A few weeks ago, Xan Craven received a puzzling text message from her husband.
“Hey, did you move my snacks?” Spencer Craven asked. She hadn’t.
The snacks kept in the carport of their Menlo Park, California, apartment were food and drinks they usually didn’t buy — treats Spencer could grab on his way to or coming home from working long hours in Stanford Hospital’s intensive care unit.
Baffled by the missing snacks, Xan Craven checked footage on their home security camera. She saw that while she was picking up her daughter from preschool, a man on a bike entered the carport, placed the food and drinks in his backpack and rode off.
“I was filled with a lot of anxiety and fear,” she said. Though they are on a tight budget — Spencer Craven is still in medical training as a neurocritical care fellow — it wasn’t really about the food.
This wasn’t the first theft they had experienced. When they moved into their apartment last summer, Spencer Craven’s bike was stolen. As a photographer who stays home full-time with her 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, Xan Craven said she felt worried and discouraged.
She posted about the experience in local Facebook groups and the Nextdoor app to alert the neighbors. Hoping for sympathy and comfort, some responses surprised her — and ultimately led her to change her reaction to the situation.
While many were kind and understanding, some suggested she should have kept the snacks more hidden and that the man likely needed the food. A few mentioned that during the Great Depression in the 1930s, people would put food out for those who were hungry or a sign on their home inviting the hungry to come in and eat.
“Those were the comments that most resonated with me,” she said. With the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and many losing their jobs, “we’re essentially living in another Depression Era.”
She thought of the economic disparities she sees in her town of Menlo Park — evident by streets lined with homeless people living in RVs and driveways filled with Tesla electric cars.
Xan Craven was also reminded of her husband’s selfless demeanor. If the man who stole their food happened to be one of Spencer Craven’s patients, “he would still treat him, no questions asked. My husband would still sit with him if his family couldn’t be there. …
“So,” she said, “I decided to treat the situation with charity instead of fear and anger.”
From bin to locker and more
Xan Craven grabbed a storage bin and her young children, and together, they went through their pantry. They added several food items to the bin. She wrote on the bin in permanent ink: “Neighborhood Free Food Bin. Donate if you can. Take what you need.”
They placed the bin on the corner of two cross streets near their home. Xan Craven took a photo of the bin and posted it online.
This time, she said, “I was flooded with kind comments and supportive people, not only cheering me on, but asking if they could contribute to the food bin as well.” By the end of the day, boxes surrounded her storage bin.
Over the next several days, Xan Craven watched as more bags and boxes of food came and went. Soon she realized they needed a better way to organize and contain the growing donations.
Someone in the community noticed a free locker online and asked if the person giving it away could bring it by. Xan Craven and her children used leftover spray paint to clean it up and add a “Free food” label. They rolled it out to the street corner on a skateboard filled with new food donated by her daughter’s preschool teacher.
Inside the locker, they added a whiteboard and dry erase marker for people to request specific needs.
Shortly after the word “milk” was written, “I looked in the locker and somebody had already come and put in tons of little chocolate milk cartons,” Xan Craven said. “It was so fast. I didn’t even have a chance to tell everybody on the Facebook page and somebody was already on it.”
As word spreads and the food donations multiply, Xan Craven said she continues to be blown away by the supportive response from the community.
“We’re actually in the process of looking for another locker because the locker is not holding all of the food that people are dropping off. Somebody even offered to drop off excess food once a week to the local food bank.”
Charity and an open mind
Bishop David E. Entwistle of the Menlo Park Ward, Menlo Park California Stake, said at a time when people are limited in their activities, the Craven family’s negative experience “actually created a connection point in the community” and turned out to be “a real positive.”
The COVID-19 restrictions in his area continue to linger as California’s latest and worst surge of the pandemic started in mid-October. Until Jan. 25, they were under a statewide stay-at-home order and 10 p.m. curfew.
Bishop Entwistle said he hopes the Craven’s example might lead others to ask, “How do you take your hard things and make them something that’s good?”
He added, “If you look at the love, the compassion, in essence the Christlike attitude that actually goes into that to say ‘turn the other cheek’ — that is certainly a great thing.”
As Xan Craven looks back on the theft-turned-free food locker, she is reminded of a favorite scripture: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
“Heavenly Father gave us a spirit of power and of love,” she said. “It was a much needed lesson for me — never judge anyone. There is always more to their story that you will ever see on the surface.”
She also said she hopes her children will learn from this experience in the future when they encounter people with different perspectives — like the comments on her first post about the theft.
“Listen,” she said. “And always react with charity and be open-minded.”