When I arrive at the Tucson Free Pantry for the first time, I feel as though I’m in a garden, or at a farmer’s market, more than at a food bank. I hear live music playing in the courtyard of the Historic Y, where the Tucson CSA has set up its weekly food pick-up. I hear birds chirping from the shady Palo Verde tree overhead. As a student at the University of Arizona and resident of Tucson, I’ve walked and biked by this spot many times. It’s not that I haven’t noticed the Tucson Free Pantry before. Rather, the pantry – established only a few weeks earlier – already feels at home in the neighborhood, like it’s been here forever.
The Tucson Free Pantry is a small, beautifully constructed wooden cabinet, set just off the sidewalk on University Street. A four-pane glass window looks in on two shelves stocked with an assortment of food items. I’ve opened the front door and am admiring the current variety of donations when Chaparelle Mogavero-Cline, founder and director of Tucson Free Pantry, arrives.
Chaparelle Mogavero-Cline started Tucson Food Pantry (TFP) as a way to meet immediate and local food needs in Tucson, and as a way to combine her passions for community, education, and sustainability. Her goal is to promote health and food security and eliminate food waste by installing self-sustaining neighborhood food pantries. Tucson is home to several successful food banks, but TFP offers an entirely different approach. As Mogavero-Cline explains, “Food pantries require applications and have set hours of operation. Anyone may access the TFP at any time.”
As we talk, students bike by on their way home from school. Families pick up their weekly CSA share. The streetcar stops to let passengers off. I mention that this seems like a surprisingly high-traffic area. Mogavero-Cline nods. This is exactly the point. Her goal is to build pantries that are as accessible as possible, both for donors and for people taking food. This is, perhaps, the most unique aspect of the TFP model. Mogavero-Cline explains, “Whether stocking or taking stock, everyone approaches the TFP the same way, mediating the shame that accompanies need.”
In every Tucson Free Pantry, there’s a sign that says, “Take what you need, give what you can.” As I watch people come and go, stopping occasionally to ask what we are doing, I realize that this tiny pantry is living up to its mission. The Tucson Free Pantry is for everyone, a community effort to inrease food security, to reduce waste, and to foster a sustainable food culture in Southern Arizona.
The Tucson Free Pantry draws on models of other community-based organizations, namely Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that fosters book exchanges around the world. Little Free Libraries come in many shapes and sizes, but often look like small, enclosed wooden bookshelves, perched by the sidewalk, through which people can exchange favorite books with passing neighbors. The Tucson Free Pantry operates on a similar model: people walking by the pantry can stop any hour of the day to take or donate food.
Mogavero-Cline’s vision for the organization is twofold: to build more pantries throughout Tucson, and to establish partners throughout the city so that each pantry is self-sustaining within its local community.
This is already happening at the first TFP location, right outside the Historic Y (738 N 5th Ave). Mogavero-Cline explains that although the Tucson Free Pantry organization stocked the location initially, the community has filled the pantry ever since. The pantry is stocked, she explains, by “local businesses and organizations, local farms and community garden members, University of Arizona students, food banks and others, such as yourself, if you are able.”
The Tucson Free Pantry team recently installed a second location at St. Marks Presbyterian Church (3809 E 3rd St). The team is working to spread the model of the free pantry beyond Tucson, and has already provided support for pantry installations in Georgia and Tennessee.
How can one donate to the Tucson Free Pantry? Coordinating a donation is arguably one of the easiest things you can do. Find the location nearest you and drop off some unused, non-perishable food. No donation is too small! The pantries are open 24/7 and require no code or application. Volunteers can also help the organization by building or maintaining pantries, or by coordinating larger donations.
What might one find in, or donate to, a Tucson Free Pantry? On my most recent stop, I found a variety of food items: boxes of dried pasta, bags of rice, cans of soup, and jars of homemade jam. Mogavero-Cline, herself an avid gardener, told me about the recent abundance of broccoli in her community garden plot. The TFP allowed her to share some of this produce, which otherwise might have gone bad. TFP donations are not limited to edible items: essentially, any unused item that you can find at a grocery store – and that won’t go bad as it sits in the unrefrigerated shelf – is fair game: school supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, tissue, personal hygiene items, soap, toothbrushes, etc. TFP asks that people refrain from donating sharp items, such as shaving razors or kitchen knives, or highly perishable items, such as meat, eggs, or dairy. As I sort through the items, complimenting a deliciously fragrant grapefruit, she reminds me that as Tucson shifts into summer, produce will be harder to store in the pantry, so the preference is for non-perishable goods.
The beauty of the Tucson Free Pantry lies is its accessibility. TFP is always open, always available as a place to pick up food items in a moment of need, or to drop off items rather than throw them away.
I look forward to seeing these small pantries make a big impact as they spread throughout Tucson.
For more information, or to get involved, find Tucson Free Pantry online: