FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Tall, beautifully decorated boxes have been popping up around the Fort Wayne area for the past year and a half. Inside, they’re stocked with food for anyone to take.

Forward Indiana, a grassroots community action group, has installed more than 30 of these community food pantries in Fort Wayne, New Haven, Roanoke, and other cities across Northeast Indiana. Their goal is simple: provide food for individuals and families who are food insecure, and through that mission, strengthen and unite communities.

Sarah Thompson and Carlos Marcano are the founders of Forward Indiana. The pantries they install are all community-sustaining, meaning it’s up to the public to keep the pantries stocked. Thompson and Marcano say they’re filling a need within their communities.

“There are people including myself that are food insecure and we don’t get what we need on a daily basis,” Thompson said. “I realized like, for me personally, I need to build that community that I can lean on, and other people are like me and I’m like them, and we need to like, as cheesy as it sounds, really learn to rely on one another so that we can be stronger together.”

“They’re too needed believe it or not, everywhere, even in neighborhoods where you think they’re not needed, they’re needed. Nobody knows what’s going on behind closed doors,” added Marcano.

The concept is simple: take what you need, share what you can. There is no costs, no limits on how much food you take take or drop off, and it’s available 24/7.

Thompson says the pantries are in high demand, with businesses and neighbors frequently requesting them.

“They want to be a part of this, they’ve seen what what the community has done, how they’ve responded to it. They see the good that comes along with it. People were afraid of the type of people they might attract with the pantries. And what you really see is that it’s not about that at all. It’s about people coming together and the people that you are worried about are me. Once you put a face to food insecurity, it’s like, ‘Hello! This is what it looks like,’ said Thompson. “So that is encouraging because you see people advocating for their neighborhood and their neighbors and that’s what it’s all about.”

Forward Indiana’s work also includes two community gardens for people to plant and pick produce, allowing them to bring healthier food options into their homes.

Community Garden at 347 Packard Ave.

“With COVID and stuff, it was just a great outdoor safe place to organize and just talk about issues. And you know, gardens are special. They’re like a healing place, right? So it’s a safe place for everyone and to get fresh produce out of it that’s free and for all it’s like a bonus on top,” said Thompson. “Not everyone has a yard they can do this to. Whether they’re renting or they they don’t want to risk it or they don’t have good sunlight. And this gives them the opportunity to like, risk it, just try it.”

The gardens are doing exactly what Thompson and Marcano have hoped: growing friendship and support among neighbors.

“Now we’re finding like certain neighbors are meeting on certain nights to like, help each other and plant and stuff like that. So it’s so much more than we ever thought it was gonna be. And it’ll be even more than we think it could be. It’s kind of emotional, but it’s really cool.”

Thompson and Marcano hope more people will be inspired to start projects like these on their own, improving more communities one pantry or one garden at a time.

To learn more about Forward Indiana and where their pantries are located, you can find their website HERE.