Institute for Justice · July 22, 2021

CLARKSTON, Wash.—When Kathy Hay saw her neighbors in need, she decided to help. She decided the best way to meet that need was to build a “little free pantry” to share food with her community. The idea took off immediately, and Kathy’s neighbors pitched in and donated enough food to serve dozens of people in need. But no good deed goes unpunished: a few weeks after she opened her pantry, the Asotin County Health District ordered Kathy to shut it down and follow a laundry list of unnecessary demands. A few months later, the Health District even sent Kathy an invoice—totaling over $2,800—and demanded that she pay the Health District for its enforcement action against her. Joined by two neighbors who used the pantry, Kathy filed a lawsuit in April 2020 with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national nonprofit, to defend her right to feed her community. Over a year later, following a settlement with the local and state health departments, Kathy is re-opening her little free pantry today.

“You shouldn’t need to hire a team of lawyers to give an apple or fresh bread to a neighbor in need,” said IJ Attorney Caroline Grace Brothers. “Now, hundreds of people across Asotin County will be able to feed their neighbors with pantries just like Kathy’s without fear of government reprisal.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Kathy—and anyone else in Asotin County—is allowed to share shelf-stable, commercially packaged foods and uncut fresh produce without any government restrictions. The Asotin County Health District also waived the $2,800 invoice that they sent her. Thanks to Kathy’s lawsuit, both the State Department of Health and the Asotin County Health District have published guidelines to help more people across the state fight food insecurity at a grassroots level.

Today, Kathy is rejoining the thousands of Americans that are using little free pantries to help fight hunger in their communities. Similar to little free libraries, little free pantries are small structures where people can donate or take food. With the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic causing food scarcity both in Washington and across the nation, many people used the little free pantry concept to help feed their food-insecure neighbors. And over 50,000 people signed a petition to demand that Kathy should be allowed to reopen her pantry to serve her community in the same way.

“I am beyond thrilled that Asotin County residents can now host little free pantries without fear of harsh punishments,” Kathy Hay said. “I am very pleased that produce and bread will be allowed, and that the guidance for hosting a pantry will be minimal and clear. I feel hope in the future because the American ideals of freedom, charity and justice have prevailed.”

Kathy herself has struggled to make ends meet, and she knows what it feels like to have a hard time putting food on the table. She wanted to do something that would allow her neighbors to be more engaged in helping one another, and she even personally built ten additional little free pantries that can now operate all around her community. Because Kathy fought for her right to run her little free pantry, hundreds more will soon be able to follow in her footsteps.