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Natalie Paley, left, a local resident, talks with Jeryl Baker, center, and Joel Broida of the Columbia Town Center Association at the Little Free Pantry in Vantage Point Park, where she just dropped off a food donation.
Natalie Paley, left, a local resident, talks with Jeryl Baker, center, and Joel Broida of the Columbia Town Center Association at the Little Free Pantry in Vantage Point Park, where she just dropped off a food donation. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It’s that time of year again for neighborliness and sharing. And in Columbia’s Town Center community, neighbors have been sharing in new a way since October, when a Little Free Pantry opened in Vantage Point Park.

The pantry is much like the nearby Little Free Library, a freestanding structure where books can be freely borrowed and returned. At the pantry, non-perishable foods replace the books.

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“Bring what you can, take what you need” is the motto of the movement, which began in 2016.

Retired U.S. Public Health Service senior researcher, community volunteer and now Town Center board vice-chairman Joel Broida read a Washington Post piece about the movement last summer and discovered more than 600 Little Free Pantries across the U.S. and elsewhere. He spoke to clients of such a pantry installed at the Owen Brown Village Center in 2017.

"Over the past two years demand has grown," says Robin Slaw, director of religious education at sponsoring Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. "We often face an empty pantry between the morning and afternoon refills. We concentrate on food for homeless, snacks a for children, and make sure we put a treat in as often as possible."

Broida and the Town Center’s board agreed a Little Free Pantry would be a good fit for their community, too. He visits at least once daily, as do some half-dozen dog-walkers, among others, keeping a close eye on expiration dates. (He’s been involved in other volunteer activities, but they all had a conclusion.)

“I hadn’t realized this would be a 365 days-a-year commitment!” Broida said.

As for people being drawn by free groceries, “There’s a good amount of food insecurity in Columbia,” said Jeryl Baker, Town Center manager. “The board wanted to help our neighbors.”

“Because guess what?” Broida added. “They’re already right here, and they‘re not people living in the woods.”

Sometimes self-conscious about coming at first, they may be folks holding down two or three jobs, or having lost jobs, or the elderly who can’t make it on retirement income, he said.

It’s not only canned goods and packaged foods left in the pantry but fresh fruit, snacks, even a box of crayons — something for everyone.

Indeed, County Executive Calvin Ball expressed a wish for more of the same:

“Given the food insecurity that we see across our county, we look forward to seeing future partnerships like this to help Howard County neighbors and friends in need.”

Where to find Columbia’s Little Free Pantries

Town Center: Vantage Point Park, 5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia

Owen Brown: 7246 Cradlerock Way, Columbia

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