By C. Rose Widmann
May 5, 2021
In downtown Lansing, a peculiar box sits outside of a local shop. It’s shaped like the T.A.R.D.I.S. from the popular British TV show “Dr. Who.” When the door is opened, food items line the shelves. These items are donated by the local community of Lansing and are free for anyone. Other stands like this around the Lansing area are not as colorful, but are still stocked with free food meant for the community.
While the idea of a free food pantry isn’t new, a modern push for these stands has been led by Food Not Lawns, a national organization dedicated to community aid. The organization offers a guide to all levels of free box aid: “A free box can be a cardboard box in front of the house, put out for a few days until the stuff is gone, or an established space in the community to which people take their surplus and look for what they need.”
What separates these stands from a community food bank is that there are no limits to access beyond transportation. Users can take what they need and are encouraged to give what they can, when they can. There is no proof of need or voucher system for the free stands, which allows many who don’t qualify for government assistance to get food for their families. It also aids the local homeless population by keeping them fed while in transit.
“When I was stocking stands last week, someone came by to see if there was any milk. There was, and he took some since it was the last thing he needed for dinner,” said a Lansing free stand volunteer. “He told me there were a couple of gentlemen who lived in the woods nearby who he has been helping, and that they were really grateful for the stands. They can save up for clothes and shelter instead of spending everything they had on food.”
These stands also combat food waste by giving local businesses a place to take their leftovers or soon-to-expire food. Local schools also participate by donating leftover lunch materials for families with school-aged children. There are also donations of non-food items for children in need, including toys and clothes of all kinds.
“There are different levels of need, and something as simple as putting out food without regulation makes such a big difference for people at all those levels,” said a Lansing volunteer. There is also a push to inspire younger generations to become involved with the community; some distributors bring their kids on rounds so they can learn to help people as a family.
The main source of information on the Lansing Area Free Stands comes from a Facebook group of the same name. The feed is mainly photos of restocked stands and community partnerships, but there are also calls for community aid and skillshares. Many volunteers begin by Facebook moderation, community management and offering skills or materials for new builds.
“The rise of mutual aid in the community means you don’t need anything special to be able to contribute. Maybe you can distribute, maybe you can clean, maybe you are an artist or good at social media. Everyone being able to give at whatever rate they are able to means there are a lot more resources going around than before, when volunteering meant only helping fully established programs,” said a Lansing area volunteer.
As the seasons change, volunteers are key in maintaining the stands’ cleanliness. Many of the stands in Lansing have cold storage made from non-functional refrigerators or coolers. These resources work best in colder weather and require rotated cold packs during the warmer months. Volunteers also sort the donations, making sure to check for expiration dates and rotten items.
At times, the donations can become overwhelming. Common problems with items include expired or damaged goods and dirty clothing, which volunteers dispose of. On days when there are multiple donations from large businesses, the task of sorting and distributing can be immense, but volunteers often work at the stands in rain or shine.
Some volunteers even run deliveries to disabled community members or to those who cannot find transportation. These types of volunteers are found through the Facebook community and donate their time to expand the accessibility of the site.
“For me, the Free Stands are a fairly accessible way for folks to give to others in their community and find food and other items that folks need, since they are outdoor and accessible 24/7, and larger than the little free pantries,” said Lansing Area Free Stands admin Samwise Figgins (they/them/theirs).
Figgins created the Lansing free stands with the help of their partner Casey O’Donnell (he/him/his) early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted to find a way to help others in Lansing who might be struggling with food security during the pandemic, so the pair reached out to Lansing Food Not Bombs to help buy produce, bag food and deliver it to folks.
The pandemic brought on safety concerns that required contactless ways to feed the community, so Figgins and O’Donnell reached out to LAMA (Lansing Area Mutual Aid) and started helping with storage, bagging and distribution of food with them through the Fledge.
From there, Figgins and O’Donnell worked on making pallet stands for The Fledge and other locations that agreed to host a stand. The first stand was constructed and moved to The Fledge during the hot summer of 2020, with the help of other volunteers.
“Without all the help from our distro [distribution] people delivering these donations to the stands, folks getting the word out and asking for donations, folks who donated coolers and food and funds for building supplies, our Free Stands hosts around the city, and Jerry and Shannon at the Fledge making space for a large pantry and refrigeration and to be the hub for distribution, none of this would have been possible,” said Figgins.
“The stands are a way for gardeners and farmers to give away produce and eggs and seeds and plants, folks to give away food they didn’t end up needing or liking or things they won’t use that they got from the food bank. It’s a place for local restaurants and schools and grocery stores to give away food that would otherwise go to waste. Where mask makers, hat knitters, and other folks who craft can give away the things they made. In a society that throws away whatever it can’t make a profit from, it’s a small space for the gift economy to thrive and folks to help each other easily.”
The free food stands often create a give-and-take relationship with the community they serve. People who take from them often return to donate later, or donate their skills instead. With how easy it is to set up a stand with recycled pallets, many donate their lawn space to start up another stand in the community.
Interested in starting your own stand? Join Lansing Area Free Stands on Facebook, and check out this resource for information on building your own.
C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a fifth-year senior pursuing B.A.s in English and theatre with multiple minors. This is their first semester with The Current, but they have been a contributor for HerCampusMSU since May 2020. C was most recently published in Otherwise Engaged: A Literature and Arts Journal. When not writing fanfiction or fantasy novels, C is competing for both the MSU club fencing and gymnastics teams. Insta: @C.rosewidmann