Little Free Pantry opens at Charles Houston, bringing resident’s five-year dream to life

Little Free Pantry opens at Charles Houston, bringing resident’s five-year dream to life
Courtesy photo

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Those walking by the Charles Houston Recreation Center this weekend might have noticed something different.

Located right next to the rec center, with a fresh coat of blue paint and packed full of everything from peanuts to fajita kits, the new Little Free Pantry is the culmination of five years of work for Old Town resident Hope Nelson.

Little Free Pantries, which allow residents to donate as much as they want and take as much as they need, have sprung up across the country as part of a grassroots movement to provide short-term solutions for food insecurity.

“It’s not meant to be a food bank; it’s just meant to be kind of borrowing a cup of sugar. It’s meant to be a stop gap,” Nelson said. “… They’re all grassroots – some people have them in their yard, some people have them housed in their church or at a school.”

This particular pantry, located at North Patrick and Wythe streets, is the city’s attempt to dip its toes into this community-led effort and represents a partnership between Nelson and the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities.

In 2016, Nelson, a product manager at The Motley Fool, became aware of the Little Free Pantry movement and looked into whether the city had any pantries. While Nelson found one located at the Church of the Resurrection in the West End, it was clear the movement had yet to catch on.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, there’s a huge need all across the city for this, so I wonder if I could pitch in on this,’” Nelson said.

Courtesy photo

Born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, Nelson said that early on she learned the value of volunteerism and community engagement from her parents.

“It was nothing for my mother to go off one afternoon for a Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting, and my father to then go off and serve on a volunteer city board another evening,” Nelson said.

When Nelson moved to Alexandria in 2004 with her husband, she was eager to bring that spirit to a city that was already known for its strong nonprofit community and focus on giving.

“We’re such a huge city population-wise, but I find neighbors really do help neighbors a lot here,” Nelson said.

Because of that reputation, Nelson said she was surprised very few people or groups had explored the idea of the Little Free Pantry. After researching in late 2016, Nelson set out to build her own.

Nelson got her friend, a carpenter, to build the pantry itself, which is similar in construction to the Little Free Libraries scattered around town, and started shopping the idea around to various community groups in hopes of finding the perfect site. Much to her surprise, Nelson said, she struggled to find support.

“Some people weren’t quite sure what it was. They weren’t quite sure at first how this is going to work,” Nelson said.

Nelson received “no” after “no” and soon enough started to feel dejected. She put the idea on the shelf and resigned herself to the thought that this pantry would continue to sit in her basement, a relic of a long-forgotten dream.

She revived the idea briefly in 2020 during the pandemic, but Nelson found that many churches or nonprofits that would have otherwise welcomed the project, had already started their own food pantries to combat pandemic-induced food insecurity.

Then, as a last resort, Nelson reached out to Mayor Justin Wilson on Feb. 24. She figured he would, at the very least, forward her on to someone in the city, at which point her idea would languish in bureaucracy, she said.

Wilson responded almost immediately and expressed his support for the idea, before forwarding her to RPCA.

“To be honest, I thought it was going to be the toughest nut to crack because the city, they want to help, but it’s a conglomerate,” Nelson said. “It’s really big, and I was just not sure that I was going to get a lot of quick response. I’ve come to find out I got the quickest response from the city.”

Nelson was put in touch with Lucresha Murphy, manager of the city’s PARKnership program which has helped create some of the Little Free Libraries in the city. According to Murphy, the city had been approached in the past about similar ideas but could never find the right location. As soon as Nelson and Murphy settled on Charles Houston, they both knew it was the perfect fit.

“It gives the opportunity for those who can give to give, those that need to receive. We definitely saw a benefit in that community for that to be planted there,” Murphy said.

Not only is there constant foot traffic, but Nelson said the rec center is close enough to her house that she can check in daily with little hassle.

As of July 1, the eastern part of Alexandria has its first Little Free Pantry, and Nelson has seen her long dormant dream become a reality. Nelson said she will be stocking the pantry with nonperishable items herself until the community catches onto the idea and is able to provide stock without her assistance.

“I could definitely see myself volunteering with another one and getting it up and running. That said too, I would love nothing more than for this to take off in such a way that it’s a shared experience,” Nelson said.

Although the pantry is still a new addition to the neighborhood, Nelson said her neighbors have already contacted her about setting up their own Little Free Pantries. The city is also looking into partnering with residents on other pantries, depending on how successful Nelson’s project is. A list of residents and community groups who are interested in partnering with the city to create their own pantries is already forming, according to Murphy.

“This is actually our test with Hope to see how this runs and what the participation is like,” Murphy said. “With this unit there at Charles Houston and if things are managed appropriately and it’s working well, then we definitely do want to partner with other community members to do this throughout the city.”

It took almost five years for Nelson to cobble together her Little Free Pantry, but the blue box at Charles Houston is a testament not only to her perseverance but the community – whether it was her carpenter friend or the mayor – coming together in support of a good-natured idea.

“If I, who am not a carpenter by any stretch, can get this up and running with a little help from my friends – and a lot of help from my friends – then I think anybody can,” Nelson said.