The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A food pantry’s closure means more than lost meals for hundreds of families

Soaring real estate prices forced a Nashville nonprofit to shutter its doors, offering what experts warn is a preview of what’s to come as more charities struggle with financial pressures

Abra Aiden, right, waits in line to pick out some groceries at the Little Food Pantry That Could on its last distribution day in Nashville. (Nathan Morgan/for The Washington Post)
17 min

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was Friday, and for more than a decade, Fridays had been when the food deliveries arrived. Around 15,000 pounds of food were expected this morning. Volunteers were hauling the first boxes off a truck. Stacy Downey, 52, was determined, if possible, to treat this day like any other, so she was now standing outside the Little Food Pantry That Could, shoulders hunched against the morning cold, sliding into her familiar workday routine.

“How much red?” she asked, leaning over boxes of peppers. “Do we have any yellow? Orange? The greens ones are okay but they are not as popular as the red, yellow or orange.”

A dozen volunteers pushed in and out of the pantry’s door, stepping over the smear of sunlight where Downey’s dog Roxy dozed. By the next morning, when the first shoppers arrived for the Little Pantry’s weekly food distribution, every pepper, jar of peanut butter and bag of coffee needed to be in place. For Downey, the pantry’s founder and driving motor, steering all the moving pieces of preparation swallowed up her entire focus — and kept her from remembering that today, March 25, was the last time this would happen.

After tomorrow, the Little Pantry was closing for good, and the hundreds of local families relying on the nonprofit’s food and support would need to go elsewhere. But many within the philanthropic community worry that there will soon be fewer such places to turn to in America. The country’s nonprofit infrastructure has been hit both by recent changes to the tax law that have altered donation patterns and by the stress of the pandemic and its economic aftershocks. Red flags have been going up across the nonprofit sector.

“Right now I’d say nonprofits are facing a confluence of crises,” said Tim Delaney, the president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits. “We’re out here fighting, trying to find some balance with increasing demand, rising costs, and declining donations — holy cow! It’s too much for a system to bear.”

The Little Pantry met the increased demand, but it also had to deal with increased costs, on everything from food prices to rent and real estate. Downey realized her organization would be forced to close its doors late last year after failing to find an affordable new location in one of the nation’s hottest real estate markets. According to experts, the same pressures could soon shutter nonprofits everywhere, underscoring the shaky state of so much of the country’s charitable community. Free health clinics, child care organizations, prison reentry programs, domestic violence shelters — all could collapse under the same financial weight that brought down the Little Pantry.

“All these things threaten the ability of nonprofits to serve people in their local communities,” Delaney said. “Policymakers at all levels of government are just assuming nonprofits make it work, but we can’t. God Almighty, we try, but at a certain point, the laws of economics take over.”

Downey was expecting around 300 shoppers the next day, and as volunteers organized the shelves, she tried to keep her attention fixed on the upcoming food distribution. She had put a mental wall around the rest. Emotion felt like an indulgence. “There’s just a lot that has to be done,” she said. “And only so many hours in the day.”

But what Nashville was about to lose went beyond just the weekly food distribution. The Little Pantry building was in north Nashville, 10 minutes away from the city’s neon-splashed downtown of historic music venues and honky-tonks. Over the last five years, the location had become a familiar center of gravity for the city’s disadvantaged, particularly those living on the street.

It was a place for a hot shower when you didn’t have one, or a safe place to keep medication that was an inviting target for theft, or a mailing address for the reissued birth certificate you needed to apply for a housing program. It was where you could learn how to administer Narcan at monthly training sessions, and if the Narcan wasn’t enough, it was the place where the staff would hang your picture on the wall with the others who had died.

Everyone deserved to be hanging on someone’s wall, Downey believed, just as everyone deserved the choice between a red or green pepper.

‘We can help you’

The Little Pantry That Could is one of the estimated 60,000 food pantries and hunger programs scattered across the country. Ranging in size, some are affiliated with regional food banks, while other independent nonprofits like Downey’s purchase their food from both retailers and food banks.

All of them have had to give out more food. In 2019, the U.S. food insecurity rate was at a 20-year low. According to the Department of Agriculture, by the next year 6.7 percent of U.S. households reported using a food pantry, an all-time high. Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks, estimates that the increase meant 60 million Americans accessed food assistance in 2020, a data point visually illustrated by footage of long lines of cars waiting for food handouts across the country.

Before seeing an increase in demand, food banks, as well as other human service nonprofits — such as homeless shelters, drug and alcohol services and others — were already on rocky footing, according to the National Council of Nonprofits’s Delaney.

“All the data shows pre-covid a lot of nonprofits had not recovered from the Great Recession,” he said. “Demand for services was up before the pandemic in three-fourths of the states. So we went into covid with a sector that was already strained and overburdened.”

