Little pantries have Canberra origins down a quiet neighbourly street

Glynis Quinlan 31 January 2020

Curtin resident John Lovering with the little free pantry and little street library he built outside his home. Photos by Glynis Quinlan.

With street libraries taking off in the ACT, interest is starting to grow in a similar idea – little free pantries.

An offshoot of the street library concept, little free pantries stocked with donated food have become popular in America but only started in Canberra two years ago.

And interestingly, their origins here began down the same quiet neighbourly street in Curtin where street libraries here are thought to have started.

John Lovering began what is thought to be Canberra’s first official little street library outside his home in Cockburn Street about five years ago after he retired, but it wasn’t until two years ago that he built a little free pantry.

Having seen the success of his little street library and the way it created community spirit, it was an easy step to take but it began with a challenge.

John Lovering reads visitor book comments from the little street library he started five years ago.

“The little free pantry has a story behind it,” Mr Lovering said. “The story starts with a train trip to Melbourne. A vivacious lady sat next to me who was an artist and showed me all her artwork and it was fantastic. The only thing I had on my phone that I could show her was a little free library.

“Coming back on the train six months later, as we went through the same train station, the same lady sat next to me and she said ‘look what I found on the Internet, little free pantries. I’ll race you to make one’. I got there first, she hasn’t done hers yet.”

Curtin’s little free pantry started two years ago and is thought to be the first in Canberra.

In common with ‘lil street libraries’, little free pantries are easily accessible from the street and walkers-by can add to, swap something or take from them as they like. However, instead of being stocked with books, the little pantries are stocked with food.

The idea behind the little pantries is about neighbours helping neighbours – whether it’s providing food to those in need, having an opportunity to donate food, or just the fun of swapping surplus food with neighbours.

“This one here probably does more to swap produce with neighbours than it does to help people in need,” said Mr Lovering.

However, he said that sometimes if the little pantry has been filled up with food he will empty it and take it to Anglicare.

“I realise that our community isn’t one that’s food challenged and so it goes down to Anglicare,” he said.

The food pantry isn’t used as much as the street library but at times it provides a great place for neighbours to trade homemade and homegrown produce – such as eggs, zucchinis, jams and even homemade olives.

The Curtin free pantry is a great place for swapping surplus produce with neighbours.

In recent weeks, Canberrans have been expressing increased interest on social media in seeing more little free pantries in the city, particularly after SBS coverage of the topic.

“What a brilliant idea to have around our suburbs!! I always end up with extra bits in my pantry, would love to help someone who may be in need!” was one Facebook post on the Canberra Notice Board Group.

“What a lovely idea, wonder if we have any in Canberra?” was another.

A ‘Lil Street Libraries’ Facebook post late last year about little free pantries drew a similar reaction.

“Oh my gosh, what an amazing idea!” commented one person. “What a brilliant idea!!” commented another.

Greens candidate for the federal seat of Canberra, Tim Hollo, started the first Facebook-based Buy Nothing Group in Canberra in 2013 with a handful of friends and said that Canberra has a vibrant sharing community.

He encouraged Canberrans to consider setting up a little free pantry or another sharing initiative, saying that it builds on community connections and “gives people access to things they might need but might not have the capacity to buy”.

“Anyone I’ve talked to whose got involved in one of these things has found it a wonderful experience,” he said.

Do you think little free pantries are a good idea? Let us know in the comments below.

What's Your Opinion?

Please login to post your comments, or connect with

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Region Group Pty Ltd

Search across the site