MCKEESPORT, Pa. — “Our rules: Be kind, make a new friend, only take what you need, pay it forward,” reads a sign outside of Free Store 15132.
One in seven Americans faced food insecurity in 2015 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), yet one third of the world’s food supply gets lost or wasted yearly, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“If we have so much food going into the dumpster, why aren’t we feeding people?” asked Gisele Fetterman in a TED Talk.
As a child, Fetterman discovered a love for bulk waste collection after her family relocated to the United States from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as they furnished their apartment with what she was able to find on the curb in her neighborhood.
Fetterman has brought this passion of repurposing unused items to the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, where her husband, John Fetterman, is mayor.
Fetterman’s passion has spread to McKeesport after meeting North Braddock native Erin O’Malley, interim director of student affairs and adviser to the Free Store project, and campus Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer Jacqueline Edmondson.
Free Store 15132 opened its doors on Nov. 14 on the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus. The 15132 location is the first Free Store college site, donning the zip code of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
The Free Store distributes donated clothing, food, infant formula, home goods and toys from grocery stores, retailers and volunteers free of charge to people in need.
“After seeing the success in Braddock, we were inspired to start a Free Store here,” said Student Government Association President Rebecca Capozzi.
The campus Free Store will be primarily managed by students, helping them gain real-world experience while giving back the community.
“It’s student-run,” said O’Malley. “They take the donations, sort them and put them into categories. They’re the ones that will be unlocking the doors to give smiles and hugs to the community.”
“Volunteering with the Free Store has helped me,” said Capozzi, a biobehavorial health major. “I’ve learned so much that can be taken into the health field; like time management, communication and exposure to working with the public. Not to mention gaining leadership experience.”
In addition to opening their doors on Nov. 14, the Free Store also hosted a Thanksgiving drive that provided families with a can of vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and a gift card to purchase a turkey.
In order to collect so many products for the grand opening, Greater Allegheny turned to the community for support.
Mary of Nazareth Catholic School held a food drive, South Allegheny school district collected clothing and local Girl Scouts crafted Thanksgiving cards and brown bags in the shape of turkeys for customers to carry their Thanksgiving meals home in. Kohl’s South Hills location and Comcast also donated nearly $1,000, which was used to purchase the turkey gift cards.
Nearly 40 families will have delicious Thanksgiving meals thanks to the effort of Greater Allegheny’s community.
The sense of gratitude was clear from the very first customer’s reaction to the store. “I will be bringing my son’s old stuff!” she told Free Store volunteers. “He’s grown out of so much of it. Someone else could use it.”
“The Free Store is our way of expressing love to the community,” said Capozzi. “We want to reach out. We want the community to know we are here and doing service for them.”
And the love was felt by all. There were many laughs shared, smiles exchanged and even a few tears shed among new friends.
As one customer balanced bags, a box containing a new bike, and even a helmet in her arms, she exclaimed, “I found two Christmas presents! I adopted four of my grandchildren. This will help during the holidays.”
Free Store 15132 may have a strong impact on the campus community as well. Often times, students may have to make a decision between picking up another shift at work in order to afford necessities, or going to classes.
“Many of our students come from homes and communities that face great economic challenges,” said O’Malley. “Many of our students are unsure of where their next meal will come from. We hope the Free Store will alleviate some of this stress so our students can focus on their studies.”
“I always thought a campus location would be amazing for a Free Store,” said Fetterman. “Penn State has so much heart and incredibly thoughtful students. I knew that these were the students who would make this idea a reality. I've been so moved and inspired by the student-led team involved in this endeavor.”
“The students have the heart to run it,” said O’Malley. “They have the drive. We just have to stand back and watch it happen. This is love in action.”
The Free Store will be open on Thursdays and Fridays from noon until 2 p.m. and is located in the bottom floor of the Frable Building. Donations will be accepted during these hours. Contact Student Affairs if you have donations that cannot be dropped off during store hours or for volunteer information at 412-675-9181.