West Orange teen builds Little Free Pantry

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Soham Bhatnagar has spent the last few weekends in a woodshop, in the hopes of bringing nonperishable food to people who need it. He’s building a Little Free Pantry, a spin on the Little Free Libraries that are scattered around West Orange offering books to anyone and everyone for free. The pantry, which Bhatnagar wants to finish by his 17th birthday at the end of the month, will be installed in Colgate Park.

“A few months ago I read about the Little Free Pantry in Montclair,” Bhatnagar said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 10. “Residents can bring food donations and people can take and leave what they want.”

Bhatnagar worked with Mayor Robert Parisi to pick the location at Colgate, which is where the county held an emergency food distribution event toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the number of people who needed food exceeded the amount of food available.

“It’s accessible,” Parisi said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Feb. 18. “It’s a walkable neighborhood; it’s near the pool and the recreation center. We think the people who live in that area would benefit from it.”

To build the pantry, Bhatnagar enlisted the help of Mike Schloff, the founder of Maplewoodshop. Schloff’s woodshop, which began in his hometown of Maplewood and is now based in East Orange, trains teachers at schools without woodshop classes how to teach woodworking and builds portable workstations for classrooms. Bhatnagar met Schloff four years ago when he took one of Maplewoodshop’s woodworking classes, and, upon embarking on this new project, Bhatnagar asked Schloff if he would work on the project.

“I was so impressed with Soham’s civic duty and how organized he was and his empathy,” Schloff said in an interview with the Chronicle on Feb. 13. “I couldn’t say no. Sometimes it just takes asking to make something happen.”

Bhatnagar, a junior at West Orange High School, is the first person to be in the Maplewoodshop other than Schloff and his limited staff in a while, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept most people working from home. And it’s not the kind of project Schloff usually works on — his philosophy is to bring the woodshop to students, not the other way around. But after nearly a year of little to no teamwork, both welcomed the weekends they’ve spent measuring and sawing, even if they have to wear masks.

“I think there was a deep human need to work together,” Schloff said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it. It’s been a real joy to come in and work with someone. And it’s great that it’s serving a real need.”

The pantry is built for canned and boxed items specifically, as this maximizes the space available and these types of food do not expire as quickly. The building materials came from local businesses Schneider Hardware and E.L. Congdon & Sons Lumber Co. Solar-panel light fixtures will light up the pantry.

The pantry, like the little libraries, is designed to be self-sufficient. But it still needs to be maintained, and Bhatnagar is planning on using Meal Train and Facebook groups to make sure it’s never empty. WOHS social studies teacher Gregory Saul has been working with student clubs to start food drives.

“We are reaching out to various student groups and organizations for donation drives to ensure the pantry is self-sufficient and always stocked with nonperishable items,” Bhatnagar said. “My hope is that this is a community-supported effort to help address food insecurity in our town.”

Word has started to spread about the pantry, and Parisi said suggestions have already been made about where to place others around town.

“We’re hoping it could be the first of many,” he said. “This is a really great and timely project that can do a lot of good.”

For Bhatnagar, helping people is simply something he loves to do.

“This is a real passion project of mine,” he said.

Photos by Amanda Valentovic