MIAMI - Outside the offices of NEO Realty Group sits an ordinary looking piece of storage furniture with a decorative hand-drawn sign.
It is a simple idea with potential for profound community impact, an open cupboard containing free food for anyone who might need it.
Statewide, over 630,000 Oklahoma citizens are food insecure, which means they don’t always know where they will get food for their next meal.
Locally, Ottawa County has a 17.9 percent food insecurity rate, a 29.6 percent child food insecurity rate, and 11.7 percent of seniors living in poverty, according to the most recent statistics compiled by Feeding America.*
With the open food pantry, there are no questions, no forms to complete, and no requirement to prove a need. Most importantly, the cupboard is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week protected under the covered porch of the business.
Free, easily accessible, and no strings attached. A creative and potent way to fight local hunger.
The pantry was established this fall and is maintained by three Miami High School students, junior Jordan Davis, junior Mary Gilbert, and senior Abby Osborn.
Davis and Gilbert credit Osborn with the idea of creating an open pantry in Miami. Osborn said she came across the idea on social media through a person she connected with in Coweta where they have a similar open pantry outside of the Dixie Cafe.
"I was like, 'We could totally do that here' since the Harbor had shut down and thought about my church which had a food bank that also closed," said Osborn. "So it's really just a safe, private way to find help without having to go talk to someone or go into a place where maybe you don't feel comfortable."
The three girls were then inspired by MHS' food-themed 2017 homecoming to kick off a food drive to get the pantry started.
Davis' father David with NEO Realty gave the pantry a home outside the business, and the girls see to its upkeep and filling the cupboard with the help of donations.
"We check in every few days and restock it and keep our extra in the kitchen in there (NEO Realty) and people bring food by all the time. It's awesome," said Davis.
Davis explained that donations could be made anytime by either dropping them off inside NEO Realty, 225 E Steve Owens Blvd. in Miami, during regular business hours or just placing items directly in the pantry out front.
Because the pantry is outside for open access, donated food items must be nonperishables such as canned and boxed foods and bottled drinks.
Davis added that it was also essential to keep in mind that some using the pantry may have limited access to cookware and kitchens.
"Items that people with limited access to things like appliances can still make use of," said Davis. "I know and think about that because in the past Student Council has done Thanksgiving baskets for families and we've had to come up with food items that could only be cooked with a campfire or something like that."
The three also encourage donations of hygiene items like soap, baby wipes, deodorant, feminine care products, and toothpaste and toothbrushes. Items that cannot always be obtained when the choice is between them and food or bills.
The girls said the open pantry is a permanent ongoing initiative and their goal is to create partnerships with other area businesses and volunteers to place more throughout the area, possibly even some indoors in places like the Miami Mini Mall on Main Street.
Gilbert said she has already been contacted by a community member that is hoping to help rally additional support for the existing pantry and establishing more.
"A lady here in town named Pat had heard about our pantry, and she talked to my dad," said Gilbert. "So she wants to get a group of people together that care about community and providing for them and hopefully make it grow, and maybe even having a food bank one day."
While the girls are proud of what they have created in Miami, they are more excited to see that the pantry is being used and helping those who need it.
"We're helping a lot of people," said Davis. "We've refilled it so many times, and it's only been there maybe two months, and we feel like we are reaching a lot of people and really hope we can continue doing that."
Those interested in possibly providing a space for another pantry, helping with donations, or otherwise partnering to aid the open food pantry project can stop by NEO Realty or call the office at 918-542-4663.
*Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, Hunger By County - Ottawa County via Feed America: http://okfoodbank.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Ottawa.pdf.
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor for the Miami News-Record. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.