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One year ago on a Penticton sidewalk, an experiment began.
Could an unmanned streetside food depot, conceived by two good-hearted citizens, stocked by volunteers, and frequented at any time of day by folks who need food but don't have enough money to buy it, survive more than a few weeks or months?
Turns out it could. Sunday, the "Purple Pantry," a double-door grocery repository with shelves on one side and a fridge on the other that sits just outside the Penticton Elks Lodge at 343 Ellis St., officially observed its one-year birthday.
It did so without ever having been seriously abused. And the people who gathered on the wide sidewalk in the 300 block of Ellis were thrilled about it.
"It just feels great," said co-founder Dave Corbeil, who with wife Allison Howard conceived the Purple Pantry in late 2021 after having read stories in a national newspaper about other similar setups in other parts of Canada.
Within just three months and with a lot of community support, Howard and Corbeil had their Purple Pantry.
"It’s been so busy," he said. "I bet these doors get opened 60 to 80 times or more every day."
According to Corbeil, Purple Pantry users are a varied lot.
"We have the unhoused, the working poor, low-income seniors, single-parent families, immigrants and people who've just moved here. It really is a wide range of people."
Though Corbeil and Howard check in almost every day, they now have a small platoon of volunteers -- ten at the moment -- who pitch in to buy groceries, pick up donations, and keep the structure clean.
"And there's been a lot of community uptake on it," said Corbeil. "We come to stock it and all of a sudden we see more things in it. Often when we're here working on it, several people will come by and bring things. Mostly people we don’t even know.
"And as you can see, it looks the same as it did a year ago. I can only assume that those who use it appreciate it and aren’t going to ruin it."
As he spoke with us, a Purple Pantry patron named Mike stopped by to grab some groceries. He said he misses the breakfasts the Ooknakane Friendship Centre produced back in the day, along with the camaraderie he found there. But he called the Pantry "awesome," adding that sometimes he'll even contribute items.
Penticton Elks' president Laurie Kidd, a regular cheerleader at Purple Pantry events, said it's been "excellent."
"I'll be very frank," he said. "When we agreed to partner with them on this, we said we'd do an examination of it after six months and see how it goes. But we knew within a matter of weeks that this was going to work out.
"I would say that 90% of our lodge was onside with it from the get-go."
Kidd is just as enthusiastic about the impact it's had on the exterior of the Elks building. There was concern at the beginning about increased vandalism, but Kidd maintains the Pantry has done the opposite. It's eliminated it.
"Our vandalism is gone," he said. "The city gets some credit for that because they've put an emphasis on bylaw enforcement and they have the bodies out. But my encounters in the neighbourhood show that everyone is very respectful.
"I think we as a culture have stigmatized people. We've put a lot of people in the same category. And not everyone is in the same category."
Penticton mayor Julius Bloomfield, a city councilor when the Purple Pantry launched, is delighted the project has worked out as it has.
"When I first heard of it, I didn’t think it would survive the ravages of the street," he said. "But I have been proved wrong. I'm very proud they pulled this off and showed that it's not all bad news on the street."
We asked Bloomfield if he thinks Penticton needs more Purple Pantries.
"Yeah, I think we do," he replied. "There's a big demand here and people don’t walk to this one from the other side of town. So could we have more facilities like this? I think so. Would they be successful? I think so."
Moreover, said Bloomfield, the City could help "facilitate" such potential future projects. As for running them and/or contributing bucks, those are more complex subjects.
"I think the City is very bad at running things like this," he said. "It's good for big things, but for smaller ideas like this, that's down to community involvement and amazing people like Dave and Allison.
"And money would be a council decision. But Dave and Allison didn't come to the City for money. They came with an idea and asked for our help in logistics and certainly staff is willing to do that. So support and logistics, I don't see an issue. But money is a council decision."
In the meantime, seemingly the only real issue with the original Purple Pantry is an ongoing shortage of food. Contributions are plentiful and constant, but usage is heavy.
To donate, simply bring non-perishables, veggies and fruit, dairy and the like to the Purple Pantry at 343 Ellis St. Larger donations can be dropped inside the Elks Lodge building during office hours (9 am to 6 pm, closed Monday afternoons).