Good Neighbuzz: The Amherst Little Free Pantry

Good Neighbuzz aims to highlight area charitable works, good deeds, and helpful hands in order to connect those who could use their services with those who would like to help.

From l-r: Maria Ceraulo & Marie Evans

Visitors to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst may notice a cabinet outside its doors. The cupboards, perpetually unlocked, hold an array of canned goods, household essentials, and toiletries that are available to anyone in need. A sign on the door identifies the cabinet as The Amherst Little Free Pantry, and it has one simple rule: “Take what you need, leave what you can.”

“You wouldn’t think putting a little cabinet on your portico would raise so many questions,” muses Marie Evans, recounting how it took two years and a committee of people to implement a workable solution to an often unrecognized need. A few years ago, Marie Evans posted a picture of a small free pantry on the church’s Facebook group wondering if it was a possibility to start one there. Maria Ceraulo jumped at the idea, as did many other members of the congregation and the wheels of change were set into motion. 

“I planted the seed and Maria watered it,” says Evans, both women adding that this is not a solo work. It’s taken a team of caring community members to give this idea life. I sat down with the two of them to talk about this special little pantry and the hard work that goes into keeping it running.

Hunger and hardship are often colored as inner-city problems. Many assume that the suburbs are more affluent and unmarred by struggles like food insecurity, but this is not the case. A person is considered food insecure if they have inconsistent access to adequate nutritious food to live a healthy life. Erie County has 45 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, with 12 percent of them being insecure. Statewide, one in six children are often hungry. The Amherst/Williamsville area is home to many students and seniors—both at-risk groups for experiencing food insecurity.

Traditional food pantries are essential in combating hunger, but are not without issues. Basic eligibility requirements differ from area to area, but most insist upon a valid government ID and proof of residency, and often a utility bill. Many food banks are open for select hours a few days per week. The food banks themselves encounter barriers in finding the food, funding, and manpower to provide help to the disadvantaged. The need for traditional food banks is unquestionable, but struggle persists. 

The Amherst Little Free Pantry opened its doors on September 30, 2018 with assistance provided by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Amherst, Congregation Havurah, and a grant through the Network of Religious Communities. It continues to run through community donations and the teamwork of about 20 people who meet monthly and restock the pantry daily. Since its inception, the team has checked the pantry all but three days, and only due to sudden illness or inclement weather. 

To reduce shame in asking for help and to provide for all who need assistance, there are absolutely no requirements or questions asked in order to use the Amherst Little Free Pantry. This raised eyebrows in the greater community, Ceraulo said. 

“The naysayers said that people will take everything. They’ll empty the cupboards and leave you high and dry. But that hasn’t happened yet. People genuinely only take what they need.”

According to the many reports from the pantry stockers, it’s been used every day of its existence, with people taking what they need and leaving whatever they can. Once someone left around fifty pairs of children’s socks; another time, five Christmas figurines. Both of those small donations were taken by others in need. People will often leave notes, thanking the pantry for helping them make ends meet during tough times. After all, money tends to run low for many at the end of the month.

Those in poverty are often treated as if they don’t deserve food that tastes good, the companionship of pets, or the joy of having a family. To combat this toxic notion, the pantry tries to keep condiments, canned cat and dog food, and baby goods in ready stock. People are welcome to leave requests, and they’ll be filled based on availability and reason.

The pantry welcomes donations in funds and goods. Small donations can be left in the pantry itself at any time, while larger donations should be coordinated via email at [email protected], as should any inquiries. The pantry is always in need of nonperishable unexpired goods (no glass), as well as canned dog or cat food, basic household essentials like laundry pods and dish soap, and toiletries, namely toilet paper and menstrual items.

Those who would like to visit the Amherst Little Free Pantry can locate it on the portico outside of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst at 6320 Main Street. This is accessible via the 48 bus route near the Youngs road stop.