Mini-pantry a big hit; Eagle Scout project fighting hunger daily in Austin

Published 8:25 am Thursday, November 9, 2017

It’s hard to believe something so simple could prove so important to those in need.

But the small box — a Free Mini-Pantry, located on the northwest corner of a shed, just north of St. Olaf Lutheran Church building in Austin — is proving its value on a daily basis.

“It didn’t take much,” said its creator, Austin High School junior John Olson. “Plywood, four-by-four posts, a little concrete, Plexiglass, some paint,” he counted off.

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But those few items have proved to be a recipe to fight hunger.

Olson, 17, son of Kris and Paul Olson of Austin, is a member of St. Olaf, and was referring to the materials needed to build the pantry, a 3 foot-by-2 foot-by  1  1/2-foot box, filled with non-perishable food and personal hygiene items.

The pantry was built and erected in mid-October, by himself and fellow Boy Scouts, as part of Olson’s Eagle Scout project.

The genesis of the idea came through Pastor Mark Niethammer and Sarah Krolak, director of youth and young adult ministry at St. Olaf. Pastor Mark had seen similar pantries in other areas of the country.

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Olson.

And, as a church, said Niethammer, providing a way to address food insecurity in the Austin community was important.

Planning began — Olson said any number of reports, approvals and requirements had to be met before the project started — but by fall, the idea finally came to fruition.

“We were able to build it in one afternoon,” Olson said.

No one expected the almost-immediate response, after information about the pantry circulated through Facebook, a television news story, and by word of mouth.” Niethammer said. “Even a pastor from Alabama contacted us about the pantry, wondering how it worked.”

“And at the beginning, we were filling it every day,” Olson said.

It remains popular, they said, and donations for the pantry have been constant.

Not anticipated was the need for personal hygiene items, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, soaps and so on, said Niethammer. Those items are immediately taken when placed in the pantry.

Someone recently ordered a large shipment of personal hygiene items and sent them to the church through Amazon. Others — church members, friends, neighbors — drop off items at the church, or fill the pantry themselves. As winter arrives, he says meat will be able to be placed in the pantry, since “it really will act just like a freezer.”

A sign on the front of Eagle Scout John Olson’s Little Free Pantry project at St. Olaf Lutheran Church lays out one simple rule: Take what you need, bring what you can. Eric Johnson/

Niethammer said he is grateful that “people take what they need, and leave what they can … and they are doing, just that.”

He was also touched at having witnessed people use the pantry, “and only take one item; they take what they need and leave the other items for others who need, too. And, it’s clear that some items are taken every day, and things are left every day.”

“It is being used very respectfully … and the community’s generosity has been overwhelming,” he said.

St. Olaf’s high school youth group members will take on the responsibility of maintaining the pantry. Niethammer said the church invites donors to include some seasonal items if they wish — gloves, hats, mittens during this cold weather. They hope to include other seasonal items at different times of the year — such as school supplies in the fall.

The pantry is not intended to replace a food shelf, they said, but to supplement what the community already has.