Michael refilling the pantry
Michael Reinmiller refills a Little Free Pantry outside his house at 1609 S. 26th Street. Reinmiller worked as a digital arts support technician for the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts for more than 10 years. His family is moving soon, and they are still figuring out where the pantry should go. His father-in-law, Jim Falk, built some of the other pantries around Lincoln with the same white and minimalistic design. On the pantry glass door, the decal reads, “Little Free Pantry; Take what you need; Donate what you can; #KindnessMatters.” Photo courtesy of Michael Reinmiller.

One Lincoln man celebrated his birthday by treating himself to canned foods and snacks he took from a Little Free Pantry. 

“I was stocking the pantry this summer, and a gentleman came up on his bicycle,” said Teresa Ernst, owner of the Little Free Pantry on 23rd & P Street. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I got here in time. It’s my birthday, and I was hoping to get something special for dinner tonight.’”

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Teresa Ernst, 56, stands with the Little Free Pantry she hosts with the Antelope Creek Valley Park Home Association on 23rd & P Street. The members take turns keeping watch on the pantry. Ernst has been a pantry owner since August 2020. She had been thinking about setting up a pantry for those in need way before that, but she never knew how to do so until she secured a Civic Nebraska grant to build and install one. Photo by Chin Tung Tan/NNS.

Little Free Pantries are weather and animal-proof structures that store food and other items for those in need. They are accessible 24/7 and are located in various Lincoln neighborhoods, typically in front yards or by the sidewalks. 

The first Little Free Pantry in Lincoln appeared in late December 2019 at Michael Reinmiller’s house at 1609 S 26th Street. Reinmiller was inspired to build one after he saw the concept of installing free pantries around neighborhoods on the news.

“It just made me wonder why I wasn’t doing something like that,” Reinmiller said. “So I called my father-in-law, and he built one. We installed it two days before Christmas. I just put $60 or $70 worth of food into it, and it was gone pretty quick.”

He said it’s the excitement of being kind to each other that got so many people involved in this project. 

“There was just so much negative stuff. Everyone was mad at each other,” Reinmiller said. “I think people are frustrated by that. They want to say, ‘That ain’t right. We can do better, and we deserve better.’”

As more and more Lincolnites expressed interest in owning a pantry, Reinmiller and his wife, Melanie, created a Facebook page to facilitate communication and coordination. 

More than 36 pantries have been installed in Lincoln so far. The increasing number of Little Free Pantries indicate a pressing issue in the Lincoln community – food insecurity.

The U.S Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake due to limited social and economic conditions. Approximately 225,580 people were food insecure in Nebraska in 2019, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that includes more than 200 food banks in U.S. communities. 

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Reinmiller said. “There have been times where I’d be out watering my yard and a lady would pull up in her van with screaming kids in the back. She’d be in tears as she unloaded the pantry.”

The pandemic has only made things worse. Some time after the government stopped sending out stimulus checks to low-income individuals in late 2020, Reinmiller saw a lot more people visiting his pantry. He would have to restock the pantry up to five times a day. 

A 28-year-old Lincoln woman who wanted to remain anonymous frequented the Little Free Pantries near the Malone Community Center and C Street at least four times a month. 

“We were out of work for a bit because of the pandemic,” the woman said. “It just seemed like one issue after another, so I started using the pantries. They didn’t solve my problem, but they made things easier.” 

She would visit the pantries for milk, diapers, spaghetti, canned sauces and fresh fruits and vegetables. The visits enabled her to reduce her expenses, and she was very thankful that the hosts took the time to install and restock the pantries. 

“I don’t need to stress as much about making it to Foodnet,” the woman said. She added transportation was an issue for her. Plus, Foodnet’s distribution site changes daily. 

While numerous Lincoln-based non-profit organizations are committed to relieving food insecurity, many people who are already struggling with poverty lack the means to get themselves there. 

“I have lived at 23rd & P Street for about seven years now and seen the need for support for the community,” Ernst said. “We have a lot of people who don’t have cars, so transportation is a challenge.”

The bus system, Ernst pointed out, has limited functionality. 

“Even if you could walk or bike to a site, it’s getting home with the goods,” Ernst said. “You can’t carry these things in your arms or on a bike because there’s a lot and it’s heavy.”

As for the demographic of people who are using the pantries, both Reinmiller and Ernst said that it varies. 

From what Ernst could observe, mothers with children come up to use the pantry the most. Other than that, the users are usually adults who would either walk or bike. It’s uncommon to see people pull up with their cars.

“People have pride, and they can go empty at midnight,” Reinmiller said. “You might not be very proud to go get it in the middle of the day, but you can go at one in the morning and no one will see.”

It took some time for Reinmiller to learn what the community needs.

“Items that are in high need that I was unaware of are toilet paper, feminine hygiene products and cereal,” Reinmiller said.

Reinmiller explained that the reason cereal is in high demand is that people who are struggling often don’t have their gas turned on. They won’t be able to cook, but they will be able to enjoy cereal and canned food. 

Some of the items one will typically find in a Little Free Pantry are canned sauces, canned meat, tuna or salmon packets, crackers, cereal and personal care products like razors, toilet papers, shampoo, body wash and detergent. 

Unfortunately, canned foods will not do well in the winter. They can burst under low temperatures. 

“The nice thing about the winter is that you can actually put frozen food in there, and it’ll stay frozen,” Ernst said. 

Bologna sausage, hot dogs, lunch meat and frozen fruits are food users should expect to see as winter settles in.

Aside from taking goods from the pantries, Lincolnites are welcome to pull up to a pantry and load it up with their own donations. 

Reinmiller tells every single person who shows up to fill his pantry this: “It takes a village, and I’m really damn happy you’re in my village.”

Having done this for nearly two years, Reinmiller said he was proud of this project.

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Michael Reinmiller’s son, Jack, is three and a half years old. He’s named after Jack James, a volunteer Michael met when he was attending Lincoln High School. “I named my son after him because he was the kindest person I ever met,” Michael said. Although he can’t carry much, Jack is determined to help his dad restocking the pantry with “gifts” every day. Photo courtesy of Michael Reinmiller.

“What I’m really excited about is that 10 years from now I’m going to be able to tell Jack that his dad and grandpa helped, I don’t even know, thousands of people in the city of Lincoln during a really rough time,” Reinmiller said. 

Even then, he knows he owes it to the Lincoln community for creating awareness for Little Free Pantries by either hosting one or making monetary or material donations.

“This has only been a success because everyone else has stepped up,” Reinmiller said. “I was just a squeaky wheel saying, ‘I want a box in my front yard.’ That’s really how it started. People enabled me. It wasn’t me. It really wasn’t. I was just surrounded by some brilliant people.”