City health agent closes small outdoor food pantry

Courtesy photoThe Little Free Library at Market Street and South Hampton Road in Amesbury before it was shut down by the city's health agent. 

AMESBURY — A Little Free Library converted into a small food pantry on private property near the Market Street and South Hampton Road fork was abruptly closed days later by the city’s health agent.

Amesbury Health Agent Jack Morris confirmed he closed the pantry Monday after he received an emailed complaint.

What sealed the pantry’s fate was when a cooler was placed near the Little Free Library, creating what Morris called a “food security issue.” 

Little Free Libraries, which are bookshelves inside a tiny house-like cabinet, have become a national phenomenon with many located in Amesbury, Newburyport and other area communities. People are free to leave or take books, much like a brick-and-mortar library.

The response to the closure on social media was swift and charged, with much of the anger focused on the person who alerted the city.

The pantry was the brainchild of nearby resident Tracey Brown, who posted a photo of it Saturday on an Amesbury-focused Facebook page. She described it as a way of aiding people who might be struggling to find food during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I know our little food pantry cannot cure all the ills of the world, but it is my hope that it helps the people in my community … and this is something I want my “Coronavirus Story” to be about,” Brown wrote.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Brown said she got the idea after seeing a similar Little Free Library food pantry in Belfast, Maine.

Brown said the cooler did not contain perishables, but instead had toilet paper, hand sanitizer and crackers.

But within two days, a local business owner contacted Morris with concerns about giving away free food at a nonsecure site.

When word of the business owner’s decision got out, it created a firestorm on the Amesbury-centric Facebook page.

On Monday, the whistleblower posted a response to the criticism to explain her motives. But her explanation did little to quell the outrage with many people declaring they would not support her business. The business owner deleted her post within an hour.

Brown said she does not have any malice toward the person who alerted the city.

“It just got out of hand,” Brown said of the donations. 

After Morris closed the pantry, Brown and the Little Free Library owner, Ginny Hughes, donated the items to two local families.

“Our intention was to do something good so that makes me happy,” Brown said.

Dave Rogers is a staff reporter with the Newburyport Daily News. Email him at: drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

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