West Orange HS junior installs a Little Free Pantry to help his neighbors

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Little Free Pantry that Soham Bhatnagar spent a few months building earlier this year was installed and stocked with food on May 27 on Washington Street, right outside the West Orange Police Department substation. The West Orange High School junior enlisted the help of Maplewoodshop owner and woodworker Mike Schloff to build the pantry, a spin on the Little Free Libraries that are scattered around West Orange and stocked with free books. In the pantry, residents can take or leave nonperishable food items.

“We hear a lot of opinions and ideas,” Mayor Robert Parisi said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Little Free Pantry. “Soham has the insight and the drive to put them together. This is important not only because of what we’ve seen this year and the need there is, but also because of this neighborhood. When we can start getting back to our lives, there are people who live here whom it will continue to help.”

Originally planned to go in Colgate Park, the pantry was instead installed a few blocks away, across the street from Washington Elementary School. Washington School Principal Marie DeMaio said it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood for the families who go to her school.

“It’s been a tough year for them and a lot of their parents,” she said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event, in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic and the food insecurity it has caused and exacerbated. “They’ve really needed help. This is great because if they’re missing something they can come right here and get it.”

Bhatnagar read about a Little Free Pantry in Montclair and wanted to build one for West Orange when he realized the pandemic was making already high rates of food insecurity worse. He had met Schloff a few years ago when he took one of Maplewoodshop’s woodworking classes, and he asked Schloff if he would help with 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.”

Schloff wasn’t the only person impressed with Bhatnagar’s initiative. Bhatnagar’s former middle school principal, Bob Klemt, who helms Liberty Middle School, has been impressed since Bhatnagar worked with Parisi to get pedestrian safety signals installed on Kelly Drive, down the street from LMS.

“That’s when I knew he was a doer,” Klemt said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “Seeing his work then, even his classmates respected him. He’s a leader. He motivates others around him.”

For Bhatnagar, building the pantry was a labor of love.

“Food insecurity is more than hunger,” he said at the event. “It is the constant need for food. Since the start of the pandemic, food insecurity has heightened. It is unfathomable that this is possible. We are a community that celebrates its diversity. The Little Free Pantry is a passion project of mine, and my way of paying forward all that this community has given to me.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic