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Little libraries become food pantries during COVID-19
When the coronavirus emerged in the U.S., people who share books on a small-scale and countless others who wanted to help their neighbors saw a new need.
Boxes and stands offering free household goods, food, and other supplies appeared with signs saying take what you need.
Now there's a growing network of "sharing boxes" nationwide and many began as part of the non-profit organization-- Little Free Library.
Part of the routine for the Hillman family in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin is a daily walk and a visit to the Little Free Library they added to their front yard last summer.
Ashley Hillman: So this is our little library.
Nick Hillman: We'd never heard of these until we moved to Wisconsin about six years ago, and a lot of neighborhoods that we'd been walking through and had seen around town would occasionally have a little free library and we were curious about what they were,
Ashley Hillman: Once we discovered what little free libraries were, we were utilizing them. So I guess part of it is just for our own selfish needs to have an exchange of books.
Hari Sreenivasan: The Hillman's library is one of more than 100,000 of these book-sharing boxes installed around the world since the movement began in 2009.
After the first few weeks of Wisconsin's coronavirus stay at home order, the family wanted to be sure their little library box was still safe and meeting the town's new needs.
Ashley Hillman: We had books in the library and we just put a few cans of food in the library and then we noticed they were gone. So we thought, well, maybe there is a need here in our community.
Hari Sreenivasan: They weren't alone. Many stewards--all volunteers--began transforming their little free libraries.
Greig Metzger, the Executive Director of Little Free Library first saw pantry items appear on the organization's social media feeds.
Greig Metzger: The little free library network gives the the physical opportunity for people to connect. Right? And support each other as a community, even though they're not necessarily connecting physically, you know, right next to one another. So it's been, it's been great to see this unfold.
Hari Sreenivasan: The organization issued new guidelines on cleaning the little libraries as stewards began offering everything from hard-to-find toilet paper, to toys like Play-Doh and all kinds of foods.
In El Cajon, California, Alice Baker is maintaining her little free library.
Alice Baker: So everyday I try to come out and scrub it down and sanitize it and spray it down with Lysol.
Hari Sreenivasan: With libraries and schools closed, Baker sees an even bigger need to keep books on her shelves along with household goods.
On Staten Island in New York, Heather Butts is also keeping books on hand.
Heather Butts: So there are a new supply of books to the extent that the young people and everybody that goes to these little free libraries and can avail themselves of books, it's critical. And I think it brings a sense of normalcy, a sense of security, I certainly hope and a sense of stability to people that is warm and gratifying.
Hari Sreenivasan: To help connect people in need to these new "sharing boxes", Little Free Library built an interactive map in April.
More than 300 locations were added in the first few weeks, evidence that the little libraries may continue serving as food pantries well into the future.
Heather Butts: I think that COVID-19, has shown us that a lot of people were in a precarious situation prior to COVID-19. And now that they're in COVID-19, it's sort of tipped the scale, unfortunately, for a lot of people into a true truly, truly crisis arena. And that's not going to tip back immediately once the pandemic is over.
Hari Sreenivasan: In Wisconsin, the hillmans say they don't know who is coming and going from their little pantry but a surprise overnight restocking shows they're not alone in their desire to help others.
Ashley Hillman: The next day when we were walking by, the library was full again. And it was just, it was really touching because I think it showed us the community that we do live in, that, you know, we as the stewards of the little free library thought we would be the ones maintaining what is now the food pantry. But we're not. Our neighbors and our community are also doing that with us, which is just, it has just been really remarkable to see.