Although national food insecurity dropped in 2021, it remained above pre-pandemic levels, according to Feeding America. On top of that, smaller nonprofits were more likely to see a drop in donations in 2020 despite a record amount of charitable giving that year, said Teresa Derrick-Mills, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute who co-authored an October 2021 report on the financial status of more than 2,300 nonprofits.

One possible cause, according to the report, was the 2017 tax reform law, which hiked the minimum deduction level for charitable contributions, resulting in 21 million fewer households using the deduction. Many nonprofits survived the first pandemic year through Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. But compared to the previous January, the National Council of Nonprofits saw a 30 percent spike in Web traffic going to its page about how to dissolve a nonprofit, which Delaney said he took as a sign of many more closures to come this year.

The Little Pantry started in 2010, after 36 hours of record-setting rain that May flooded Nashville, causing more than 26 deaths and $2 billion in property damage. The crisis sparked dozens of local charitable efforts, and inspired Downey, then an optician and certified assistant in an ophthalmology office.

She had always volunteered. But after the flood, Downey — divorced, with a grown son living out of state — had the idea of a “boutique food bank” pairing farmers she knew with hungry people. “My little dumb idea,” she calls it. She says she didn’t realize the sheer size of the need.

In 2018, Downey focused her attention full-time on the pantry. She and another full-time staff member spent most of their time on “outreach.” It was the catchall phrase under which she mentally filed the daily troubleshooting of small-caliber — but frustrating — problems facing the people she served. It was someone being unable to access their online Social Security Administration account because the text message verification code was going to a cellphone number they hadn’t used in years. Or a tenant who had just been evicted having no money for a storage unit for their possessions.

Each day Downey went at the problems like knots that could be untangled with persistence. From the Little Pantry’s front desk on the busy Friday before the final food giveaway, Downey’s attention jumped from one predicament to the next, often before even finishing her last sentence.

“Oh, we need to get his electricity suspended, not canceled, from the electric company. If we cancel we’ll have to pay a new deposit. … Oh Paul! I’m volunteering you for something. Randy’s wheelchair broke down on the way over here, you think you can fix it? … Chris! You got mail. Birth certificate? If you want me to make a copy of that, I will. Never hurts to have a copy. … Casey, you need to call that lady at the agency. Do you want me to make that call?”

The vast majority of outreach revolved around finding affordable housing. As demand for housing everywhere has soared, Nashville was seeing properties selling faster than any other city, according to the Re/Max National Housing Report from March.

That buyer enthusiasm had bled into other sectors of the city’s real estate market, and there was an overstuffed envelop in Downey’s desk of all the public notices mailed to the pantry about zoning changes for nearby lots where new construction was planned. Development was steadily spreading from Nashville’s downtown, and within a few blocks of the Little Pantry, sleek new residential construction was underway.

Downey began renting her current building five years ago. It was a crumbling former school building owned by a church. The Little Pantry agreed to undertake repairs and renovations and put around $300,000 into the property.

But by late 2021, Downey knew the owner would not be renewing the lease, and, despite working with real estate agents and friends, she struggled to find a new location. One building Downey toured — already outside the Little Pantry’s budget — was sold to an outside investment company before she had left the parking lot, Downey said.

She waited until after the holidays to break the news, and even the day before the final food distribution, Downey was still explaining the situation to new faces walking in for help.

“We can help you some, but we are being forced to close at the end of March,” she said to a blond guy in his 20s who had just arrived in town. “Our lease is up, and they are not renewing and there’s nothing that we can afford. Do you have a place to stay, hon?”

“I’m at the shelter right now,” he said.

“If you need things like a backpack, I can help you with that,” Downey said. “You can get food here. You can do laundry. You can jump in the shower. I don’t know what you need, but we can help.”

“A backpack would be cool,” he said. “I know it kind of looks like I’m in a bad spot, but at the same time I’m kind of not, if that makes any sense.”

Downey nodded before her thoughts galloped on toward her next task.

‘There is dignity in choice'

Before finding the Little Pantry, Don Casey got most of his meals from dumpsters. “Still hit the dumpster once in a while for old time’s sake,” he said.

But for Casey, who said he has lived without a permanent residence for most of his adult life, the Little Pantry has become a surrogate family. “Not like a family, it is a family,” he said. Casey spent most of his nights sleeping outside the pantry, and he was awake when people began gathering out front long before dawn on Saturday for the final food distribution.

“Going to be a lot of people down here today,” Casey said from the front steps at 8 a.m., watching the long line snaking across the gravel parking lot.

Later that morning, around 20 volunteers showed up to help. Around 9 a.m. Downey led the volunteers through an orientation.

“What we are going to do today is going to be very different from most places where people go for food,” she explained. To access emergency food, most providers required identification like a driver’s license or birth certificate, or proof of residences, signed lease or mortgage paper. Not here, she said. “It’s not going to tell me you are raising your grandkids, or that you just lost your job.”

