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  1. Narratives

The little box that keeps on giving

Traffic at a Gulfport neighborhood pantry has tripled during the coronavirus pandemic.

The box is brown, with a glass face, sliding brass latch and, inside, two shallow shelves. It’s perched on a post in the library parking lot, on the main street into Gulfport.

It’s about the size of a medicine cabinet.

No one owns it. No one oversees it. No one asks questions.

Lime-green letters above the door say: Little Free Pantry. “Take what you need, give what you can.”

Every day, it empties, refills, empties again -- and provides food for dozens of families.

“We were worried people wouldn’t stock it. We were worried people would raid it,” said Margarete Tober, whose Gulfport Neighbors group planned the project three years ago. “But it’s working, somehow. So many people need help. So many want to help. Especially right now.”

During the coronavirus epidemic, Tober said, traffic to the box has tripled. People are donating everything from pickles to pineapples. And even folks who don’t have anything to give have found a way to help.

• • •

At the pantry, people usually drive up to drop off. Those who come to grab something are often traveling on foot or by bike. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

On a recent Tuesday, about 2 p.m., the box was half-full. A package of Quaker instant oatmeal sat sideways, on the top shelf. Beneath it, a box of thin spaghetti leaned against a jar of Prego marinara sauce.

Scott Pestana, 59, parked his bike on the curb and peered inside.

He had lived in Gulfport since 1977 but recently moved to a small house outside the town limits. His girlfriend is disabled. His landscaping work dried up during the lockdown. They spent everything they had on rent and utility deposits. They don’t have a car and couldn’t get to larger food pantries downtown.

“This here, this box, it’s a wonderful thing,” Pestana said, reaching inside.

He picked up the spaghetti. He had a jar of sauce at home, so he left that and the oatmeal. “No need to be greedy,” he said. He pedaled away, heading to the pier to fish for the rest of their supper.

• • •

The idea, Tober said, started when a pregnant woman walked into the Gulfport Senior Center asking for food. She was told their pantry couldn’t help her, because she wasn’t 55 or older.

After Tober heard that story, she kept thinking of the hungry young woman being turned away.

“There was nowhere she could go in Gulfport, nowhere close enough to get to on foot,” said Tober, 67, who moved to the waterfront town when she was 7. She talked to neighbors about the need.

Then, she said, she started seeing signs. Scrolling through Facebook, she found a page called “Little Free Pantry.” It included pictures of places throughout the country and a blueprint for building a box. Visiting her brother in Texas, she saw a free pantry in front of a cafe. Her niece told her about one near her college in Arkansas.

“We talked to a local woodworker,” said Tober, who retired from Tech Data. “Then we talked to the mayor. We were the first town in Tampa Bay to launch this.”

The first pantry opened outside Gulfport’s fire station in 2017. The Presbyterian church set one up soon after. The one at the library followed the next year. Tober didn’t have a plan to keep it stocked -- just hope that if they built it, folks would come.

“At first, we had a guy on a bicycle who’d bring a backpack and empty out everything. People complained,” Tober said. “So I saw him one day and asked him why he needed so much. He said he was feeding three families and taking food to his grandfather. I don’t know if I believed him, but the whole premise of this project is: Don’t judge.”

Most food banks require registration, identification, proof of age, income or dependants. Some people are ashamed to ask for help.

The box is always open. Never staffed. “It’s deliciously anonymous,” Tober said.

Many people come by after dark.

• • •

By 3 p.m. on that same Tuesday, the oatmeal was the only thing left.

Then a blue minivan pulled up. “Sit tight, Mom,” the driver told an elderly woman in the passenger seat, who was wearing a mask. “I got a bunch of stuff I gotta put in there.”

Anna Vlasno, 52, moved from New York to Gulfport to care for her parents years ago. A retired legal secretary, she now lives 50 blocks north, in St. Petersburg. But she still considers Gulfport home.

“I just do what I can here,” she said, unloading bags from the back of her van. “I feel bad so many people are hurting.”

Anna Vlasno shops for herself, her parents and those who might need help. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

She had gone shopping that morning, picked up groceries for herself, her parents “and whoever else might need them.” She stuffed the box so full the door couldn’t close.

Five tins of tuna. Four ears of corn. Three cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup. Two jars of JIF peanut butter -- crunchy and smooth. A loaf of bakery bread. Black beans, Fruit Loops, corn muffin mix. Six bags of turkey chili, ready to eat at room temperature. “Thought folks might appreciate a little protein,” Vlasno said.

Plus, a Publix apple pie for dessert.

• • •

A little more than an hour later, the shelves had been cleared out enough to shut the door.

The box is busiest between 4 and 6 p.m. Some people stop by every day to see what’s for supper. Others come only once, searching for something to tide them over while they wait for an unemployment check. Many take just one fruit cup from the six-packs, leaving the rest for strangers.

On this day, someone left a stack of AARP magazines. Someone else dropped off diapers and tampons.

Pamela Taylor and her boyfriend, Daniel O’Neill, rode up on three-wheeled trikes. She’s 70, lost her toes to diabetes, lives on Social Security. He’s 36 and on disability. “Age don’t matter,” he said, stroking her shoulder.

They don’t have a car and were out for a bike ride that afternoon when they saw the box. Taylor pulled down the sleeping mask she had turned into a face mask and slid back the latch.

“Oh my gosh! I can’t believe this. We just got blessed!” she told O’Neill. “I’m not going to be greedy. But wow! Peanut butter! And look! It’s the creamy kind.”

At the pantry, food comes and goes all day long. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

She put the jar in her bike basket, then looked up and saw the bread. “Okay, this is crazy. Bakery bread? Are you kidding? So much better than Wonder. Now I know what we’re having for dinner tonight. And tomorrow. And … ”

She was closing the door, then stopped. “Maybe we should get something for Max.”

Max is homeless and lives down by the beach. Taylor grabbed a can of vegetable soup and smiled. “He’ll like that,” she said. “It’ll go good with a peanut butter sandwich.”

By 6 p.m., the box was empty. An hour later, it was full again. Someone had left the most coveted commodity of all: Toilet paper.

On a recent night, Scott Pestana, 59, takes a few items for dinner. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

• • •

To find a food pantry near you, go to: www.foodpantries.org/st/florida

• • •

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