Back in May, Kriston Capps ripped into the Little Free Libraries movement, with some decent arguments on his side.
Little Free Libraries are tiny huts where people can leave books, or take them, with no money changing hands. They’re intended, Capps says, to be a “heart-warming civic-minded gesture,” but he makes the case that they’re worse than that. The reality is that they’re “performative community enhancement,” he says, quoting a pair of soi-disant radical librarians. The argument goes that as “a highly visible form of self-gratification cleverly disguised as book aid,” the libraries “serve as a vehicle for virtue-signaling” much more than they actually serve a useful purpose.
The most persuasive part of the argument, however, is empirical: the Little Free Libraries are generally found in rich neighborhoods which are already well served by Big Free Libraries (or, as they’re also known, just “libraries”).
That’s why I’m not convinced by Capps’s attempt to read his argument across to pantries. Little Free Pantries are similar, on their face, to Little Free Libraries: they’re boxes where people can either donate or pick up food, toiletries, and the like. Sometimes, the two even appear side by side.
“The Little Free Pantry model is feel-good, curb-side philanthropy,” says Capps, “but some of the criticisms that apply to Little Free Library also stand up against the free grocery box model.”
As far as I can see, however, they don’t.
First, and most importantly, there aren’t large state-supported institutions which already have the capacity to provide all the food and toiletries that anybody might want, all for free. If there were no libraries, then the Little Free Library system would be much more important than it is.
Capps also complains that “an LFP can’t accommodate quantity or variety—much less fresh fruits and vegetables—and therefore should not be relied on for meeting pervasive need.”
This is a weird complaint, which I think is grounded in Capps confusing charity for philanthropy. Of course the little pantries should not be relied on for meeting pervasive need, that was never the intent. If there’s pervasive food insecurity in society, the only way to effectively address that is at the societal level – which is to say, by government. And so, let’s by all means try and build the kind of society, and the kind of government, which minimizes or even eradicates food insecurity. That’s a noble cause for any philanthropy.
But charity is different: it sees immediate need, in the here and now, and attempts to address that need, as imperfectly as it can. If two people need a can of beans, and you only have one can of beans, that’s no reason to withhold the can from both of them. Helping one person is better than helping none; helping a few people less than they need is better than not helping them at all.
Little Food Pantries are charity, not philanthropy: they’re a way of helping out at the margin. And yes, you can even leave fruit and vegetables in them, if you want. Food tends to leave the pantries quickly: there’s a very good chance that fresh food will be collected and eaten long before it goes bad.
Which is why I don’t like Capps’s “philosophical” objection to Little Free Pantries: the idea that “every free grocery box that goes up is an indictment of a meager social safety net”. I mean, yeah, sure, you can see them that way if you want, but by the same token, if looking at free grocery boxes helps prod you into doing something more systemic, then that’s just an extra bit of good they’re doing.
Capps is probably right that “a free grocery box is a sign of societal failure,” but to paint that as a problem with the grocery box is a classic example of shooting the messenger. Because it turns out that the messenger is doing a great job!
Free grocery boxes are good on a number of levels, beyond the direct utility of the groceries to the people who take them. People like to be able to give in different ways; it feels very different to take ten dollars’ worth of groceries and put them in a box than it does to donate ten dollars of cash to a food pantry. What’s more, if you’ve done the former for a while, that increases the likelihood that you’re going to do the latter.
Little Food Pantries are also a way of being able to visualize the effect that you’re having in the world: when you return to see that someone has taken the food you left last time, you know that it has directly benefitted a person or a family in your own town. And an empty food pantry is a reminder to keep on giving, for which there is no real corollary in the world of cash.
There’s also the fact that people who are donors one day can become recipients the next. There’s a stigma associated with food insecurity, and one of the great features of Little Food Pantries is that there are no judgments: if you have extra food you can leave it, if you need food you can take it. The community, in a small way, is coming together to help itself. It’s not trying to create a two-class system where some people give and others take; it’s just creating a resource for everybody. Finally, in contrast to Little Free Libraries, there’s no evidence that food pantries are being located mostly in rich areas.
Which is not to say that there’s nothing problematic about these things. Look at this Instagram post, for instance: it’s incredibly twee, and hipsterish, and even comes with a caption saying “too cute”. There’s nothing cute about hunger, or the need to alleviate it.
Overall, however, it’s a bit facile to take the real problems with Little Free Libraries, and to assume that Little Free Pantries suffer from the same ailments. They don’t.