It started with a table holding garden-fresh strawberries — open for anyone to take, no strings attached.
The produce selection’s grown in the four years since then, as more people shared their extra squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapeños and poblano peppers.
Last year, the table collapsed under the weight of carrying all the donated produce, said Kate Lassila, who started the food-sharing system.
“It got so heavy it broke the table,” Lassila said. “Which is amazing when you think about it.”
Now, the idea has expanded to a pantry called Food is Free, and Lassila sees quite a bit of foot traffic from people taking items they need or stocking the shelves with donated foods.
The pantry is a combination of ideas Lassila got from other free community pantry programs across the country. She found a volunteer to build the pantry, which has a door, differently sized shelves, a solar panel and baskets to hold a few gloves and hats. It stands at 804 W. Prospect Ave.
How it works is fairly simple: there are no limits on who can take from or donate to the pantry.
“You’re generous when you give and mindful when you take,” Lassila said. “People try to not take everything all at once, just what they need.”
But she’s hesitant to claim ownership. It’s been taken over by community volunteers, and seems to be full of anonymously donated foods more often than not, she said.
“It runs itself. I go out there sometimes it’s not organized because (donations) happen so fast,” she said. “... We have a very amazing community in Norfolk that keeps it filled.”
Community response has been very positive, she said. As she cleans and organizes the pantry, she hears from people who use it regularly. It was especially busy during the partial government shutdown.
“A gentleman said he uses it every day,” she said. “The guys at the rescue mission, they come by a lot and are out all day looking for jobs, they come by and pick something.”
Emmalene Raasch, who lives in the neighborhood, said she’s heard people say the pantry has been a lifesaver. It’s also been helpful for her as a no-hassle alternative to use in conjunction with other food pantries in town.
“For me it’s easier than going to the (other) food pantries because there’s no hours on it (or) specific days,” she said. “I don’t have to fill out a bunch of paperwork to prove I live in this town.”
Raasch said she hopes the idea spreads to different spots in the area.
“I’ve seen somebody mention they wish there was one in their town,” Raasch said. “It would be really neat to see it be more widespread.
“There are a lot of people in need of that sort of thing.”
Lassila said there are plans to add another table for summer produce next to the pantry. There’s also interest in building another pantry in a different location in Norfolk. The project, which would take place in the warmer months, would involve donations, someone volunteering their land to house the pantry and volunteer labor.
All the support from volunteers has shown Lassila the generosity of Norfolkans.
“People are teaching their kids how to share, and be a participating active member of the community,” she said. “The response has been just incredible.”