Typically, emergency food assistance in Nashville included monthly prepackaged boxes of a few days of food, based on family size. That was not how the Little Pantry ran, she explained. Each guest walked into the pantry room flanked by two volunteers: a shopper to help them select, and a carrier to help with the growing bags of groceries.

They picked their own items. Signs attached to each item indicated how many of each a shopper could have; three was the limit on peppers, for example, a number that wasn’t based on an agency algorithm or how many people the shopper had at home or if they lived in a certain Zip code, but on how many peppers the Little Pantry had today.

“The people who come here to get help with food, they’re not having their best day ever, right? So why am I going to make it any harder?” Downey continued. “Everybody eats. What could you possibly do not to qualify for food?”

Beyond the doorway, more than a hundred shoppers were waiting in the main room, drinking coffee, chatting, laughing over the 70s soul music blasting from the speakers.

“There is dignity in choice,” she said. “That is the basis of everything we do.”

She paused. For a moment Downey seemed unable to find her voice. “Your whole job, all you have to do today, is treat people great. That’s it. Oh, yeah, and there’s food.”

Volunteer briefing done, Downey then took her position at the entry to the pantry, where she would greet each guest. “I need a shopper and a carrier,” she called to the volunteers. Then the first name was called.

‘Looked under every rock’

“Miss Arlene!” Downey said as a woman approached the pantry entrance after her name was called. “Is Mr. Archie here, too?”

“Hi sweetie,” Arlene Suthers said. “Archie sends his love. He’s got a job now at a winery as a dishwasher. Ten dollars an hour.”

“You tell him I miss him,” Downey said.

Suthers and her husband, both in their 70s, had been coming to the Little Pantry for around three years. A Saturday at the pantry could provide the couple with about two weeks of food, she said, which had become more essential. Her husband had gotten the dishwashing job to help with increasing costs linked to inflation, but the new income reduced their food stamps to $95 each.

“Now we need that extra help,” Suthers said. Two weeks from now, she would open her freezer and see a remaining serving each of pork chops, chicken and hamburger meat, and would ponder how to stretch each into multiple meals for two.

“God bless you, Miss Stacy,” a woman said as she left with groceries. “This ain’t my last time seeing you.”

“I’ll see you soon,” Downey said. “I need a shopper!”

Outside, Howard Allen stood waiting in line. Once the self-professed “Mayor of the Homeless,” he had now been back in housing “a year, two months and eleven days.” Allen frequented the Little Pantry for years. He wasn’t sure what he would do without the weekly food.

“Jesus was the most famous homeless person I know,” he said. “If Jesus was here today, he would have justifiable anger and say ‘Goddamn this system.’”

Whatever Allen picked up that day would end up lasting barely two weeks. By then, after calculating how much of his monthly disability check could go toward groceries, he would decide to eat less.

Back inside, Downey was explaining again to a shopper why they were closing. “There’s nothing out there we can afford, hon,” she said. “I wish there was. I’ve looked under every rock and there’s nothing we can afford. Not even close.”

She then shouted over the noise: “Can I get a shopper?”

April Johnson walked down the steps, her volunteer carrier pulling a wagon of groceries. Living just around the corner from the Little Pantry, Johnson had been coming since the organization arrived in the neighborhood.

But the frequency of those trips increased when Johnson’s disability payments were cut off in February 2019. It has since been a struggle to afford her $1,100 rent and feed her two disabled daughters, 21 and 22.

“This is tough times in terms of budgeting what you do have and then trying to put food on the table,” Johnson said. “This has been the best for me. I come as needed. I am on food stamp assistance, but food is high. Two hundred dollars’ worth of stamps is gone if you pick up four or five packs of meat now.”

The volunteer helped Johnson carry the bags into her dark kitchen, where the curtains were pulled against the sun. Overlooking the stuffed plastic bags, Johnson estimated that the food would last her and her family around a week and a half. Once the meals were gone, Johnson would begin to register a loss that went beyond empty cabinets.

“Miss Stacy has helped me a lot,” she said that Saturday. “She’s arranged to have Thanksgiving dinner delivered to my home. You just meet wonderful people at the pantry. It’s all a community there.”

Johnson slowly began putting her last Little Pantry groceries away. “This right here means a lot to me now,” she said. “And now that it’s gone.”

Back at the pantry, the hugs lasted a moment or two longer. Many guests pressed cards or small gifts into Downey’s hands when she called them up to shop. Each encounter seemed to pull her defenses down a little more.

As the morning drifted into early afternoon, Downey had to stop, her eyes red. “This is what I have been avoiding all day,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury of falling apart now.”

She called for a shopper and carrier and signaled for the next guest.