The pale-yellow box stands about four feet high, with stacks of canned fruit, packs of pasta, and boxes of mixes visible through the glass pane. “Free To Those In Need” is painted on in bold letters, along with a vibrant floral design.
This is the first Parts of Peace (PoP) Pantry Mariah Pratt-Bonkowski established, and she plans to create a total of 10 PoP Pantries in the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore with the support of the OSI Fellowship. Her first pantry began operation at the Greenmount West Community Center in March 2019.
PoP Pantries are similar in concept to Little Free Libraries, small public bookcases or containers where community members can access free books. The PoP Pantries contain nonperishable food or hygiene products.
This project is designed to assist what are known as “gap families” – families with combined household incomes just above the federal poverty limit. While they earn too much money to benefit from the welfare system, they don’t have access to enough resources to fully support themselves. These small pantries have the potential to combat food instability and hygiene poverty.
“When I had this idea, I thought it could change how communities interact with helping organizations,” Pratt Bonkowski says.
Pratt-Bonkowski lives in Park Heights. The area, home to about 15,000 people, has a median income of $26,014, and the unemployment rate is twice as high as Baltimore’s. Over 70 percent of Park Heights is considered a “food desert,” an area where it is difficult to find affordable or good-quality fresh food.
“There are a lot of people here who would benefit,” she says.
PoP Pantries are designed to be as accessible as possible – they’re walkable, and available to use outside of traditional 9-5 working hours. The locations are also based on a needs assessment – they are set up where those who need them most can access them. Unlike some social services, there are no restrictions or qualifications on who can use this emergency resource.
“You just take out what you need when you need it,” Pratt-Bonkowski says. “It’s specifically made for people who can’t get those resources otherwise.”
These pantries include a phone number people can call with questions or for further assistance. Those who use the pantry can fill out an anonymous information sheet explaining why they choose to use the pantry, as well as other helpful demographic information such as zip code and household size.
Pratt-Bonkowski has three organizational partners assisting with the project. The Langston Hughes Community, Business, and Resource Center – one of Baltimore’s largest food pantries – is providing the food. Simply the Basics, a hygiene bank in California, is donating hygiene products. She’s also collaborating with Neighborhoods United to connect with community advocates who can provide insight about where and how to locate further pantry sites.
“There are a lot of people here who are happy about living in Park Heights, and are excited to see it change,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are committed to changing Park Heights and are supportive of positive things happening here.”
Pratt-Bonkowski hopes the neighborhoods and communities will take ownership of the PoP Pantries. This will ensure that the project is sustainable and can spread.
“Ideally, I hope it expands,” she says. “More than that, though, I hope people can champion the project. I hope people can say, ‘this neighborhood needs it,’ and then make a PoP Pantry.”