By Maria Lee, URC Church-Related Community Worker, Chelmsford
People on the North Avenue estate faced uncertainty. After 90 years of working with local people, North Avenue United Reformed Church closed (as a church) in 2018. Not long after the closure they were informed by Food Bank Chelmsford that North Avenue Christian Centre (NACC) was going to be closed as a distribution centre. The Jubilee Community Café (JCC) team, who worked with Food Bank Chelmsford at NACC, were very disappointed by this final decision.
North Avenue is one of the most so-called ‘deprived areas’ in Chelmsford. People’s needs for basic foods and personal care items are high. Following the closure of the Food Bank, people on the estate carried on knocking on the NACC’s door to get foods and essential goods. The JCC team did as much as they could by serving hot meals at a reasonable price twice a week at NACC. Nevertheless, I wanted to tackle the poverty-related social issues such as child poverty, hardship in lone parent households and mental health-related isolation. The team and I were keen to find effective ways of continuing to support people on the estate.
After a long discussion with the team, I found an interesting project called the Little Free Pantry (LFP). It began in 2016 in the United States. I contacted the founder, Jessica McClard who kindly explained how she started the project. LFP is a grassroots initiative and the concept is free for anyone to implement in whatever way they choose. I told Jessica about North Avenue’s situation and she encouraged me to adapt the LFP for our own context.
The LFP at North Avenue is for neighbours helping neighbours. If you have an extra tin of soup, you can leave it in the pantry, and then someone who needs the soup can take it. It is simple; you do not need to bring a voucher and there is no time limit to using the pantry. You can access it whenever you want to.
During the planning stage, concerns were raised about the possible misuse of the pantry, vandalism, for example and the potential for it to be used as a drug box, since the area has some drug-related issues. Although these are legitimate concerns, it was reassuring to find that during the three weeks prior to the launch day, the prepared space was not damaged at all. We had a launch event with local residents and church members. I shared the passage, from 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, about generous giving. A blessing was made over the pantry and we left the shelves full of useful items.
I went back the following day and was surprised to find the pantry was almost empty. I found an envelope in the back of the shelf which said, ‘Thank you’ and there was £1 coin in it. I felt overwhelmed. I am convinced that this kind of gesture shows a little step forward towards building a happier community and how to live more co-operatively.
When I discussed this new initiative with the JCC team, we decided to use Butterflies as a symbol for the LFP. The story of how the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly is a metaphor for the process of transforming states of consciousness from one dimension to another.
I pray that the LFP at North Avenue may be used as a tool for transforming an area where, in spite of poverty, people care for one another, give generously and develop a positive sense of community.
Please check the website below, if you would like to know more about the Little Free Pantry project.