On Hartford's Laurel Street, Tiny Food Pantry Offers Bean Dip With Side of Gratitude

At first glance, people say it looks like a birdhouse with a glass cabinet door, except this curious structure on Laurel Street is six feet tall and built for human give and take.

Perched on sturdy wooden posts along a residential sidewalk, the little food pantry on the edge of Carol Padberg’s lawn has a pitched roof and is painted warm, muted colors, mirroring the home behind it.

“I see single moms passing by with their strollers,” said Amina Seidi, 20, a UConn student who lives next door. “They’re looking at it and trying to figure out what it is. … But once you get closer, you figure it out: Oh, that’s a really cool concept. It’s subtle, too.”

Those mothers reach in and help themselves, Seidi said.

On a recent summer morning, the pantry with three shelves carried the usual food-bank staples — canned green beans and one-pound bags of rice and dried beans — along with a jar of Trader Joe’s fat-free spicy black bean dip, mild bruschetta topping and tins of sardines, anchovies and smoked mussels.

It’s food for anyone and everyone. No questions asked.

Similar to the Little Free Libraries that have popped up in neighborhoods in Connecticut and across the country, allowing strangers to casually donate or take a book from what indeed resembles a curbside birdhouse, the food pantry erected in Hartford’s Asylum Hill area functions in much the same way.

But unlike the easy cheerfulness of a book exchange, the pantry has become a daily reminder of the economic struggles that ripple in one of the nation’s wealthiest states.

For those involved in setting it up, the Laurel Street pantry has also been a symbol of collaboration, that neighborly communion when a collection of folks decide to pitch in.

“The whole energy of this project is that we all need help at times, and we all need to help at times,” Padberg said. “So as long as we’re humans, we’re going to be on both sides of that equation.”

Padberg, an art program director at the University of Hartford, is the first to say that the pantry wasn’t her idea. She volunteered to host it on her property, but it was Azua Echevarria, a Reiki practitioner and healing-focused entrepreneur from Hartford, who provided the catalyst in the form of a Facebook post.

About a year ago, Echevarria said, she came across a story on the internet about a community that had set up several food pantries that were modeled after the size, ease and anonymity of Little Free Libraries. It struck a chord: Around 2009, as she transitioned from a divorce, Echevarria said she was at a point where she needed food assistance from an organization in Avon.

“There’s a lot of shame and guilt when asking and receiving,” Echevarria said. She had also noticed several of the delightful, miniature libraries spring up in her leafy neighborhood in Hartford’s West End.

So on a private Facebook group called “West End Living,” she posted the story with a “dare, almost,” for neighbors to consider the tiny pantries. Her tone included a bit of snarkiness, she recalled, a “glimmer of doubt that it would happen.”

“My perspective is that it’s great to have Free Little Libraries,” Echevarria said, “but are you really going to have people who need food in front of your house?”

Padberg lives blocks away from the West End, and she responded almost immediately to the post. She remembered thinking that such a pantry was a logical piece of infrastructure, a relatively discreet, “small gesture of repair in an economy that’s not working for so many of the people in it.”

After experiencing the Connecticut suburbs, Padberg, an artist who likes to cultivate her own food, has lived on Laurel Street with her husband and their standard poodle Winona for the past two years, trying to use their home as “a site of production and generosity, rather than a site of consumption.”

While she was willing to host the pantry, Padberg responded that she couldn’t build it.

But John Meder could. The architect, who splits his time between Hartford and northeast Pennsylvania, also belonged to the “West End Living” group, and he offered his talents within a day or two.

Back in 1980, Meder said, he was one of the lead designers for the modernized Hartford Seminary. He has worked on Buddhist temples in Thailand and Planet Hollywoods in Europe, and now he enjoys small passion projects such as building kitchen cabinets and refinishing antique furniture.

After connecting with Echevarria and Padberg, Meder took back-of-the-envelope sketches to his Pennsylvania workshop in an old factory on a cliff overlooking the Delaware River. He built the pantry over two months this past winter, listening to his favorite tunes as he handled the oak trim, cedar shingles for the roof, marine-grade plywood for the siding and Mediterranean blue tiles that line the bottom shelf.

“It’s more complicated than it looks, because it’s like building a little house,” Meder said. “It’s got to be weather-tight. It’s got to last.”

Meder estimates he spent about 250 volunteer hours on the pantry.

“Sometimes you just have to ask,” he said.

Earlier this year, Padberg drove to Pennsylvania and loaded the pantry into the back hatch of her Prius. The structure was heavy enough that it needed to be set in concrete, so she perused the business listings and called up Hartford Fence Co. in May.

“We’re really busy. It’s insane,” said Jordan Conover, a tattooed Boston transplant who started his company in 2013. “Business has really taken off. It's gotten so big in a short amount of time.”

Padberg called and got the receptionist. Persistent, she called again and noted that she needed help for a food pantry.

When his office assistant relayed the message, Conover said, “It just had me stop in my tracks.”

About five years ago, Conover was a new dad who moved from downtown Boston, where he had worked in interior design, to Newington to be present in his daughter’s life. He had no friends here, no job and lived in a small apartment with no furniture. Out of work for three months, Conover said, he ended up volunteering at a Newington food bank, his own experience in give-and-take.

“I never thought that I’d be in the position where I was going to need to go to a food pantry to get food for me and my daughter,” he said. “It was just a crazy thing, how quickly it happens. But it made the difference.”

Conover got a job at a fence wholesaler, learned the nuts and bolts of the industry and eventually broke out on his own. In May, when Padberg asked if he could send out a volunteer crew, Hartford Fence Co. was overbooked. Within 24 hours, though, the owner had loaded his truck with wooden posts and bags of concrete and set out for Laurel Street, between Capitol and Farmington avenues.

“What’s the culture of my company? What do I stand for?” Conover remembered thinking. “My business stands for so much more than just doing fences, I think.”

Before stocking the pantry, Padberg gave her neighbors a heads-up and promised a six-month trial run. “I wasn’t sure this idea would be enthusiastically embraced at first,” she said. If problems arose, the pantry would get a new home, she told them.

Instead of apprehension there was enthusiasm, and neighbors have been contributing food when they can. Observers have noticed a lot of foot traffic among those giving and receiving.

“It kind of helps to bring the community together,” said Seidi, the next-door neighbor. “I feel that if every neighborhood could have something like that, it’s a really, really good thing to have.”

“THANK YOU!! so much,” read a handwritten note adorned with smiley faces that was left in the pantry weeks ago. “God bless you!!!”

If there is a worry about the portal in front of 202 Laurel, it’s that demand exceeds supply. Even with neighbors’ help and Padberg and her husband now budgeting $30 a week to re-stock the pantry, sometimes food is gone within minutes, she said, and the shelves can go empty for a couple of days.

As Padberg recounted these details in her living room, Conover, Meder and Echevarria sat nearby. It was early September and the first time they met as a group. Just like its construction, they agreed that the life of the little pantry is more complicated than it might seem.

Echevarria remembered how it felt bittersweet as she approached the pantry with a brown paper bag of nonperishable goods. This seed of an idea had come to fruition, but even giving can feel uncomfortable when you want no attention for it. She felt like she was being watched.

“It wasn't a whole celebratory, ‘Put it in the pantry!’” she said.

Conover tries to tune out the news, but even he couldn’t avoid the images from Hurricane Harvey, of people wading through floodwaters that had submerged their homes. And that got him thinking about the power of everyday generosity.

“You don’t have to wait for a disaster to love the people around you and want to help the people around you,” Conover said. “You can do it right now.”

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