Veronica Van Gogh hosted a Little Free Library for a year. She loved managing the book-sharing cupboard in front of her house, being a librarian and a curator, and meeting her neighbors.
“The experience led me to think about creating a kiosk or some public space where people could share other resources, particularly food, like fruit from home fruit trees,” Van Gogh said. “Instead of having a messy free bin, we wanted to elevate the food off the ground and give it some respect. And do something positive and uplifting for our neighbors to draw us closer as a community.“
So in October 2020, with the help of her architect and furniture-designer husband, Henry Gutman, Van Gogh set up the Rose Street Food Pantry, a modular stack of four wooden boxes outside her Westbrae neighborhood home, where she and others can share food and other items. The project weaves together many of Van Gogh’s interests and connects her with her community.
“We’ve met more of our neighbors over the last four months than ever before.”
Van Gogh, a graphics and web designer, has a long history with volunteer service projects. She hosted a Street Store, a global project that relies on volunteers to coordinate pop-up stores to supply homeless people with free clothing. She has done outreach on Harrison Street, offering residents living in their vehicles water, dog food, hygiene kits and other supplies, and volunteered her time to many other efforts offering support to unhoused people.
Neighborhood food sharing efforts are increasing throughout the country. The Little Free Pantry project is a grassroots organization advocating the use of tiny pantries to help address food insecurity. The Town Fridge and Freedge promote access to healthy, free food using community refrigerators.
Some neighbors, like Kai Mitchell, were at first unsure about Van Gogh’s project, concerned it might draw rodents or create other problems.
“My initial concerns quickly proved to be unfounded,” Mitchell told me in an email. “What changed my mind was seeing, right away, that the pantry is used at all hours of the day and by many people. We live in a big walking and biking neighborhood, so people are passing by constantly all day long. It’s clear the pantry is used and supported by everyone in the community, from neighbors who are in need, to folks living in their cars, to people walking by who are curious, and those who enjoy sharing food and participating in this amazing ‘experiment’ that Veronica has started.”
Van Gogh works hard to ensure the offerings are appealing. “The format lets me curate to make sure high-quality food is on offer. I try to keep the bar really high. I buy about $150 worth of supplies from Target every two weeks, and receive donations from neighbors, individuals and local businesses.”
Stephanie Mackley, a neighbor and gardener, has shared daikon radishes, lemons, butternut squash, seeds and other items. Mitchell works for Danville-based food distributor Organic Foods International, which contributes samples like coffee, cookies, canned goods, soups, grains, cooking oils and snacks to the pantry. The Berkeley Free Clinic has donated 300 pairs of Bombas socks and have committed to bring more. The Chinese American Charity Without Borders has donated 1,000 N95 face masks, 100 goggles and raincoats. And Berkeley’s Acme is supplying bread.
“That was really cool,” Van Gogh said. A list of items currently needed can be found on her website, East Bay Angels.
“We did a neighborhood food drive at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Van Gogh said. “I dropped off gift bags with invitations to my neighbors, inviting them to fill the bags with food and leave them on their porch. The generosity was mind blowing.”
The pantry is used mainly during the day by people passing by on foot. “On average, probably 40-50 people every day give or take something,” Van Gogh said. The pantry operates on an honor system.
“When we first started, we had some instances of people driving by and taking everything. I left a note urging people to think of the person coming after them, and that seemed to fix the problem. It also seemed to produce more donations.”
Heartfelt thanks penned in notes on a gratitude board posted inside the unit testify to the appreciation many feel for the offerings. The project also delights those doing the giving.
“There’s something so exciting about putting something in there and discovering it’s been taken,” Mackley said. “My kids are 11 and 7, and have said how special it feels to give people things.”
I spoke with a 62-year old man who preferred to remain anonymous, who told me he grew up in Berkeley, but is now homeless. He said he takes items from the pantry, but also likes to leave things when he is able. “I try to look for little opportunities to do good things for the community.”
“A big reason the pantry works is because Veronica manages it every day,” Mackley said. “It has a nice, tended vibe.”
Van Gogh spends about 15 minutes a day maintaining the pantry.
“I stock it every morning, clean up if necessary, before dinner, and sometimes around 8 p.m. I wipe down the pantry and shelves every day to keep it really clean. There’s always hand sanitizer. There’s only one pull for the cabinet. It’s not a high-touch unit.”
Other tasks, like shopping, processing donations, writing thank you notes, working on the website, require about three hours a week.
“People really do want to give and help those in need,” Mitchell said. “We sometimes don’t know how to do that in the most effective way. Starting a food pantry is so effective at a local level. The impact is seen right away.”
“The idea isn’t for this little pantry to serve all of Berkeley,” Van Gogh said. “Ideally, I hope it will inspire others to undertake similar projects on their own streets. It’s a way to be generous.”
Rose Street Food Pantry is on the corner of Rose and Belvedere streets in Berkeley. The pantry is open 24 hours a day. Learn more on the East Bay Angels website or contact Veronica Van Gogh directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information about the project.