Before the coronavirus outbreak struck Texas, Krissy Gutierrez helped people find jobs through her work in vocational training.

But with her work on hold as federal and state governments make massive changes to unemployment programs in the wake of the crisis, Gutierrez was looking for another way to contribute to her community. That’s why she decided to set up a donation box in her front yard on 126 E. Norwood Ct. in Monte Vista Terrace where neighbors can grab what food they need or leave some for those who need it.

“Community building is very important to me,” Gutierrez said. “These small acts will ripple out.”

The concept is called Little Free Pantry, similar to the Little Free Libraries that have popped up around the country, where people abide by the take-a-book, leave-a-book honor system. At Gutierrez’s pantry, neighbors are sharing canned and dried food, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and personal care products like deodorant, lotion, and soap.

“It’s really been nice to see a lot of community engaging in it,” she said. “It’s kind of a scary time for a lot of people.”

Canned chicken, rice, beans, toilet paper, and assorted canned goods are stored for any person to give or take from the shelves of the little free pantry. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A Laredo native, Gutierrez, 27, moved to Monte Vista Terrace with her fiancé, Abe Salinas, about a month ago. She works as a subcontractor for the Texas Workforce Commission teaching job skills to people ranging from teenagers to those in their 60s. With unemployment skyrocketing in Texas, she knows the number of residents needing assistance will grow.

“I know a lot of people are going to be out of jobs,” Gutierrez said. “I know there’s going to be a lot of people in need.”

Gutierrez said she was inspired by a social media post involving Erika Prosper, an H-E-B executive and wife of San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. The nonprofit Awesome SA had posted about Prosper and friends leaving food at Little Free Libraries in the city. Gutierrez soon discovered the Little Free Pantry movement, which has placed hundreds of pantries around the U.S. since the project launched in 2016.

So far, San Antonio only has one Little Free Pantry on the official list, at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church at 3200 W. Loop 1604 South. Our Savior Lutheran Church in Boerne also stocks a pantry on the grounds of the Boerne YMCA.

Gutierrez built her pantry out of an old file cabinet donated by a neighbor. She and her brother painted it in bright colors, along with directions to “take what you need, give what you can” and a Spanglish message of hope: “Si se puede, and we will.”

At first, Gutierrez was worried the pantry might not be of as much use in Monte Vista Terrace, a relatively affluent neighborhood, compared to other parts of San Antonio. But she knows the neighborhood still has plenty of renters, students, and elderly people who could use the help.

Krissy Gutierrez and her fiancé Abe Salinas stand behind the little free pantry that was placed in their yard in the Monte Vista Neighborhood. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

So far, she’s been proven right. People already have stopped by to take and leave goods, she said. Neighbors began posting pictures of the goods they left in the pantry on the social media site Nextdoor.

Because of her job, Gutierrez knows as well as anyone how many people are struggling as many businesses remain closed to prevent the spread of the virus. However, she hopes people will work together in hard times to find ways to support each other.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how neighbors come together again,” Gutierrez said. “I think we’ve gotten away from a lot of that.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.