None of these modifications satisfied the inspectors. Citing laws designed to regulate nonprofit food banks and soup kitchens, they asked Kathy to submit still more plans to the county and go through the burdensome process of obtaining 501(c)(3) status.

Kathy could not afford any of that. But instead of giving up her vision, in April she partnered with IJ and filed a lawsuit in federal court against Asotin County. Kathy’s case hinges on the principle that communities should be able to take care of their own through private charity without heavy-handed government interference. Families around the world have done that for centuries.

Americans are very familiar with food exchanges, and they are used to making decisions about what they are comfortable eating. Neighbors routinely carry meals to shut-ins, new neighbors, new parents, and survivors coping with death. Workplace parties and church potlucks also involve sharing items from residential kitchens. The only difference with Kathy’s Little Free Pantry was the invitation to share year-round—not just during special events. 

Regulators should encourage rather than shut down this type of can-do approach to helping the less fortunate. The county claimed—without evidence—that it was protecting the poor from foodborne illness. But the opposite is closer to the truth. Rather than helping the poor, the county is restricting their access to food at a time they desperately need it.

At IJ, we know social entrepreneurs don’t need government interference. We will fight to make sure no one needs to hire a team of lawyers just to give a meal to a neighbor in need.

Daryl James is an IJ writer. 

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