Vancouver free pantry aims to tackle food insecurity in Marpole

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Over the past year, Marpole community members have come together to try to solve a big challenge in their neighbourhood: a lack of food.

Known as the Marpole Little Free Pantry, a small cupboard on the corner of Marpole Park at W 72nd Ave. and French St. is one way this community is trying to address food insecurity.

“Most of the community is low income, lots of BIPOC folks, disabled folks and elders, so we’ve known there is an issue of food insecurity for a long time. It became even more clear during the pandemic,” said Amal Ishaque, one of the organizers and founders of the Marpole Mutual Aid Network (MMAN), a grassroots community collective that created the pantry.

Food insecurity has increased in the past year, resulting in a higher turnout of more than 200 people to the local food bank hub at St. Augustine’s Church.

“The line-up used to be a block long that enclosed the church. And now it’s about five to six blocks long,” said Heather Ferguson, who lives nearby and donates regularly to the pantry.

As witnesses to the overwhelming struggle faced by neighbours, MMAN created the pantry after struggling to find charities that saw eye-to-eye with its mission.

The Marpole Little Free Pantry is situated on the corner of W. 72nd Ave. and French St. in Vancouver. (Photo by Arrthy Thayaparan for NEWS 1130/CityNews Vancouver)

Ishaque believes the pantry has been even more successful through organization and support “with and by the people who are affected by the issues.”

“Word started to spread before we even had an outreach plan, and it’s just really taken off. It’s being embraced, not just by people in Marpole, but people have come from Surrey and come from Kensington. They’re keeping an eye on our social media and keeping an eye on what needs to be filled.”

Filled with cans of soup, beans and vegetables, a few packs of noodles, some ziploc bags full of candy, and a hefty supply of tampons, the pantry was emptier than usual on Thursday, according to Carole Pruden, a Marpole resident who went to donate bags of rice to the box.

“The last time I was over here, I saw a teddy bear and things for children. And you don’t always think that people need sanitary supplies, so that’s quite thoughtful too… I have a home and I’m not wealthy, but I can afford to share. So I think it’s important to give back and share with others,” she said.

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Over the past few weeks, the pantry has also been known to contain ethnic food items not typically found in regular grocery stores.

“We really wanted to signal that this pantry is for everybody, and that includes all our multiracial communities in Marpole… And through Chinese items and South Asian items, we’re trying to show that this place is for everyone and we’re trying to address all [community] needs,” Ishaque said.

While support for the pantry has been overwhelming, so too has been its use, Ishaque says.

“[The pantry has] been really heavily used … Many days, you can find it empty, but then it’s filled again by community. So we’re doing the maintenance of it as well as filling it and we have a little bit of funding for that, but often it’s filled without us even having done anything.”

The pantry is fueled on a “take what you need, and give what you can” system, oftentimes with individuals donating throughout the day and those in need taking some of the food at night.

But there’s a limit to what can be included in the pantry, especially in terms of fresh produce.

Other communities in Vancouver have resolved this issue through the use of community refrigerators, meanwhile the pantry asks generous donors to take produce to the local church or food bank instead for immediate use.

The Marpole Little Free Pantry is situated on the corner of W. 72nd Ave. and French St. in Vancouver. (Photo by Arrthy Thayaparan for NEWS 1130/CityNews Vancouver)

Meanwhile, as a longtime resident in the area, Ferguson believes the success of the pantry could also be used for another community issue.

“There’s been a multitude of overdoses in this area… So I’ve emailed [the MMAN] to co-partner with me to be putting out safe narcan kits. So that people, if there is an OD, that there is a designated spot to go to that’s safe,” she said.

The MMAN now plans to continue its progress by creating a network of pantries across the Lower Mainland.

The aim of the network is to not only to address issues of food security, but to create a much-needed sense of community after relative isolation through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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