Every morning before work, Tanya Prokop checks the small wooden food pantry outside her Ralston home. She restocks and reorganizes the free food as needed, then does it again first thing when she gets home.
This quickly became her daily routine after she had the Little Free Pantry of Omaha installed in her front yard August of 2017.
Placed at 7704 Sunset Drive, Prokop’s pantry is one of 15 Little Free Pantry locations throughout the Omaha metro. They’re intended to help those struggling to get by until their next paycheck, she said, by providing free food and household items.
Open to anyone at anytime, they’re an alternative to traditional pantries that typically require a driver’s license, proof of income and other personal information. Some need that anonymity, Prokop said, because they’d otherwise be too embarrassed to ask for help.
When the pantry was first installed, Prokop said she and her husband Ryan Heiden were buying most of the food on their own, taking grocery trips often and putting items out sparingly.
Now, she said they receive so many donations they’re running out of storage in their basement.
“It’s a good problem to have, as we keep saying, but sometimes it’s just overwhelming,” Prokop said.
A lot of that extra food is canned goods, which can’t be set outside during winter because it will freeze. So while Prokop said they’re grateful for the donations, she’s often not receiving the right kinds of items.
Regardless, Prokop said it makes her day when someone donates anything. Some leave single items inside the pantry, while others leave large quantities of food outside her house.
In the past, if they weren’t home when donations were dropped off, squirrels, raccoons and other critters have beat them to it. To ensure the food intended for community members gets to them, she and Heiden are adding a deck box on the side of their house designated for donations.
Currently Prokop said they’re looking for dry goods, such as pasta, protein bars and oatmeal.
Monetary donations via Venmo, a money sharing app, help her buy anything else needed.
The couple has always been “bargain shoppers,” Prokop said, so they know how to stretch those dollars as far as they can. On their frequent grocery trips, they only buy what’s on sale that week and sometimes use coupons. They buy cheap misshapen but delicious bread straight from Rotella’s.
When shopping, Prokop said they aim to buy ingredients to complete meals that could be made from items already donated, like sauce for pasta.
That’s because she knows what it’s like to eat odds and ends. She grew up with a self-employed father, so while she didn’t go hungry, they ate whatever her mother could whip together. She wishes she’d had a pantry like this, she said, to make a full meal.
It’s often those kinds of stories — of hardworking people not being able to afford food — that Prokop and Heiden said they hear too often.
When the pantry was first installed, Heiden said he was shocked at how many using it worked full time, but due to having a large family or experiencing extenuating circumstances, needed help. They’ve even assisted coworkers who fell on hard financial times.
“These aren’t deadbeats; theses are people that have jobs,” Heiden said. “That’s kind of scary that people you know, people who work hard and go to work every day could easily be hungry.”
The pantry’s premise is “take what you need, leave what you can.” While Prokop said she never expects anyone they help to donate to the pantry when they’re doing better, it’s heartwarming when they do.
It’s taught their 6-year-old son Archer Heiden about the importance of sharing, Prokop said. Recently he wanted a Twinkie out of the box left in the pantry, so he traded an Easy Mac meal for it.
“It’s teaching him to give and take a little bit, too,” Prokop said. “It’s been a good learning experience for all of us.”
Archer said he thinks it’s important to replace any item he takes from the pantry because he knows some people can’t afford food. He said it’s “cool” that the food’s free for them to take when they need help.
“People that don’t have money for food, they can’t buy anything,” Archer said. “If they don’t have food they can’t survive.”
Prokop said seeing the impact she’s made on those people’s lives keeps her motivated to continue her efforts.
“It’s very rewarding,” Prokop said. “Even though you don’t really see many of the people, it makes you feel good that you know it’s helping somebody.”