Outside of the First Christian Church on Chapala Street sits a three-drawer metal filing cabinet filled with shelf-stable food, hygienic products, and clothing and shelter items — all free and accessible for anyone to take as they need or donate what they’re able. This would become the first of three “People’s Pantries” placed throughout Santa Barbara.
It all started in early 2021, when Julia Longo picked up a free filing cabinet off Craigslist. She had known about other community-based mutual aid projects in other areas, and she wanted to bring something similar to the Santa Barbara area, especially during a time of isolation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when she knew many people were struggling to access resources and basic necessities.
Longo shared her idea on Facebook, which attracted the attention of others who wanted to help. With her co-organizer Alexa Pazell and a mutual friend who was on the organizing committee for the church, they were able to establish a People’s Pantry.
Since then, two more pantries have been established at the entrances of the Central and Eastside branches of the Santa Barbara Public Library.
Longo and Pazell hoped the project would help cultivate a sense of connection in their community and allow people to build their own local support system.
“We had almost a year of witnessing and experiencing a lot of feeling left behind by larger systems and the state, and feeling helpless and hopeless,” said Longo. “We just wanted to build a community that we could rely on, that we could feel good about being a part of, and a network of people that care for one another.”
Initially, there were concerns about people taking advantage of the pantry by stealing or emptying out the stock, said Longo. However, she explained the whole point of the pantry is for people to take what they need, and if that means taking everything, then so be it. “It’s impossible to steal what’s free,” Longo said.
As a shared space, people are asked to keep the areas clean and to be mindful of the items they choose to donate, like providing non-expired, shelf-stable food items or gently used clothing. If it’s something that you wouldn’t offer to a close friend or family member, then you probably shouldn’t leave it in the pantry.
“If I wouldn’t offer it to my best friend, I don’t want to offer it to somebody that I don’t know,” Pazell said.
The pantries are maintained regularly by a volunteer system, with restocking and cleanings occurring every Thursday. These weekly check-ins became one of the main ways the organizers have connected with their neighbors.
“It feels communal,” Longo said. “It feels like us as neighbors have built something together, and we’re maintaining it and nurturing it together.”
Those visiting the pantry are also free to leave any feedback about what they’d like to see more of in stock through a comment box at the Chapala location or through the People’s Pantry social media accounts. Contributions also don’t have to be material — just simply giving your time to the project is appreciated, like offering to drive materials to various locations or offering to hold other community events, such as free barber shops, in the park.
“It’s cool to see that people want to find other ways to get involved,” Pazell said.
Visit peoplespantrysb.com for more ways to support the People’s Pantry.