It started with a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a desire to help the community. It ended with the government threatening criminal charges.
“For 16 years, our family struggled with food and security, and a lot of people don’t understand how hard it is if they don’t struggle with that,” says Kathy Hay, who notes she is in a much better financial place now. “I’m always looking for ways to help people that are having a hard time.”
Inspired by the leftovers from a pot of chicken soup she’d made, Hay started researching ways to start a little free pantry in her Asotin County, Washington, neighborhood. In December she set one up in her backyard, replete with refrigerated food, canned goods, and produce—all available for free to those struggling to make ends meet.
Akin to little free libraries, these makeshift pantries popping up across the U.S. invite local participation, allowing passersby to donate edible goods. “The community really responded positively to it,” says Hay. “It was exciting.”
The excitement was short-lived. In February, the county health department dropped by to tell her and her husband that they needed to immediately desist operations, because Hay didn’t have a permit. If they refused, the county threatened to pursue criminal charges.
What’s more, getting that license wouldn’t be sufficient to reboot the pantry. She would have to pay a fine. She would have to cough up an annual fee. And she would have to abide by a laundry list of regulations more appropriate for a large-scale distribution center.
Among the requirements were a slew of packaging regulations. Canned items needed to have a commercial label that traversed the full circumference of the can, for instance. Fresh foods—from apples and oranges to bread—were prohibited entirely. She would need to set up a separate collection spot where she screened every item, a rule anathema to the basic concept of a little free pantry. She would have to create, print, and distribute flyers explaining what can and cannot be donated. She would need to elevate the pantry above the ground, disqualifying her cupboard setup, though the health department “wouldn’t be specific about how high it needed to be,” she notes.
Now the Institute for Justice has filed a civil rights lawsuit on Hay’s behalf, as well as on behalf of two women who benefited from the free pantry. The suit says the county infringed on Hay’s constitutional rights when it stopped her from giving away food on her own property, and it alleges that it likewise violated the two beneficiaries’ constitutional right to accept private charity.
“The regulations that the County wants Kathy to follow actually hurt the people they are intended to protect,” says Caroline Grace Brothers, a constitutional law fellow at the Institute for Justice. “The food in Kathy’s pantry poses no more threat to its beneficiaries than the food at a roadside farm stand with an ‘honor box.’ Yet Kathy has to follow pages of regulations to share food in her own backyard, while produce stands are allowed to sell food without interference.”
It almost goes without saying that Hay’s efforts would be particularly helpful at this juncture. Washington was the first state to report a COVID-19 case. Clarkston, the working-class town where Hay lives, already sported a 20 percent poverty level before the coronavirus struck—considerably higher than the national average.
So Hay is hoping for a speedy resolution. “The ideal outcome would be for the county to let me and anybody else who would like to have a little free pantry to be able to open one up,” she says, “without being afraid that they’re going to be charged with criminal behavior.”