Community cupboard 

Local free pantries and community-minded citizens provide food for those who need it.

click to enlarge Plaza District community members refill Pine Pantry in front of Bad Granny’s - Bazaar almost nightly. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Plaza District community members refill Pine Pantry in front of Bad Granny’s Bazaar almost nightly.

Those in search of their next meal now have a reliable food supply thanks to the efforts of a concerned citizen actively taking steps toward caring for her community.

New to Oklahoma City, Aley Cristelli was looking for ways to connect with locals on a level that would allow her to give back. In May 2017, she founded Pine Pantry, a service that allows people in need to help themselves to a meal they might otherwise be unable to afford.

“I was feeling kind of homesick and not connected, and I wanted to somehow get connected to the community,” Cristelli said.

In cities across the nation, people were beginning to build food pantries small enough to be placed on curbside locations across town. Cristelli eventually caught wind of the idea, deciding it would be the perfect opportunity for her to get involved.

The concept is simple: build a pantry, stock it full of food and let people take what they need. Think Little Free Library, but with food and other necessities instead of books.

After conceptualizing the idea, Cristelli took to the streets. While local businesses and fellow community members were receptive to the idea, she was going to need city approval. Being the first of its kind in OKC, approving the pantry proved to be a rather unusual circumstance. Though the city didn’t require a permit, she made sure to inform them of her plans, going so far as to take the extra step of ensuring a thumbs-up from the health department.

All went according to plan. Shortly thereafter, Cristelli had the first pantry built, placing it in a location conveniently situated within the Plaza District.

Though she planned to establish only one location, the pantries became an immediate sensation, leading her to install five more in the span of less than two years. The sixth location was installed mid-January at Andrew Johnson Elementary located in The Village.

Currently, she’s faced with about 20 requests for new pantries. In the meantime, however, Cristelli stays focused on running the ones she already has.

“I don’t have any plans to expand at the moment. I know it will happen, but I work full-time, and so we really just want to do our best to make the most of our resources,” she said. “I just want to make sure the pantries we have are staying full so people can rely on those.”

click to enlarge Aley Cristelli helps feed populations in need through Pine Pantry pop-up food pantries. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Aley Cristelli helps feed populations in need through Pine Pantry pop-up food pantries.

Community effort

There’s no reason to doubt the fact that people are making good use of her pantries. One business owner estimated about 30-40 people were eating out of a nearby pantry on a daily basis.

With all the traffic coming through to utilize these available donations, Cristelli can only do so much. Community members have therefore taken it upon themselves to keep the pantries stocked.

“They truly are community-supported, so the community looks after them,” she explained. “The community is the one who stocks them; we just provide the space for people to give back.”

Included in this community are the business owners who also do their part in maintaining abundant resources within the pantries.

Pine Pantry’s first location, which now sits in front of Bad Granny’s Bazaar in the Plaza District, has become a staple for the area and its visitors. Just ask Bad Granny.

“We kind of have a running theme in the district to help the homeless rather than just shoo them away,” said Diana Harris, owner of Bad Granny’s Bazaar.

Harris said she offers incentives for people to keep the pantry full. For example, she has been known to offer a 10 percent discount in her store for those willing to put food or other items in the pantry.

But that’s not enough to keep it stocked around the clock. The pantry relies on the generosity of passersby or other individuals who feel it’s worth their time to look after the less fortunate.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for what happens out there,” Harris said. “It’s just when people have a hankering to fill it up, they’ll stop and put food in.”

She told the story of a mother and her son, standing in the bitter cold to pile in mittens and hats along with a whole assortment of other goods in an effort to prepare the homeless or those without heat for frigid temperatures that invariably accompany the winter season.

Whether it is people dropping in leftovers so someone can have the chance to enjoy a holiday meal or others who make adding small items a daily routine, ongoing donations are keeping the pantry alive.

Cristelli recalled one incidence where a couple began giving back to the community that helped keep them afloat in a difficult time.

“There was this family in the Plaza District that used that pantry,” she said. “Both the husband and wife had been laid off, and then they both ended up getting jobs, so they used the pantry for a few months and then they were actually able to then donate to the pantry once they got back on their feet.”

When the pantry was first established, Harris made sure to keep a close eye on it. As Cristelli had no way of knowing who was taking what and how much, Harris took it upon herself to ensure no one was taking more than they needed. Eventually, she backed off from her role as neighborhood cop, instead adopting a more hands-off approach, trusting people to act responsibly and treat the pantry with respect.

So far, it’s working. Harris said the pantries are usually stocked in the mornings and gone by the time she leaves. By the start of next day, the pantry will be stocked full, readily awaiting its usual customers. There might be a dry spell on Saturdays and Sundays, but things eventually start picking up again early in the week.

For instances of damage, maintenance and general restocking, Cristelli hosts general fundraisers to finance whatever she can. With a background in nutrition and public health, fundraising was a sort of unfamiliar concept. But she pulled through, hosting small events like food drives to raise money for her cause. S&B’s Burger Joint, for example, donated a portion of its proceeds to Pine Pantry for every burger purchased.

Thanks to the hard work and generosity of everyday citizens, Pine Pantry will likely have a bright future ahead of it, continuing to service those in need.

“Oftentimes, we have notes from people just saying ‘thank you,’ which is obviously not the reason we do it, but it’s a good feeling when you see that,” Cristelli said. “No matter what the impact is, it’s definitely an impact.”


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