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Feeding the hungry one Petite Pantry at a time

Austin mom's project provides anonymous way for families to access food

Nicole Villalpando
The Petite Pantry at Central Christian Church is filled with easy-to-make food and some toiletries. [JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Jennifer Pugh had a dream. One of those crazy, comes-to-you-in-the-middle-of-the-night dreams.

She was in a little mountain town and there was a giant pantry of food that people could just take.

When she woke up, she wondered if such a place existed in the world.

So the Austin mom of three Googled the idea and found Jessica McClard, who had started Little Free Pantry in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2016.

Pugh, 39, discovered that there are now hundreds of these little free food pantries around the country, but she couldn't find any in Austin. She decided to bring them here by offering to pay for and install them if groups would host them.

She started Petite Pantry in January 2018, and the first one went up about a year ago. Pugh wrote letters to churches across Central Texas asking them to host one.

Now, five Petite Pantries have been put up at local churches. Pugh paints them bright red so that they will be noticeable and puts a Petite Pantry logo sticker on them.

"I wanted to brand it so people would catch on and want to do it," she says. 

Plus, "when you see a bright red box, it makes you feel good to know there are people who care."

Think of the pantries like a large mailbox with a glass-front door so you can see what's inside. There are different designs of the boxes. Some have shelves; some are two-sided. They hold about 32 average-size cans of food.

Pugh has recommendations of what to stock in there and when. Right now, with summer's heat coming, she's recommends not canned goods, because those can spoil, but packaged rice and beans, powdered potatoes, dry milk, nuts, flour, bread mixes, H-E-B gift cards, powdered drink mixes, freeze-dried fruits and other foods, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products.

It costs Pugh about $350-$400 to have a box built and installed. It's become a way for her family to give back. Her children, who are 8, 8 and 10, help paint the pantries, and husband Adam helps install them.

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She would love groups to agree to host them or to sponsor a box for another group to host. A good host will have a group of people contributing the food on a regular basis and will be in a high-traffic area.

You could do it as an individual, but you'd have to make sure it fit with your homeowners' association rules and that your neighbors are OK with people stopping by next door. It could be cost-prohibitive to keep it stocked if it becomes popular.

That's why Pugh reached out to churches first, thinking that many people could help stock it and it would be in a place that many people visit.

One of the churches that now has a Petite Pantry on-site is Highland Village Church of Christ, near Bull Creek Road and Hancock Drive. Minister Jason Butler says after talking to the church's elders and members, they decided to have Pugh install one in late summer.

He asks members to bring food throughout the year and even has had a Harvest Sunday in November to do a big food drive for the pantry. Two young church members have taken it under their wing to stock the pantry from the food collected every Sunday and Wednesday. He also stocks it.

"If I fill it on Sunday, it's empty on Wednesday," he says. "Anything I put out there is gone, if not the next time, then within that next week."

He's also noticed that someone in the neighborhood also stocks the pantry because he has found things in there that weren't collected by the church. It's "really neat," he says, and gives them more motivation to continue the project.

"Having the neighborhood get behind it is a way of reaching out more," he says. "It's about loving people and loving God."

For him, this project has been a way to educate his church that not everything they do has to have a Bible study with it or a program around it. "They've really been excited to get behind it," he says. The Petite Pantry is telling the neighborhood, "We're here to fill your need. We're not here to evangelize," he says. Though occasionally he has put a Bible study pamphlet in the pantry, and those have been taken as well.

"You just have to love on people," Butler says. "This is our way of saying we love our neighborhood, we love Austin."

Butler has never seen anyone take the food, so he doesn't know who is using the pantry. Occasionally, he has found some of the cans or package remnants on the property, but he just picks them up and puts them in the trash.

The fact that Butler doesn't know who is taking the food is exactly why a Petite Pantry is different from a food bank or setting up a food pantry inside the church. Sometimes, Pugh says, "People don't want to come in with hands out to a church. They can come when no one is looking. They are not looking to be judged."

Pugh says there are so many people who are hungry or who are having trouble keeping food on the table. "They may still have a car, they may still have a home, but they have starving babies at home."

The Petite Pantries "remind us there is still a problem despite programs and nonprofits. People still go hungry," Pugh says.

In five years, Pugh would like to see Petite Pantries throughout Austin, including at some businesses, especially downtown. She'd also like to see school groups and scout troops host one.

For Pugh, who has nothing against more formal, larger food banks, this feels more personable.

"I would like to see people remembering that we can give in a very simple way," she said. "These pantry hosts put food in and the next day it's gone. I would like more people experiencing that."

Petite Pantry

Find out more about Petite Pantry at

Petite Pantry locations

Central Christian Church, 1110 Guadalupe St.

Freedom Temple Outreach Ministries, 9221 U.S. 290 W.

Highland Village Church of Christ, 4716 Bull Creek Road

Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ, 11908 N. Lamar Blvd.

Family Worship Center, 2425 FM 1704, Elgin