Last fall, Michael Reinmiller was casually watching CBS “Sunday Morning” until it showed a piece about helping the poor that grabbed his attention. Somewhere in Minnesota, a woman had adapted the Little Free Library concept into a food pantry, available to anyone who needed help at any time, day or night – and it was anonymous.
It was a “cool idea” that got him thinking.
Thoughts turned into action, and on Dec. 23, 2019, Reinmiller erected the Little Free Pantry in front of his Near South home in Lincoln at 26th and Garfield streets. It was a family endeavor – his father-in-law, Jim Falk, a craftsman, built the pantry. Michael provided labor, legwork and passion. His wife, Melanie, a talented artist, provided the style and good ideas. Their toddler son, Jack, did what he does best – providing joy, wonderment and plenty of “big boy” help to his dad and grandpa.
Reinmiller had no idea whether it would take off and be of value, but it did and it is. The first day, he tweeted that the Little Free Pantry was open and available. Within 24 hours, some items had been taken and new items were added. Solar lights were installed on Dec. 26 so it could be easily used at night. To date, the only rules have been “Take what you need, donate if you can, and don’t put in any hateful rhetoric.”
“There are a ton of rentals in my area,” said Reinmiller. “I remembered being a renter when there were a lot of months where you’d open the kitchen cupboard doors and it echoed. Melanie and I are doing well now, so we decided to put this up and see what happened. Suddenly there were all these footprints in the snow [by the pantry]. And it just kind of picked up and up and up. Then the pandemic hit, and it’s been busy ever since.”
Emptied and restocked often
Many days, the Little Free Pantry is completely emptied and emptied again the same day after restocking. That was doubly true during the Thanksgiving holiday – emptied and restocked several times a day. Bittersweet.
Not being a man of unlimited means, Reinmiller’s network of friends and church family (and some folks he doesn’t even know) have helped keep it stocked. He received a Community Learning Center/Civic Nebraska mini-grant. He’s been handed checks and cash. Food is dropped off. There’s a Go Fund Me page set up on Facebook, too.
“Every time there’s $50 in the fund, I order cereal from Amazon,” Reinmiller said. “A while ago, I ordered $300 in feminine hygiene products, and it was gone in two weeks. Unbelievable!”
When Reinmiller contacted the UNMC College of Dentistry about toothpaste and toothbrushes, it literally filled the back of his pickup truck, and he’s been back for more. He restocks with three toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste each day, sometimes twice a day now that he’s working from home.
“It’s good for my step counter,” he said with a laugh. Again, bittersweet.
This year, the Reinmiller-Falk team has helped some concerned Lincolnites put Little Free Pantries in their neighborhoods (and others have done it on their own). The pantry model they use costs $425. Michael helps with the installation, but he insists that the homeowner calls the Diggers Hotline number. He doesn’t want any surprises.
Melanie has created the Little Free Pantries LNK NE page on Facebook. There, you can find the locations for 17 known pantries in the city; two more are coming soon. Now that temperatures are much colder, there’s also a reminder on the page about stocking pantry shelves only with items that won’t freeze and burst open, or otherwise can survive the cold.
Reinmiller’s experience with the Little Free Pantry has presented him with mixed emotions.
“I’ll be really proud to be able to tell Jack in 10 years that his grandpa and dad did this during a pandemic to help people,” he said.
At the same time, he feels guilty because he’s sitting in a heated house with a refrigerator full of food.
“So, I'm all over the map,” he shared. “Some mornings when Jack and I go out, I’ll have him carry a box of cereal. The other day, as we were putting it in the pantry, he looked right at me and said, ‘Helping people.’ That made me tear up.”
The sense of community that has grown around the Reinmiller pantry is something he wasn’t expecting. It’s become a co-op. He sees people pull up in a car or on a bike, take what they need and wave a thank-you as they leave.
“Soon, a neighbor comes across the street and loads in five boxes of cereal,” Reinmiller said. “Or the neighbor next to me puts in candy bars because everyone needs chocolate now and then. Or I’ll get a text from a neighbor telling me someone just emptied the pantry, and I should go fill it. It’s amazing!”
Visitors’ situations run the gamut
His sense is that those who visit the pantry run the gamut from the homeless to families in between paychecks. “One lady stopped by and told me she just lost her job at UNL, and this is keeping money in her account so that she can pay her rent,” he said.
Reinmiller’s volunteer spirit does not begin and end with Little Free Pantries. He’s a staunch supporter of people in need, formerly serving on the Board of Directors for Fresh Start, working on a backpack program with Matt Talbot Kitchen & Outreach, serving meals at shelters, mentoring youth and more.
In November, he received the 2020 Volunteer of the Year Award from the Lincoln Homeless Coalition.
He’d like to see double the number of Little Free Pantries in the coming year, but he knows it’s a matter of resources, accessibility, time and commitment. He’s delighted to provide ideas and guidance to anyone who’s interested. Reinmiller can be reached through the Facebook page or at email@example.com.
“I lay in bed at night and often can’t sleep. That happens a lot since the pandemic,” he said. “Then I’ll hear a car door opening and shutting, which is kind of cool – lying there thinking somebody’s getting what they need.”
PHOTOS: LINCOLN'S PANDEMIC SCENE
City Council distancing
Gameday empty Saturday
Thank you Bryan West
No fans allowed
Volleyball social distancing
Boo at the Zoo
Downtown mask art
Marching band competition
East Campus proposed budget cuts
No Football Saturday
UNL in-person class
Farmers Market influencers
Weeping Water vs. Fillmore Central/Exeter-Milligan
First day of middle school
First day of school
Pius X volleyball practice
City Council BLM protest
Rally and hearing
Lancaster County Super Fair
LPS board meeting
Meatpacking workers rally
Lincoln Northeast graduation
Gov. Ricketts address Legislature
Masked Archie the Mammoth
First Jury Trial in Four Months
Lincoln Community Playhouse
The Kindler Hotel
Garth Brooks Drive-In Concert
Urban Air Adventure Park
Gere Branch Library
Music on the Move
Bars Opening in Lincoln
LPS Teachers Retirement
Holmes Lake Manor Horse Visit
Lancaster County Courthouse
Church Social Distancing
Children of Smithfield
Parkview Christian Teacher Appreciation Day
Lincoln Christian 2020 Seniors
Test Nebraska site
Drive-Thru Career Fair
Center for People in Need food distribution
Masks For Truckers
Teacher and Staff Parade
Virtual City Council
Good Friday Music
Masks on a walk
Watch: A timelapse of the mural at Saro Cider
Watch: Hand sanitizer rolls off Innovation Campus assembly line
No fun here
Tower Square sign
WATCH: Celebrating a birthday with a parade
Simpsons in the windows
Drive-thru COVID-19 testing
UNL Beekeeping virtual class
Lincoln Lutheran Online Teaching
Blue for public health
Basketball without fans
Thanksgiving to go
Socially distant Santa
Christmas tree demand
Basketball fans reduced
Mike Hilgers at Legislature's First Day
Zoo Bar membership
New high school
Biking in snow
“Some mornings when Jack and I go out, I’ll have him carry a box of cereal. The other day, as we were putting it in the pantry, he looked right at me and said, ‘Helping people.’ That made me tear up.” – Michael Reinmiller