Of the people, for the people: The power of community pantries

Aside from a health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also only brought about an economic one. The shutting down of businesses and subsequent employee lay-offs have greatly exacerbated the already-pervasive issues of hunger and unemployment in the country. As ayuda (relief aid) and other government support services remain insufficient for the needs of the people, more and more are rendered vulnerable in the prolonged lockdown.

On the morning of April 14, a small bamboo stall with a selection of vegetables was quietly set up along the busy Maginhawa St. in Quezon City. It had a small cardboard sign that read, “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” A few onlookers inspected the stall and by the end of the day, a line had formed down the street. In a matter of days, inspired by what would become known as the Maginhawa Community Pantry, more community pantries began to pop up across the country.

(Give what you can, take only what you need.)

As crowds poured in and contributions came left and right, these community pantries found themselves in the center of a media maelstrom, viral think pieces, and government inquiries. Through it all, pantry organizers continue to face pressure and struggles as they contend with the seemingly insurmountable social ills amid the pandemic.

Hungry for survival

Community pantries wouldn’t exist without the grassroots movement as a whole—emphasizing the day-to-day struggle of the working class to find ways to feed themselves and their families. Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) members Erlinda Aquino and Kristhean Navales are full-time teachers organizing several school-based community pantries. “Tayo na lang talaga nagtutulungan. Kung sino pa ang mahihirap, tayo-tayo na lang rin magtutulungan sa panahong ito,” Aquino says.

(It’s just us working together. Even if we’re already poor, it’s only us helping each other at a time like this.)

While resilience may be the pretty—and overused—narrative, the community pantry efforts stem from systemic issues of hunger and poverty, providing much-needed essentials ranging from food, books, sanitary necessities, and even medical help and family planning consultations. Martie Bueno, an organizer for a community pantry in General Trias, has witnessed goods being gone in mere minutes, but for her, this isn’t a mark of people’s greed but the failure of the state to prioritize welfare of its citizens. “Community pantries shift the power to allocate goods and resources to the people,” she explains, “[…] It’s political from the very definition of politics.”

A collective effort

The self-initiated nature of the community pantries allows for much variety in how each one is set up. Some pantries may open during typical meal times to cater specifically to serving meals, while others may be open all day long. While the Maginhawa Community Pantry had started with minimal volunteers on-site, most pantries now have on-site volunteers to control crowding and maintain physical distancing protocols.

Many of the resources pooled for these pantries come from both the organizers’ own pockets and their own beneficiaries. Romano Beler, an organizer of the Sulyap ng Pag-asa community pantry in Quezon City, shared that many of their beneficiaries had left small, loose change in place of the goods that they took from the pantry. In one day, the loose change had amounted to P87, which Beler and the other organizers were able to use to buy two kilograms of rice to replenish the pantry. Recounting the experience, he says, “Masaya ‘yung community. Simple, payak, pero tumutugon siya doon sa tawag ng pangangailangan ng komunidad.”

(The community is happy. [It’s] simple, but it responds to the call of the needs of the community.)

The initiative brings out much of the good nature of those willing to help, as DLSU alumni Martin Cervantes (ADV, ‘01), who spearheaded the University’s own pantry known as Dude, Pantry, Chong, believes that people are inherently compassionate, no matter how individualistic the system may be. “When you have the humanity in you, you don’t just think about yourself—you also think about others,” he shares.

Pantries under threat

While community pantries can momentarily soothe the growl of people’s stomachs, it is undeniable that more comprehensive solutions are needed to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Hunger, unemployment, and other socioeconomic ills take on political undertones because the status quo is supported by the policies and dynamics that govern our country. As such, community pantries that arose from these deeply-rooted issues send a strong political message about the current social climate.

Bueno shares how a barangay official pressed her with questions upon setting up the pantry, “Sino ba raw ‘yung sponsor ko? Sino raw ‘yung mga kasama ko? Sino raw ako? San daw ako nakatira?”

(They asked who my sponsor is, who my companions are, who I am, where I come from.)

This apprehension extends to actual intimidation with organizers of community pantries being blatantly red-tagged and harassed by the state forces. In the last few months, a member of ACT, Rosanilla Consad, was seen in news headlines being reported as a victim of repeated red-tagging, surveillance, and threats. Bueno herself, whose parents are members of the police force, is worried that she might be questioned next. “Sometimes I think to myself, if ever one day I get red-tagged, I wonder if my parents will take the side of the state or mine,” she admits.

Fighting the good fight

While collectivism and volunteerism are honorable ideals, Cervantes dreams of a better world where the well-being of many is not hinged on the goodwill of the few. He expresses, “My dream is mawala na ‘yung mga pantries na ito. Para kapag wala na ‘yung mga pantries, alam natin na nasagot na ‘yung kailangan.”

(My dream is for us to outgrow the need for these pantries. For when they are gone, we know that what we citizens need has already been answered.)

Amid all the challenges, the community pantry organizers promise to continue doing their work. “Kung sino ang nangangailangan, kung sino ang kumatok, kung may sobra kami, then iyon ‘yung pagsasalu-saluhan namin,” Beler says.

(Whoever needs help, whoever approaches, for as long as we have to spare, then that is what we will give.)

The advent of community pantries has highlighted the systemic inequalities long plaguing the country. While the bayanihan spirit is indeed worth celebrating, it is also imperative that this public initiative become a call for government accountability—demonstrating the collective power of citizens to demand social change.

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By Matthew Gan

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