Story and Photos By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
The fire-engine red cabinet at the corner of Pine Street and Walmsley Avenue has become a hub of selfless giving for students at St. Rita School in New Orleans.
At the conclusion of every biweekly school Mass, St. Rita students from all grades are invited to fill the cabinet – dubbed “The Little Red Box” – with their Mass offerings of canned goods, pre-packaged snacks and other non-perishable foods.
Located just outside church exits and open 24/7, the self-serve pantry offers an assortment of food to any driver or pedestrian who desires a ready-to-eat snack or who might need a few canned items to supplement a meal cooked at home.
“Imagine you open up the cupboard or the fridge at home and there’s nothing there,” said Father Peter Finney, pastor of St. Rita Church, thanking his young congregants for the food donations placed in front of the altar during the Nov. 7 school Mass.
During the homily, Father Finney shared that one pantry user – an elderly man who cared for several young grandchildren – had told him that St. Rita’s outdoor pantry enabled him to give his grandchildren a little something to eat when they got home from school.
“(By helping to fill the pantry) you’re helping people feel that they’re ‘home,’” Father Finney said. “We stock the pantry to bring our home to their home.”
The pantry’s most popular items include ready-to-eat granola bars, cheese and crackers, cereal, dried fruit, nuts, canned tuna and chicken, Vienna sausage, ramen noodles, and, occasionally, fresh fruit. Canned and prepackaged foods such as rice, beans, pasta, vegetables, ravioli and macaroni and cheese also are available to help food-insecure families round out meals in their home kitchens.
So far this school year, St. Rita seventh grader Caela Smith has contributed canned green beans, soup and corn to the hunger-fighting effort.
“Our (school) motto is, ‘Seek Faith, Gain Knowledge and Give Service,” Caela said. “Through our Red Box pantry, we are giving service – we like to give to the less fortunate. It makes me feel proud of myself!”
Maci Walker, a St. Rita fifth grader, brought canned mandarins to the Nov. 7 school Mass. She said she selects something special for the pantry every time she goes grocery shopping with her family and tells them, “This is for the Red Box.”
“It’s very simple to just get something and then put in the box,” Maci said. “I just want to give because I feel sad for them.”
Brittany Breaux, staff social worker for St. Rita Parish and School, said generous St. Rita parishioners and a raft of anonymous donors also keep the pantry stocked. Gladewaves, the local non-profit that created the Little Red Box pantry movement, fills it twice a month.
A message on the pantry’s glass door speaks to both those who use the pantry and to those who stock it: “Take What You Need. Give What You Can.”
Breaux said this honor system setup has worked out remarkably well during the pantry’s 1 1/2 years of operation.
“It’s free for all and open, with no questions asked, meaning that anyone can come Monday through Sunday (and take what they need),” Breaux said. “We don’t ask any questions in regard to your income or where you live.”
Breaux said the small but noticeable pantry has made feeding the hungry an integral part of St. Rita’s school culture and Catholic identity. This month, students will mount a schoolwide food drive for the assembly of 100 Thanksgiving baskets destined for needy families. The project will have the students partnering with their next-door neighbor – St. Mary’s Dominican High School – as well as with St. Rita parishioners and Xavier University Community Outreach Center.
Breaux said that although holiday giving is vital and much appreciated, The Little Red Box is a constant reminder that hunger and malnutrition are not confined to one season; they are concerns for many local families 365 days a year.
Breaux said she regularly receives phone calls from grateful families saying how the pantry helped them with those “one or two meals” that sustained them between paychecks.
“We see that gratification of that family or that mother (knowing that they can go home) and prepare a meal for their family,” Breaux said. “It doesn’t get any better than that!”
Donations to St. Rita’s Little Red Box may be made at any time by placing non-perishable food inside the unlocked pantry. To learn more about the effort, call Brittany Breaux at 866-3621, ext. 3212.