Brown looks for community support with free pantry project

If enough people are interested, Sauk Centre could soon have its own free, outdoor pantries, miniature food shelves where anyone can pick up items they need while community members, businesses and organizations donate to keep it stocked.

For Shane Brown, site leader for Ruby’s Pantry in Sauk Centre, the idea began when he was thinking about the Little Free Libraries around town.

“I saw that and thought it would be brilliant to put food in them so people could go there and get emergency needs,” Brown said.

Brown then looked into the idea and found out hundreds of these miniature free pantries were already in place across the U.S., including locations in Alexandria, Little Falls and St. Cloud. With their example as a guide, Brown is now working to set up several of these pantries in Sauk Centre, but that will depend on how many people he can get to help him on this venture.

“The group I’m looking for is six to 12 people,” Brown said. “It could be a group of businesses that might want to do it or churches that would join up.”

While Brown would like it if local churches sponsored and collaborated on the free pantries, he would like it to remain a non-religious endeavor that is welcome to anyone, whether or not they profess a given faith.

The first pantry Brown is working on is an old gun cabinet, and he is looking for a local business or individual to weld it to a base. The site he has in mind for it is near Sauk Centre’s American Legion Post 67. Brown will also be having the pantry decorated by the 510 Art Lab, and he hopes it will be in place and operational by mid-August.

The pantry operates on a take-what-you-need, leave-what-you-can basis. To keep the cabinet stocked, volunteers would check in on it on a weekly or even daily basis, bringing an inventory to see what needed items are low or gone. Funds from Ruby’s Pantry and donations, as well as items from local businesses and the Sauk Centre Food Shelf, would go toward supplying the pantry. Food would not be the only products available at the pantry, either; Brown plans to include things like feminine hygiene products and toothpaste.

If community members wish to contribute to the pantry, there will be a drawer where people can drop off their items. From there, volunteers will check the donations before putting them in the handout section.

“If you bring a can of soup, that kind of thing can just be put in, but if there’s anything that’s not tamper-proof, then we’ll have a separate spot for that,” Brown said. “If you have an extra loaf of bread, we don’t want you to just bring it in and put it in there; we want to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. There’ll be directions right on the food pantry box itself that’ll tell you what things we accept, what season to expect things and how to put things in there.”

Considering Minnesota’s extreme yearly temperature variance, the seasons will factor into what food is available at a given time.

“With the thought of keeping the food safe and fresh, we’ve got a list that talks about how, like, in wintertime, we’ll do a lot of mac-and-cheese, rice, Rice-a-Roni meals and dry-packed foods, so it’s OK if they freeze,” Brown said. “Then, in the summertime, you’ll see more pop-and-peel cans of soup so transients can grab it and not worry about a can opener.”

Fruits and vegetables might also be pantry offerings in the summertime, but that depends if the program gets enough volunteers to regularly check the produce to make sure it is unspoiled. Brown also hopes the items will be rotated through enough so the pantry can offer varying types of ethnic foods.

Anybody is welcome to take food from the pantry – and Brown is serious when he says everyone, as he plans on using the pantry himself every so often.

“If they need it, take it,” Brown said. “If they don’t and they take it, I leave it between them and God. There’s not a really good way to police it, but if we start noticing that it’s getting emptied more often, then we might have to keep an eye on it or at least put another note in there, saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re probably taking way more than we should; we need to take just what we need to get by for the week.’”

Because area food shelves are not open 24/7, Brown believes the free pantry – which is always open – will help people get by in between food shelf visits. Brown also welcomes visitors who are not transients or financially strapped; it might just be a person who wants a box of macaroni or a bottle of ketchup but does not want to go to the store.

The pantry could also help direct people to the local food shelf.

“Little Falls itself has seen a turnaround in people who are coming to the food shelves because they realize the food is actually good quality food,” Brown said.

While he is starting Sauk Centre’s free pantry initiative, Brown hopes to one day work himself out of his leadership role and let the program be run by the community. He just wants to see the idea grow and be used.

“I had a guy who was a little upset that people could take advantage of it,” Brown said. “My thought is, if that person misusing it directs one other person to go use it, it’s already done its work, so I’m OK with that guy taking advantage of it. As long as it gets one person who truly needs it to go use it, come get it.”