December 5, 2021

Cortland teenager’s curbside food pantry hit by vandalism

Biting the hand that feeds

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

Alex Shaffer’s food pantry that she runs at her house at 36 Woodruff St., Cortland, was vandalized Tuesday. Although she moved her table to the porch from the curb to prevent future problems, Shaffer continues to run the pantry, which provides bags of food and personal hygiene items for anyone who needs them.

Alex Shaffer had only been away from her free food pantry table for maybe 20 minutes, but when she returned, she found a big mess.

Someone had emptied out three cloth bags that had been loaded with food. Two of the bags were ripped, and a can of peaches had been opened. The peaches were still in the can, but most of the juice had been spilled all over the table.

An animal couldn’t have done this, Shaffer thought, so it must have been a human.

“It was really shocking and upsetting when I walked back outside to see that this had happened,” said Shaffer, a junior at Cortland High School. “The pantry is there for people who need it.”

To make the incident more creepy, she had been home alone at the time. As far as she can tell, nothing was taken. Someone just made a big mess. She didn’t report the vandalism to the police.

This happened Tuesday; Shaffer has since moved the table from the curb to her porch.

Shaffer started her pantry — the Purple Pantry — as a project for her Girl Scout Gold award — the equivalent of the Boys Scouts’ Eagle Scout award. It took her nearly two years to get the project going, but once she started she set it up at Cortland High School
— hence the purple in Purple Pantry.

But then the pandemic hit, and, like everyone else, she had to improvise. So she moved the pantry to her front yard.

“From now on, I will run it from my front porch so I can see who takes what so it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “It’s all right. It’s life. It’s just kind of crappy that it happened.”

Shaffer offers three types of bags. Each has enough canned and nonperishable food to make about 10 basic meals. Another bag contains school lunch materials for students. And a third type contains personal hygiene items.

Shaffer said her pantry is open to anyone in need. People with larger families, or who are picking up items for others, are welcome to take more than one bag.

But she does ask that people take what they have touched. That’s the only rule. Which would also include not vandalizing her food pantry, which she thought would go without saying.

“I was genuinely surprised,” she said. “This is the first time in running the pantry out of my house that this has happened.”

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

Alex Shaffer started her pantry — the Purple Pantry — as a project for her Girl Scout Gold award, the equivalent of the Boys Scouts’ Eagle Scout award.

Shaffer posted about the incident on NextDoor.com, a social media site designed to share community information. She wanted to warn people about the incident, but also to let people know that she is still going.

Shaffer will continue to operate the Purple Pantry from her front porch at 36 Woodruff St. until June 17. Then she’ll close down for the summer and re-open in the fall — either at the high school, if it’s open for classes, or, if not, back on her porch.

Shaffer gets her donated food from teachers, students and residents. Her Girl Scout Troop, of which Shaffer’s mother is the leader, has been central to the effort. Royal Auto and SUNY Cortland have also helped, as have the United Way and Catholic Charities. Paragon Home Loans also donated a tent that she used when she first got started, and JM Murray donated toothbrushes and toothpaste for the personal hygiene bags.

Christella Yonta, executive director at United Way for Cortland County, has been helping Shaffer since she first heard about the Purple Pantry.

“Once I knew what she was doing, I shared with her that TC3 has a food pantry,” she said. SUNY Cortland, too. Yonta put her in touch with those pantries so she could get tips on how to organize hers.

Since then, Shaffer has been brought into the wider network of area food pantries called the Hunger Coalition.

She also brought Shaffer the tent that Paragon Home Loans donated, since the week she got started was cold and rainy. Since then, she’s also helped direct some donation items to Shaffer’s pantry, such as some locally grown greens.

“Whenever there was excess inventory at other food pantries, I would take it to Alex,” Yonta said.

The Purple Pantry is open, weather permitting, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, and noon to 1 p.m. on weekends. Shaffer offers glutenfree and vegetarian food bag options.