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As food insecurity continues throughout South Florida, the TLC Little Free Pantry Project serves a vital role in expanding the availability of nonperishable items.
A humanitarian endeavor of the B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, these outdoor containers include essential products that can mean the difference between going hungry and having something nutritious before the next visit to a traditional pantry run by soup kitchens and charitable organizations.
With the number of these freestanding containers, which resemble newspaper and magazine racks, now totaling over 30 throughout Palm Beach and Broward counties, keeping track of the number of goods inside each one can be a significant challenge.
Enter 16-year-old Yair Gritzman and his computer science/engineering classmates at the Rosenblatt High School within Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton.
Gritzman, a rising senior, and his group used their expertise to implement a QR (barcode) system to assure that everyone — from those who depend on the food to those who stock the shelves — knows exactly what is available at each TLC Little Free Pantry box.
Low-income families, older people facing financial hardships and the unsheltered homeless can find a wide assortment of products including cereal, mac and cheese, canned soups and vegetables, chips, protein bars and anything else that doesn’t need refrigeration.
After Gritzman designed the QR system, the team from Donna Klein put its plans into motion and started work on all the installation and wiring. They have already completed the upgrades at about one-third of the pantries.
Since these types of pantries use the honor system and are unattended, there was no way of determining the number of goods inside any particular one. Someone in dire need might walk up to one and find it low or even empty.
Brainstorming virtually while quarantined during the pandemic, Gritzman and his fellow students decided that QR coding was the best solution.
But that’s hardly the extent of their efforts.
“When someone scans the code, it immediately sends them to a website, reportthatpantry.org, which we also created and tracks in real-time whether a pantry is empty, partially stocked or fully stocked,” Gritzman said.
People can update a pantry’s status through the website by clicking on the report button. This allows for all the pantries to be connected even if they are not yet outfitted with the new on-site technology.
Reporting on availability can also be accomplished by clicking one of three buttons on the side of an updated pantry labeled in both English and Spanish. Visitors can also use their smartphones to scan the QR code and be taken right to the website to report product shortages.
That report is then updated in the database and displayed by clicking the “status” link on the lower right side of the students’ website. This allows those not physically at that pantry to know not only how much food is there but also whether it needs to be fully or partially refilled.
The updated technology for the TLC Little Free Pantry Project has brought joy and satisfaction to Boca Raton resident Summer Faerman.
The director of the Tzedakah, Learning and Chesed (TLC) program at the B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Faerman several months ago created the network of pantries to provide an outlet where needy people can get food at any hour of the day or night.
“There is nothing worse than coming to get something to eat out of these TLC Little Free Pantries and finding little or nothing inside,” said Faerman, who has been amazed at the work done by Gritzman and his classmates. “It was difficult to know what was available, and restocking also became kind of a hit or miss.”
Faerman can now take comfort in the technological capabilities that assure no one who visits one of the pantries will leave empty-handed.
“(These students’) insight was so amazing for our mission,” said Faerman, who placed the first pantry in a low-income neighborhood and a block away from a Title 1 elementary school in Boca Raton. “Yair and his team have been so motivated and dedicated; they are such a pleasure to work with.”
Gritzman considers the QR codes critical not only to those who need the food for their well-being but also for the donors and volunteers who stock the shelves.
“In the past, it took considerable time from when the pantry supply would get low to when someone would be able to stop by and restock. Now it can be done very quickly,” said Gritzman, who has spoken with similar pantry organizers in South Carolina and Arkansas about his project. “I think (the QR coding) is going to become a big deal nationally and around the world.”
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He and his computer science/engineering classmates are so focused on the success not only of the QR coding but also the TLC pantries themselves that they have built and placed one at Donna Klein Jewish Academy.
“We decided to set up a pantry on our campus because we wanted our school and community to be involved with helping those in need through our project,” said Gritzman, who received assistance in setting up the school pantry from Eva Gottesfeld, Rebecca Levy, Jonathan Hus and Noah Rubin.
Rubin, 18, a recent Donna Klein graduate, runs a computer programming organization known as canCode (canCode.us). He first started the nonprofit when he was in the eighth grade.
“Noah was a great help to us when we first started trying to figure out how to make this project work,” Gritzman said. “He’s been there for us every step of the way.”
TLC Little Free Pantry sites are available in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Coral Springs, Margate, Parkland and Marianna. Visit btcboca.org/littlefreepantry/ for locations.