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Meeting a Need: Downers Grove church's Little Free Pantry serves the community

Denise Cantrall restocks the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Little Free Pantry in Downers Grove. The pantry, which similar to the Little Free Library movement and located outside the church, is available to anyone in need of food.
Denise Cantrall restocks the St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Little Free Pantry in Downers Grove. The pantry, which similar to the Little Free Library movement and located outside the church, is available to anyone in need of food.

DOWNERS GROVE – A Little Free Pantry has been set up outside of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and congregation members can hardly keep it stocked, demonstrating a need in Downers Grove that many don’t see.

DuPage County often is seen as being well-off, said Denise Cantrall, co-chairman of the church’s outreach committee. But the county has been advocating more for education on the homeless population recently and St. Andrew’s wanted to do the same.

Cantrall helped set up the pantry after seeing one at another church and said the project took off. She and several other members of the congregation take turns making sure the pantry is filled with items such as apples, peanut butter, canned soup and oranges.

On Sunday morning, she said she put a squash in the pantry, only to find it gone by the time she came out of church.

“Our goal is to assist those who might need things, not to count or keep track, but to help that populations that might not otherwise get help,” Cantrall said.

The mission is pretty intense, Cantrall said, as the speed with which the pantry is emptied has been eye-opening. She said many people think Downers Grove doesn’t have a homeless community or a community of need, which is simply untrue.

Through the Little Free Pantry, which is a take on the well-known Little Free Library that many communities have adopted, Cantrall said help is provided not just to those who are housing insecure but also to those who are food insecure or deal with mental illness.

After the first few weeks, the church also noticed the pantry was being used by the elderly community, who have no source of income, she said.

“It’s not always just people on the street,” Cantrall said. “We have a lot of people that work more than one job and still can’t afford meals, and that’s not their fault. The point is that folks that need it … are getting what they need.”

Cantrall said people may not always understand the intricacies of need in the community, as some have questioned why the community needs an additional pantry when it already has FISH, PADS and others.

FISH, another local pantry the church supports, allows people to visit only once a month, Cantrall said. With the Little Free Pantry, some need can be met every single day.

Cantrall also said the Little Free Pantry provides a sense of anonymity that community members in need may not otherwise be able to enjoy.

“We don’t even know who these people are that we’re helping,” Cantrall said. “They can be anonymous, and for a lot of people that can be important.”

In addition to helping food insecure community members, Cantrall said she hopes the pantry is also raising awareness of an issue not many see. She said there is diversity in the economic status of the community, though many people don’t know there is a need.

Recently, the library hosted a series of events for homelessness awareness month in an effort to educate the community. Cantrall cited this and the church’s efforts as a step forward and said she hopes the community can become both more aware and more generous.

“When you go to the grocery story, pick up a bag of potatoes or something and just put it in the pantry when you’re driving by,” she said. “We don’t have to make a bit deal out of it … but for me, if I can spend just $20 a week helping feed someone else [then] that’s just a drop in the bucket, and it’s completely worth it.”

Cantrall said the church is heavily monitoring what is put in the pantry, so if community members would like to help support the project, they can drop items off at the church. The church’s office, 1125 Franklin St., is open between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. Residents also are invited to simply drop items off having labeled them “Little Free Pantry.”

The church is accepting pasta, canned soups, peanut butter, apples, oranges and other easy-to-open items. Items in glass containers cannot be placed in the pantry because of the cold weather, she said.

Considering the success of the project so far and the support of the congregation, Cantrall said the project is growing, and she hopes it continues to do so for a long time.

“We tend to lack in this society the ability to say, ‘Hey, maybe someone needs something that I can easily give to them,’” Cantrall said. “We need to take care of one another any way we can, [and] it doesn’t cost much for somebody to get dinner who may not have otherwise gotten it.”