Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Little Free Libraries share books. Now people in Kalamazoo are sharing other things in their yards.

Ayla Hage standing next to her little free pantry, a wooden cabinet with a latching door containing canned goods.
Cori Osterman
Kalamazoo homeowner Ayla Hage stands next to her little free pantry which contains canned goods.

Their motives range from having a little fun to meeting a need for food and clothing.

Lori Wingate lives on Greenlawn Avenue in the West Main Hill neighborhood. In her front yard sits a red gumball machine filled with dog biscuits. Wingate says she got the idea for some kind of free dog treat dispenser about a year ago.

“I just like to sit quietly in the morning while I have my coffee and it just kind of came to me," she said.

When she found the gumball machine online, she knew it was a good fit. Mounted on a wooden post, it’s near the sidewalk so anyone can treat their dog. Turning its handle releases a handful of treats. She says the dispenser has developed a following.

“I’ll hear it click pretty early in the morning and I know people have talked about their dogs’ sort of starting to steer them over here because the dogs know.”

Lori Wingate and her dog standing next to a red gumball machine mounted on a wooden post in front of her house.
Cori Osterman
Lori Wingate and her dog stand next to the dog treat-dispensing gumball machine in front of her house on Greenlawn Avenue.

Wingate says the gumball machine wasn’t inspired by the Little Free Library movement, which started in Wisconsin about 13 years ago. But in sharing with anyone who walks by, she’s working in a similar vein.

So is Ayla Hage, who lives on Oak Street in the Vine Neighborhood. Her yard has what’s known as a little free pantry. For two years, Hage’s pantry has served people in need of food and other supplies. Here’s how it started. Hage’s house happens to be near a bus stop for Kalamazoo Public School students.

“A lot of those kids they’d get off the bus and they’d be hungry and sometimes they would knock on my door and ask for snacks," she said.

And Hage would oblige. But when COVID-19 hit, the kids couldn’t come her door anymore. So, she began putting out baskets of food. Then a friend who’s a carpenter offered to build the pantry. It’s a wooden cabinet with a latching door.

Hage’s is one of two little free pantries on Oak Street. People use them to exchange nonperishable food, from pasta to canned goods to snack bars. In Hage’s, the number of items varies.

“I’ve noticed that it’s been less full lately just with inflation. I think it’s getting harder and harder for people to kind of have enough extra to be able to pitch in but I also know it’s being used a lot more too.”

Nationally, the pantries go back to at least 2016 when a volunteer put one up in the Arkansas town of Fayetteville. It was a takeoff on the Little Free Libraries. And like the LFLs, LFPs have caught on. There are thousands across the country, to judge from a map at

The Vine Neighborhood is also home to a “mutual aid” box. With a sign that reads, “use what you need, commit what you can,” the small, insulated wooden box can hold both food and other useful items. One recent afternoon, that included a pair of shoes and some gloves.

A pair of shoes inside a small insulated wooden box with the lid propped open.
Cori Osterman
A pair of shoes sits inside the insulated mutual aid box.

A homeowner named David put the mutual aid box in his front yard. He asked to leave his last name and street out of the story, for privacy.

“Part of the inspiration for this box was my frustration at the way the city government is currently handling the unhoused population in Kalamazoo and the way that I feel like that population has been ignored and mistreated," David said, referring to the city's clearing of numerous tent camps over the last few years.

He added that he's planning to help stock the mutual aid box this winter, which will be its first.

“My plan is to really concentrate on clothing, I think. Obviously, water would probably freeze in there so portable foods and clothing are probably my goal.”

David says the box is the least he can do for the community.