Even before the pandemic hit, Maryville resident Jerri Britton had the idea to build and stock a 24-hour food pantry.

The owner/loan officer with Volunteer Home Mortgage said she started planning in January, but life threw a few curve balls and plans got delayed.

But on May 1, she was able to display the portable pantry, which she calls a blessing box, in front of her business, 1033 W. Broadway Ave., Maryville. A friend from church took her building plans and created it with donated materials. The location is central to travelers across the county, but Britton had no idea whether anyone would notice it or not.

“I first thought the food would sit there and grow old,” she said. Was she ever wrong.

The coronavirus may have something to do with the huge need in this community. Several people were laid off from their jobs or had hours reduced. Britton waited to see what would happen.

“It is used multiple times a day,” Britton said. “There is a constant rotation of food going in and then out. I can’t keep it filled.”

The pantry is kept stocked with items like soup, tuna, pasta, peanut butter, canned vegetables, rice and beans. As Britton bought groceries for the pantry, she added things like bread and fruit. Hygiene products, she said, are on the list of things people are in need of, anything from bars of soap to laundry detergent, shampoo and hand sanitizer.

“Everything is taken as soon as I put it in there,” Britton said.

Thankfully, Britton has gotten the word out about the blessing box via a Facebook page called Maryville Blessing Box. She said friends and strangers alike have come aboard to help. People waking their dogs in the neighborhood stop and restock the pantry, she said. Others have called about having a bountiful garden they want to share. Onions and other spring vegetables just show up.

The desire to help her community has been a real eye-opener, Britton said, adding she has run the gamut of emotions as she seeks to fill these needs.

“The first week I was crying because I couldn’t keep it full,” she said.

One morning Britton was coming into work and stopped outside to fill the pantry. She said a woman was there in search of food. When Britton asked what she needed, she told Britton she needed something for her husband’s lunch. She left with bread and other supplies thanks to the blessing box.

The box is unlocked and open 24/7 for anyone who needs it. Britton said she has seen families stop by and single individuals. She added that she knows there is a blessing box in Rockford and one in Louisville but isn’t sure if there are any others in the Maryville area.

By sharing her story, Britton hopes to reach those who need help. It’s hard to pay rent, utilities and also buy food for those with limited incomes, she said. The idea behind the blessing box is to provide for those struggling in this economy. No one is made to feel shamed by coming for help; no one is there taking names or keeping inventory.

She also is putting a call to action out there in Blount County. Businesses or organizations can conduct a food drive and bring the items to the pantry. Individuals on their way to or from the grocery store are encouraged to donate things, too.

Pet food, paper towels, toilet paper, toothbrushes, bandages, books and breakfast cereal all can be placed in the pantry. Bread is one thing that goes fast, Britton said, in addition to those hygiene products.

Seeing random people stop and stock the pantry fills Britton with hope and gratitude. She will keep stocking the pantry for as long as there is a need.

The blessing box is decorated with art and the message “Take what you need; Leave what you can.” In addition there is reference to a verse in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1.

Those of us who are blessed with what we need should share with those who are lacking, Britton said.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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