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Cloquet resident hopes to build neighborhood food pantries

Deborah Spears stands near her Cloquet home, where she hopes to construct a Pay It Forward Pantry. Residents experiencing hunger can access food from the pantry without leaving their neighborhood. (Jamey Malcomb/Pine Journal)1 / 2
Deborah Spears of Cloquet hopes to build a network of Pay It Forward Pantries in the city, similar to this Caring Corner Cube in West Duluth. (File / Duluth News Tribune)2 / 2

A Cloquet woman is hoping to jumpstart an innovative — and lower profile — way to address hunger in the community.

Deborah Spears wants to construct Pay It Forward Pantries sometime next year around the city. The idea is similar to the Little Free Library program, where residents leave and take books from wooden boxes. In the same vein, residents who are dealing with hunger could pick up food for a meal.

A similar program, the Caring Corner Cube, was started in a West Duluth neighborhood. The Duluth shelf features ready-to-eat food like bagels, cereal and energy bars, as well as bags of rice, pasta and other staples used in meals.

According to Spears, residents who use Pay It Forward Pantries wouldn't need an ID, as is often required by food shelves and soup kitchens. She believes that some people who have jobs may not have much money left for food after paying bills, and they are too embarrassed to use a formal food bank or soup kitchen.

"Everybody gets hungry — you should never be ashamed to be hungry," Spears said. "If they had these items to go home and prepare a meal, they wouldn't feel the shame of a food shelf."

Spears' original idea was to start a soup kitchen in Cloquet, but she found it nearly impossible to get off the ground. Soup kitchens require staff and volunteers. Spears said that due to her health issues, she was unable to commit to the daily grind of running a soup kitchen.

Spears is working with Cloquet churches to get her idea off the ground.

Mandee and Brook Carlson, members at Arise Church, hope to help Spears construct one of the pantries on a corner near Spears' home early next summer.

"What excited me about it is that I know there are always hungry people," Mandee said. "We all need to eat — that's something that is a common denominator for everybody. I think there is a lot of shame connected when people don't have the finances or the ability to go to the store.

"For me, it was trying to bridge that gap of making it not this nerve-wracking thing of how to get food," Mandee said. "It meets a need, but it also makes it where there is not shame involved."

Spears said the only resistance she has experienced was from residents concerned about groups of homeless people accessing the boxes and loitering in the area.

"Everyone was really supportive until I asked if they would be willing to put one in their yard," she said. "Then it was like — not in these exact words — but 'not in my front yard.'"

That is a very narrow view of the area's hunger problem, Spears said. Hunger affects far more than homeless people. Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank in Duluth estimates up to 12.5 percent of people in the region are "food insecure," meaning they don't have access at all times to enough food to lead a healthy life. Nearly 600 people per day in northern Minnesota use a food shelf or soup kitchen to get by.

Ideally, the Pay It Forward Pantries wouldn't just be the work of one person or household, but a neighborhood-wide effort, according to Spears.

She said her hope is to combat hunger at its most basic level — not solve the region's overarching hunger issues.

"This is about the bottom rung," she said. "This is the best idea for neighborhoods. Everyone who puts food in there can think, 'Hey, I paid it forward,' and that's a really good feeling."

To get involved with the Pay It Forward Pantries, contact Spears at 218-499-8294 or Mandee Carlson at carlson.mandee@gmail.com.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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