On a muggy day last July, Lindsay Manolakos put the skills she learned building sets for school plays to work in the basement of her Ditmas Park rental: She measured and cut pine boards, assembled them into a two-foot-high box, slotted in a shelf, and attached a door made out of Plexiglass. Next came a coat of periwinkle paint and stenciling what has become a familiar invitation on the side: “Give what you want. Take what you need.” The high-school math teacher posted the first of what she calls her Tiny Purple Pantries outside her Bedford Avenue home, and soon the curbside food bank was regularly being emptied, and replenished, by her neighbors. At first, it was the basics — boxes of pasta, canned veggies, and a few bunches of bananas — but then she started noticing things like spices, sandwich cookies, the occasional casserole, things that went beyond the necessities. “I just thought about my kids and if I just had to feed them sweet potatoes and broccoli and tuna fish every day, no one would enjoy that,” she said. “So we try to put in the fun things too.”
After learning about the project from a local Facebook group, neighbors volunteered their lawns, and in August, Manolakos researched the addresses to place the next four cabinets; she made sure they were near major thoroughfares, subways stations, or houses of worship. The pantries aren’t complicated, but building them is time consuming: assembling, painting, and installing one can easily stretch to six hours. To foot the bill for supplies, which she initially paid for out of pocket, Manolakos set up a GoFundMe last fall that hit its $500 goal within 36 hours; that amount has since more than doubled to $1,680 in donations. Now, there are ten purple pantries posted in more than seven Brooklyn neighborhoods (with another ten in the works). You’ll still find your kitchen cabinet essentials, but might also stumble upon herbs and spices, cake mix and tubs of frosting, loose leaf tea and strainers, or homemade goodie bags scrawled with the words, “Enjoy the candy.”
“I thought people just needed sustenance, but that’s really not true, people also need joy,” Manolakos said. “There’s joy in fruit snacks. There’s joy in the little things, and I want people to have those options too, not just the bare essentials.” As Manolakos goes about her day on her sleepy tree-lined block, she catches glimpses of people dropping off armfuls of food at the pantry in front of the dark-brown shingled house where she and her husband rent the ground floor. Her street is lined with two- and three-story houses worth more than a million dollars, but still the shelves of the pantry outside her home empty out multiple times a day.
At the cabinet outside of Laura Burgess’s creamy-white clapboard home on East 18th Street she has what she refers to as a rotating cast of “pantry fairies” stocking the shelves. Her favorite is the person who occasionally drops off lemon poppy seed loaves, scones, and other freshly baked goods packed in pastry bags with hand-written labels. “The food just miraculously shows up. It’s emptied and refilled three or four times a day, and I’m not telling anyone what to do,” she said. During the pandemic, Burgess also had to rely on food banks to feed herself and her three daughters when she was unable to rent out space in her home through Airbnb.
For Theresa Campbell, an out-of-work restaurant manager and single mother of two young boys, weekly visits to the pantry on East 7th Street in Kensington has meant “less nights going to sleep hungry.” She’s used rigatoni and tomato sauce to make pasta bakes, bags of rice and cans of pigeon peas to fix arroz con gandules, and used other pantry ingredients to make soups that helped her stretch her dollars further. “It’s hard to accept when you need help, but when it’s from your neighbors, like literally the people who live down the block from you, it’s somehow a little easier,” said Campbell. The pantry has also provided an unexpected indulgence — pistachios, her favorite snack. “I can’t justify buying a $13 bag of pistachios when I’m just focused on feeding my kids, so it absolutely made my day when I found a big bag of pistachios in there. It’s my comfort food.”