Community pantries unwinding the toilet paper crisis

Emma Davidson 5 May 2020
Dan Nahum standing next to a large wooden cupboard with glass front and canned food visible inside. A sign next to the cupboard reads "Community Pantry"

Dan Nahum at the Hughes Community Pantry. Photo: Supplied.

At a time when supermarkets are struggling to keep stock on shelves and toilet paper is a prized possession, a small group of Canberrans has banded together to build community pantries.

Dan Nahum, who established community pantries in Mawson and Hughes in the past week with help from friends, describes a community pantry as “a shared resource that’s a cross between a street library and a supermarket shelf”.

A church has also set up a community pantry in Lyons.

The pantry is a weatherproof, animal-proof cupboard in a public space. People with long-life goods to spare can leave items in the pantry, and people who find themselves in need of food or toilet paper can take what they need. A sign next to the pantry asks people to give what they can, and only take what they need.

“It’s a safety net,” Mr Nahum said.

The community pantry concept is based on the idea that we don’t have a scarcity of resources, we have a distribution problem. Some people hoard resources, while others go without. Those most likely to miss out on access to basic foods and household supplies are people who don’t have the cash to buy in bulk when they are available, don’t have the time or transport to go from shop to shop in search of what they need, are in self-isolation, or have lost their income as a result of the coronavirus and activity restrictions. People with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income households are most at risk.

“One of the great things about mutual aid is that it can be all sorts of different things to different people – as long as it’s people genuinely helping each other, it’s mutual aid,” said O’Connor street library and mutual aid organiser Tim Hollo.

“Pantries are a lovely part of it, offering each other food and a sense of connection which, in some ways, is the most important thing right now,” Mr Hollo said.

Mr Nahum said his interest in the project came from “the behavioural economics of unwinding the toilet paper crisis – if you can change the social context, you can change the behaviours”.

“Say no to fear and scarcity, and say yes to sharing and neighbourliness,” Mr Nahum said.

While he has been an advocate for raising the rate of Newstart Allowance for a long time, it was when the panic buying started that he realised he needed to take action around access to food.

“I suppose just realising how unprepared the system was for the influx of new claimants, the government is not doing as much as it could to support people, so we’re filling in the gaps,” he said.

Mr Nahum hopes that when people see a community pantry, they will think about what is driving the scarcity of resources and demand that our leaders take action to support those most at risk.

“I’d like at some level, maybe a very local level, to effect a change in how people think about scarcity, and reject claims by government and some others that we have to leave some people behind,” Mr Nahum said.


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