‘She had the biggest heart.’ Fresno’s first Little Free Pantry dedicated to homicide victim

Guadalupe Rivera’s name is inscribed on a small golden plaque on Fresno’s first Little Free Pantry, one of hundreds located in front yards across the country.

“She was full of life,” said one of her daughters, Norma Saavedra. “She loved to dance, love. This is her way of still dancing right there in spirit and loving.”

Rivera’s life was cut short Oct. 19. She was found dead in her east-central Fresno home, not far from the new food pantry in her honor at 2236 N. Price Ave., near Clinton and Maple avenues. One of her sons was arrested on suspicion of murder.

One of Rivera’s neighbors and friends, Marva Ward, had been working to bring a Little Free Pantry – where people can take or leave items anonymously at any time of the day – to their neighborhood before Rivera was killed. Once it was approved by the city earlier this month, dedicating it to her seemed right.

A large group of Rivera’s family attended a Wednesday morning unveiling ceremony for the pantry. They brought armfuls of non-perishable food items. What didn’t fit inside the small wooden pantry on Ward’s front yard was piled around it on her lawn.

“She would have filled this pantry every day,” said one family member about Rivera.

“She had the biggest heart,” another said.

“I know she’s smiling down, happy, right now,” a third said. “I know that.”

Evelyn Velasquez, 4, granddaughter of homicide victim Guadalupe Rivera, and family members deliver food to Fresno’s first Little Free Pantry, dedicated to Rivera, Wednesday morning, Oct. 30, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Rivera worked cleaning homes and as a “full-time grandma.” Family said she was always helping others and giving of herself.

The Little Free Pantry was installed by Sioux Honey Association Co-op, which has pledged to use a portion of California’s Beek’s honey proceeds to keep the Fresno pantry stocked, along with two others they opened this month in the central San Joaquin Valley, in Los Banos and Modesto. Those attending Wednesday’s ceremony hope residents will build more small pantries across the Valley.

Fresno is third in the country for food insecurity, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

“I think that a lot of the food need goes unspoken because of the shame attached with it,” said Ward, who works with Evangelicals for Social Action/Love Inc.. “We do have several distribution sites with the USDA, and so I know food is plentiful, but I think a lot of people don’t want to go stand in that line because they don’t want people to see them there. And so with this being an anonymous 24/7 come-when-you-can, I think it adds a different layer.”

It took only a few minutes for food to fill up Fresno’s first Little Free Pantry, dedicated to Guadalupe Rivera, a victim of a homicide, Wednesday morning, Oct. 30, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

One local beekeeper, David Bradshaw of Visalia, used bees to describe the gift: “A Little Free Pantry is a way for the hive to help those who have been stung by a difficult situation.”

Bradshaw helped stock the new Fresno pantry, including with bottles of Beek’s honey that he helped make.

The city of Fresno’s Planning and Development Department allowed small pantries earlier this month. They can be built on single-family residential properties without a permit as long as they’re located on private property and not in the public right-of-way. However, while not regulated by the city’s development code, “they may need to be removed if they become an attractive nuisance to neighboring properties,” the department wrote to those installing the new Fresno pantry.

The little pantry idea was inspired by the Little Free Library movement.

The first Little Free Pantry was built in 2016. The pantries are usually stocked with non-perishable foods and other items such as toothbrushes, socks and school supplies, the Little Free Pantry organization said.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.