Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksOctober 12, 2022

A welcome sight for jaded souls: Community pantries and libraries are on the rise

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In a financially tight and fragmented era, sharing books and food via Little Libraries and Pātaka Kai doesn’t just nourish those on the receiving end – although it does that, too. 

As I wander around my neighbourhood I occasionally spy an old fridge or a small wooden structure on one of the grass berms. These are not cast-offs waiting for an inorganic rubbish collection, but objects deliberately placed there by locals as a way of sharing resources with their community. For the uninitiated, they are the Little Libraries and Pātaka Kai (food pantries) and it feels like they’re popping up all over the place.

Little Libraries (also called book fridges, pop-up libraries and book-swap boxes), are tiny libraries installed outside houses or in communal areas like parks or playgrounds by local bookworms. They’re a delightful way for members of the public to exchange and recycle old books and magazines that would otherwise gather dust on shelves at home. The structures themselves are as eclectic as their guardians, but the most popular iteration is a wooden box with a door and roof, slapped together with upcycled materials and a lick of bright paint. Many are adorned with native birds and Kiwi iconography, while some give a decorative nod to a favourite author like Dr Seuss.

Take a book, leave a book. (Photo: Supplied)

Because it’s a grassroots movement, it’s hard to gauge how many there are across the country, but former librarian Ruth Arnison, who began by donating 10 to her Dunedin community in 2015, now has 316 listed on her Lilliput Libraries website (mostly in the South Island), while an Auckland Facebook Group features 65 that have been found on the isthmus.

Little Libraries are particularly useful for communities that don’t have a public library, although with fewer barriers to access they also play a role in places that do have one. No membership is required and traditional lending rules don’t apply. As Arnison points out, “Nobody’s worrying if it takes you six months to read a book. And if you love it, keep it and bring back something else…”

The pandemic proved to be a catalyst for the growth of these treasures as they became the only way to access new reading material during lockdowns. Blayde Bullen, a carpenter from Onehunga, used the spare time he gained to build a Little Library and set it up outside his house. It was such an immediate success with those queuing at the takeaway joint next door that the grass around it was worn bare. He went on to build a further seven for his community and loves that people who can afford to buy books are able to share with those who can’t. “Some kids might not have much at all but they can come here, grab some books and that can start a lifelong obsession with reading.”

There’s no doubt the quality of the books varies – sometimes there are piles of faded romance novels, other times a selection of newer releases or classic gems – but either way, I’ve found I’m more likely to try an author or genre I wouldn’t normally consider, just because it’s there. Arnison regularly has boxes of new books donated by McMillan Publishers, and the Grey Lynn and Ponsonby-based Piwakawaka Library had a stack of brand new children’s books magically appear on its shelves one Christmas Eve.

An increasingly familiar sight around Aotearoa: the Lilliput Libraries. (Photo: Supplied)

Guardians of the libraries do as little or as much as they like — some tidy daily and curate so the selection doesn’t get stale, while others don’t do much beyond the initial work of installing it. As Bullen discovered, “Once it’s built it’s fairly self-sustaining as the community help to maintain it. I don’t have to restock, there’s always books in it.”  And while Arnison’s original motivation was around encouraging literacy, a lovely side-effect has been the strengthening of community.  “A friend said to me, ‘I’ve lived in this house for five years and not known the neighbours, but after I got the Lilliput library they came over and spoke to me and now we both go out and look after it together.’”

Hunger of a different kind

Another local community resource with a very similar kaupapa, but one that nourishes the body instead of the mind, is Pātaka Kai.  

Named after the Māori term for a food storehouse, these are a network of 242 community pantries across the country that work on a philosophy of “take what you need, give what you can”.  Like the libraries, they’re provided by a kaitiaki in the form of shelves or old fridges, but taken care of and stocked informally by local residents. With food prices up 8.3% in the past year and food banks facing unprecedented demand, these pantries were born out of necessity.  Times are tough for households trying to stick to a tight food budget and easy access to a little free extra kai can help reduce stress on hungry families.

Perfectly good food bypassing landfill and destined for where it’s needed. (Photo: supplied)

This handy map of registered Pātaka Kai around the country shows three pantries within a 1km radius of my house. One is outside a school and the other two are outside churches, which is unsurprising really as they do embody the ethos of loving thy neighbour, regardless of your religious leanings. St John’s Anglican Church in Royal Oak set up its pantry as a way of facilitating food sharing on top of regular donations to City Mission. Reverend Brenda Rockell likes using both systems, but has found the pantries are easier to access than food banks as they’re open 24 hours and don’t require a drive across town. Collection is also anonymous which makes it easier for those embarrassed to be seen struggling. “It can be shameful for people, they feel whakamā. It’s nice for them to not have to actually ask.”

Lisa Nepia, the Waikato Lead for the Pātaka Kai movement (or “the bread lady” as the local kids call her) points out that another benefit is the lack of bureaucracy. “You can go to Salvation Army for help but you’ve got to fill out a form and justify yourself. With these shelves, you just help yourself to whatever you need.” As the kaitiaki of the particularly well-stocked pantry outside her house, she tells the heart-warming story of a homeless man who credits her food shelf with saving his life after being turned away from WINZ multiple times when asking for help with food.

Food banks traditionally only accept non-perishable items, but given how much traditionally wasted food is fresh, this can be quite limiting. At my local Pātaka Kai, people drop off leftovers from family feasts or excess catering from functions, local bakeries donate unsold bread, and residents with backyard fruit trees contribute any excess produce. They often post photos of what they’ve shared on the community Facebook page and it rarely sticks around for long.

While some pantries are more selective about what they wish to receive, Nepia is open to anything that could help fill a hungry puku. She regularly receives leftovers from the free school lunch programme, has a fruit and veggie shop that donates unsold items still good enough to eat, and happily receives opened packet food such as biscuits or breakfast cereal, so long as they are sealed with a peg or tie. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” says Nepia, who also loves seeing perfectly good food diverted from landfill.

In a time of fragmented social cohesion, when it can feel like people are too busy and self absorbed to care for others around them, the presence of Little Libraries and Pātaka Kai in my neighbourhood does a lot to restore my sometimes waning faith in humanity. These thoroughly wholesome shared resources survive and thrive because community members proactively help strangers in need with little personal gain to themselves. There is no recognition or money to be made, but these small, selfless acts of kindness can make a big difference to those on the receiving end. They are a very tangible way of spreading aroha and goodwill and further strengthen the communities they serve.

Rev Rockell agrees. “It’s a real privilege for us to facilitate a situation where people are routinely factoring other people’s needs into their patterns of life.”

The other day I saw a man help himself to some of the food I had dropped off at my local pantry. He bit into an apple with a satisfying crunch and an appreciative grin, and it really did feel like we both walked away with an extra spring in our step.

Keep going!