St. Rita, N.O., Thinks Out Of The Box To Fight Hunger

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By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

Last spring, as Father Peter Finney III was nearing Blessed Trinity Church during the annual “Good Friday Walk” to more than a dozen churches, his eyes were drawn across Broad Street to an elevated, fire-engine red cabinet outside Broadmoor Community Church.

Upon closer inspection, Father Finney, the pastor of St. Rita Church in New Orleans, discovered the cabinet’s padlock-free door opened to reveal an assortment of food available to anyone who desired a ready-to-eat meal, or who might need a few canned or boxed items to supplement meals cooked at home.

The priest had stumbled upon New Orleans’ very first “Little Free Pantry” (a.k.a., “The Little Red Box”). He liked the simple, hunger-busting slogan plastered across the pantry’s glass door: “Take What You Need. Give What You Can.”

“It’s striking – it’s so big and it’s clear that it’s not a little lending library,” said Father Peter, whose parish went on to erect the city’s second Little Free Pantry in October, outside St. Rita Church at the corner of Pine Street and Walmsley Avenue.

Non-profit does set-up

To get the ball rolling, Brittany Breaux, the social worker for St. Rita School and Parish, met with Janie Glade, whose “Gladewaves” non-profit initiative had erected the pantry at Broadmoor Community Church. Gladewaves supplies the volunteers to build the outdoor pantries and also agrees to stock them weekly during their first six months of operation.

“The idea from there is for the (host) church and the community to help put into it what’s needed,” Breaux explained.

Accessible snacks, meals

Open 24/7, the pantry’s most popular items include granola bars, honeybuns, cheese and crackers, tuna, Vienna sausage, canned ravioli, ramen noodles and the occasional bag of fresh fruit. Pre-packaged items such as red beans and rice, mac and cheese and pasta also area available to round out family meals.

“What’s unique about it is that it’s very accessible, because we’re stocking it with items that you can pop open and eat right there,” Breaux said. “It’s nothing that you really have to heat up; you don’t need a can opener to eat the meal.”

Breaux said the “most rewarding” aspect of the Little Free Pantry is that it removes barriers and stigmas sometimes associated with traditional brick-and-mortar pantries. No one ever hovers over those who browse through St. Rita’s diminutive pantry.

“There are no questions asked,” Breaux said. “They can go five times a day if they want; they can go weekly if they want; they can take the whole pantry if they want, if they feel that’s what they need,” she said. “We don’t need to know where they live; we don’t need their driver’s license or their address. They just go and get what they need and then they can go about their day.”

Church partnership thrives

Broadmoor Community Church – the site of the city’s first Little Free Pantry – was already on St. Rita’s radar. Since 2017, St. Rita has partnered with Broadmoor to provide supplemental food at the latter’s large interior pantry – a Second Harvest site that provides food twice a week to about 300 families. For more than a year, St. Rita parishioners, members of the school family and others have been encouraged to place donations of non-perishables in a box in St. Rita’s vestibule, with an extra push made on first Sundays.

“We’ve been getting 400 pounds of non-perishable items at a time,” Father Finney said. “We thought, let’s build this up, so when we get to the point where we’re responsible (for stocking the Little Free Pantry), we can easily restock it.”

Overflowing generosity

Dovetailing with St. Rita’s  outreach efforts is the parish’s commitment to keep the physical church open daily from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“We saw folks in the neighborhood come into the vestibule to look through our box of food, and we thought, ‘This is what the purpose is. If they need the food, then come and take it,’” Father Finney said. “Putting the pantry out front kind of makes it a little clearer for everybody to see (the ministry).”

Father Finney said the free pantry arose from a fundamental question that informs much of parish life at St. Rita: What can we do to help people with their immediate needs? He said some might assume that a relatively small, land-locked parish like his might not support a lot of outreach.

“But people, when they see a tangible need, really respond to it. We’ve been overwhelmed,” said Father Finney, noting how parishioners stepped up to bring in winter coats and diapers at recent drives. “People were just pouring in with some of these things,” he said.

The church also partners with Xavier Community Outreach Center, donating its poor box proceeds to rental and other in-kind assistance administered by the center; and during Advent, parishioners are being asked to bring in items for a different agency every weekend. This year’s recipients are the Woman’s New Life Center, Orleans Parish Prison, Eden House (a home for the victims of human trafficking) and the Rebuild Center at St. Joseph Church.

Since erecting the pantry, St. Rita has received phone calls of gratitude for “the only hot meal my family has had this week,” Breaux said. One couple, who showed up at Breaux’s office requesting food assistance, was escorted to the Little Free Pantry before being given privacy to take from the shelves whatever was needed.

“A few minutes later (the wife) came up bawling her eyes out and said, ‘I know now that I have a meal for a few days,’” Breaux said. “When a parish knows that you provide that to a family – there’s nothing more satisfying than that! How amazing is that!”

For more information, call Brittany Breaux at 866-3621, ext. 3212.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.