After surviving through food insecurity as a single window, a mom from Wisconsin recently opened a food pantry for her neighbors. Here's how experts say you can similarly give back.

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Families in communities across the country are facing economic hardship, and one of the most heartbreaking realities is that far too many are struggling to put food on the table. Well before the pandemic and economic crisis hit, food insecurity was a glaring issue in the U.S. Roughly 13.7 million households, or 10.5 percent of all U.S. households, experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By June 2020, Northwestern University researchers estimated that food insecurity more than doubled, hitting as many as 23 percent of households, and had more than tripled among households with children to 29.5 percent.

It's no wonder that everyday Americans are looking for ways to help however they can. Here, the story of a single mom in Wisconsin who's giving back from her front porch—and how you can help feed those in need in your community.

An image of a woman working at a community fridge.
Credit: Getty Images.

How the Mom's Front Porch Became a Food Pantry

A decade ago, Ellie Gibson lost her husband in a tragic accident and was left with her 1½-year-old son and a daughter on the way. Within three months, financial hardship led to losing the house they were living in and struggling to buy food, gas, or anything for her kids. Gibson moved in with a friend who was a single mom of four kids, and the two aimed to "help each other survive," the mom of two told the Wisconsin State Journal. Today, Gibson has her own house and a job as a personal care worker for disabled seniors. And since the summer, she's been running a food pantry in an effort to help families who are contending with food insecurity as she once did.

Shortly after moving into a new house in Oregon, Wisconsin, Gibson and her fiancé, who was raised by a single mom, put out a few cardboard boxes along the sidewalk in an effort to provide free food to neighbors who needed it. Their efforts have since taken off, and the entire porch is now a food pantry, open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., because, as Gibson explained to the Journal, it was tough for her to get to a food pantry that was only open during business hours.

"It's almost like a miniature grocery store in my porch for people," Gibson told the outlet. She'll accommodate dietary restrictions if people contact her about them ahead of time, and the pantry also features a table of donated items such as baby formula, diapers, and makeup.

Gibson is currently assisted in her efforts by her kids—Elius, 12, and Zya, 10— who keep the pantry stocked throughout the day. Gibson's fiancé died by suicide in November, and she told the Journal that he would have wanted her and the children to keep the food pantry going.

In fact, when asked how long she plans to run the pantry open, Gibson replied, "Forever, if I can help it."

6 Ways You Can Start Your Own Food Pantry

If you're interested in addressing local food insecurity like Gibson, consider the following tips:

1. Consider whether you want to set it up like Gibson or as a community fridge.

Jeff Thomas, Executive Director of End Hunger in America, explains that a community fridge is like the neighbor-to-neighbor "little free library" model.

"You stock a sheltered location with food to which people in need can discreetly help themselves," he notes. "This approach has several virtues in keeping with our best practice recommendations on how to address hunger effectively. It is very trust-based and does not require the folks being served to 'prove' that they are in need. It typically allows people to return when they need to rather than on an arbitrary schedule and also to select what food will be most helpful to them out of everything that is available."

2. Start with non-perishable foods.

These have a long shelf life and can be used for multiple meals or meals that stretch, says Danielle Rochelle, coordinator of outreach and support programs at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who manages the school's student food pantry. "Popular items that can last a while I typically stock are peanut butter, dry pasta noodles and canned pasta sauce, canned chili, canned meat, and rice," she shares. "I have also learned that snacks that can be eaten on the go are very popular, so sandwich crackers, granola bars, and Pop-Tarts are always a good pick as well."

3. Milk is a must.

Rochelle recommends keeping it in stock, and you can also include shelf-stable milk, which is made through pasteurizing at a high temperature.

4. Make it easy for your neighbors to access the pantry or fridge.

As Gibson found and Thomas points out, it's best if a pantry or fridge is accessible on various days and times. And you'll also want to avoid asking questions about why people need the food, as that can be met with resistance, says Rochelle.

"Our food pantry also works to make sure the experience is as de-stigmatizing as possible by making it easily accessible with very few barriers for getting the food they need," she notes.

5. Partner with local organizations.

Rochelle encourages people to connect with local businesses and churches who can donate money or organize a food drive. "I often prefer a food drive over monetary donations in case I am not able to get to a store to restock," she notes. "It is also sometimes easier to get people to donate food over money."

That said, Rochelle advises doing a bit of digging to see if there's a food pantry or community fridge (a communal effort in which neighbors can both donate and take food) near your location. "I would join forces instead of reinventing the wheel," she says. "Talk with those with the established pantry to find out where they may most need help and try to fill those gaps."

6. Support or create a chapter of a bigger program.

Thomas points out that there is a critical weakness to fighting hunger with food pantries, community fridges, and food drives. "It is almost always reliant on food purchased at retail or near-retail prices," he says. "This means in practice is that the amount of food that can be secured with the funds available for hunger relief in a community will always be grossly insufficient to meet the need."

That said, he recommends supporting a program that already exists in your area—or if necessary start one—that can draw food from your regional food bank, typically a member of the national Feeding America network. Thomas points out, "In most cases, this will allow you to provide your neighbors in need with at least five times as much help as you would have been able to do if you were purchasing food at the grocery store."

To find a local food bank affiliated with Feeding America, check out nationwide network of food banks, which secures and distributes 4.3 billion meals each year through food pantries and meal programs throughout the U.S.