For three years, Donna Johnson has operated a food pantry in the hallway of her Annapolis public housing building as a way of helping her neighbors around the holidays.

It’s just a few shelves and a small table for food items. They sit beneath an announcements board adorned with holiday decorations, including a large red ribbon.

Donna Johnson, a community activist in Annapolis who ran a holiday food pantry in the hallway of her public housing building, was told by officials to shut it down. They cited code violations and worries about health and safety. (Donna Johnson via Facebook)

Tuesday, Annapolis’ housing authority informed the longtime Harbour House resident known for her generous spirit that she would need to close down her food distribution center by Friday. Neighbors had complained, officials said, and the food pantry was in violation of the fire code. Another concern was that perishable items had been left out, attracting pests.

In a Facebook live video posted this week, an emotional Johnson seemed beside herself.

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“This is supposed to be the season for giving, and they want to take the table away?” she said. “You don’t know how many people all over Annapolis have come to this food pantry table. And to see it gone? I cannot believe that no residents have been complaining about this food table. I know what it is. A lot of us know what it is.”

Melissa Maddox-Evans, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, praised Johnson’s “good nature” but stood by the decision, which followed a city inspection.

“We support Donna to provide resources, whether they be food or clothes or anything else that’s needed in the community,” Maddox-Evans said. “We asked her to remove the food items from the hallway.”

Harbour House, a public housing community in Eastport, is owned by the housing authority.

Under a memo of understanding, Johnson has been permitted to keep donated food items in a storage facility in her building. However, Johnson does not have a permit for a food pantry.

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“I’m helping the Eastport community,” Johnson said.

A Facebook user expressed support for Johnson, commenting on her video post: “Wow thats crazy, why do u have to remove it? Its crazy they wanna block the positive stuff ur doing.”

But Mitchelle Stephenson, a public information officer for the city, said the food pantry violated fire and zoning codes. She said food-handling issues caused pest activity, such as rodents and bugs, in the area. Inspectors found perishable food items left out, including fresh fruit, bread and other items in loose packaging.

As a result of the health and safety concerns, Maddox-Evans said, the authority asked Johnson to remove the food items from under the building’s stairwells.

Donna Johnson's food pantry, located in Harbour House, is open for community members to grab items as needed. (Donna Johnson)

Johnson said the pantry, stocked with donated items from community members and churches, mostly consisted of dry goods such as canned vegetables and beans, along with a few apples and oranges. Community members have been free to grab the items from the shelves and tables.

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“Ms. Johnson is no doubt an asset to the community and has a big heart,” Stephenson said. “However, both HACA and the City have an obligation to protect the public health and public safety.”

Johnson started Donna’s Day of Hope, an event full of giveaways, three years ago. She has received numerous awards for her work in the community, including the “Few of the Many” Sojourner Truth Award from the office of Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman in February 2022, the 2023 Celebrate Annapolis Juneteenth Difference Maker Award and the 2022-23 Rotarian of the Year for dedication and support of the Annapolis community.

Johnson, the authority and the city are working to come up with a solution that allows Johnson to keep providing goods to the community.

Said Maddox-Evans: “She’s more than welcome to distribute food as needed.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis solely owns Harbour House.