A Community Feeds in the Time of Corona

Is the rise of the community pantry our quarantine spring?

On April 14, 2021, a small business owner named Ana Patricia “Patreng” Non set up a community pantry along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City. Above a bamboo cart, which she filled with rice, canned goods, and vegetables, she posted two cardboard signs. On one of them, she wrote, “Maginhawa Community Pantry,” and on the other, a now famous note: “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan. Kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” (Give only what you can. Take only what you need.)

In her original Facebook post, she also issued a simple call to action: “Kung sakaling malayo ka naman pwede ka magsimula ng community pantry sa inyong lugar. (If you live far from here, you can start a community pantry in your area.)” In only a matter of hours, her community pantry along Maginhawa had made headlines, drawing interest not only from the community it wished to feed, and from ordinary Filipinos with whom its value resonated, but also from the state, whose shortcomings it reflected.

If You Build It, They Will Come

By now, Non is known as the woman who started a movement from within the world’s longest lockdown. But she always says that she didn’t do any of it alone. Besides bringing a bamboo cart from her home and buying items from local vendors, Non depended on helping hands to build and sustain her plan.

“Ang unang mga volunteer ko po ay ‘yong mga tricycle driver at ‘yong mga manininda doon,” she said in a statement over Zoom. “Sila rin po ‘yong mga unang kumuha sa community pantry, at ‘yong response po nila ay, ‘Nakakuha kami, kailangan talaga, kaya ‘yong iba naman ‘yong tutulungan namin.’” (My first volunteers were the local vendors and tricycle drivers. They were also the first to take items from the community pantry, and their response was, ‘We got what we really needed, so now it’s our turn to help others.’)

In the days that followed, they continued to help in myriad ways, including packing and manning supplies, marshaling lines, receiving inquiries, and distributing ready-to-eat meals to the homeless. Each day, Non continued to give updates and source supplies in cash and in kind via social media.

Her reminder to “give what you can” called to people from all walks of life. “May mga kamote galing sa mga magsasaka; mayroon ding mga isda galing sa mga mangingisda,” she shared. “Nagtulong-tulong ‘yong mga restaurant owner doon na, kahit sarado na sila, kahit ‘yong iba ibinenta na nila ‘yong restaurant nila, nag-ambag sila sa community pantry kasi naiintindihan nila kung paano ang maapektuhan ng pandemic.” (There were sweet potatoes from farmers, as well as fish from fishermen. Restaurant owners, even those who had closed down or sold their businesses, also contributed to the community pantry because they knew what it was like to be affected by the pandemic.)

Non’s encouragement of other community pantries was also crucial. In one Facebook post, she even shared four simple steps to building a community pantry, originally published by Makò Micro-Press. These were to: (1) ask for help from family and friends; (2) create a list of tools and supplies; (3) choose an easy-to-find, well-trafficked spot; and (4) set up your cart and put up a sign.

A Quarantine Spring

Anywhere in the world, only a very specific situation gives rise to a community pantry — that is, witnessing hunger and wanting to instantly feed. It is an action done outside the country-wide and world-wide system of hunger relief, which needs to pool resources from a larger population, distribute these to food banks, and deliver based on a schedule. While this aid is more far-reaching and longer-term, it is at times unable to give people what they need when they need it. This is where a community pantry can help. Precisely because it is founded on community, it becomes a steady source of nourishment, accessible from just a few steps away.

It took less than 24 hours after the setup of the Maginhawa Community Pantry for new ones to emerge, both in areas near Maginhawa and in other cities, including Los Baños in Laguna and Balanga in Bataan. A study released on April 18, 2021, by the Philippine Sociological Society (PSS), in partnership with Oxfam Philippines, titled “Contagion of Mutual Aid in the Philippines: An Initial Analysis of the Viral Community Pantry Initiative as Emergent Agency in Times of Covid-19” observes that at one point on April 17, community pantries multiplied eightfold in the span of less than a day. As of April 21, there are about 350 community pantries, located from one end of the Philippines to another, on the crowdsourced Saan May Community Pantry Map. Seventy of these are from Non’s home base of Quezon City.

In Timor-Leste, a group of Filipinos has also started their own community pantry to help victims of flash floods in its capital city of Dili, inspired by the one at 96 Maginhawa Street.

Here in the Philippines, community pantries have also become today’s remedy for issues surrounding not only food security but also food wastage. In several instances, farmers, fishers, and larger companies have been able to supply community pantries with inventory that would have otherwise gone to waste. A Facebook page, Community Pantry PH, which was set up for organizers, advocates, and donors, and which keeps a directory and a Google Map of local community pantries, also provides a venue for small businesses with oversupply to sell to nearby donors. As of April 23, it has more than 15,000 members.

The State Reacts

In a country where state response to COVID-19 has been slow, where lately the number of new cases per day averages 10,000, and where 4.2 million are now unemployed while a large percentage of the rest of the population suffers from pay cuts, it has taken only one community pantry to spotlight what needs fixing and provide priceless relief.

On his Twitter account, anthropologist Gideon Lasco posed a question that echoed the thoughts of a population in lockdown: “If a community can do so much with so little, how can our government do so little with so much?”

The state’s awareness of this is perhaps why, only one week into its operations, various state forces have started to eagerly take up a role in the narrative of the community pantry. On the eve of April 20, Non declared Maginhawa Community Pantry temporarily closed due to safety concerns stemming from being red-tagged by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

Non also spent the day dealing with subsequent inquiries into her background by multiple police officers and a Facebook post shared by the Quezon City Police Department (QCPD) alleging her communist underpinnings. The red-tagging of the Maginhawa and other community pantries was confirmed in an interview by NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson Antonio Parlade Jr. himself. It prompted the National Privacy Commission (NPC) to warn against illegal profiling and call on the Philippine National Police (PNP) to adhere to privacy laws protecting individual citizens.

“While more people set up community pantries in the spirit of bayanihan, it has come to our attention that there were concerns over alleged profiling of organizers of these initiatives,” Privacy Commissioner Edmund Liboro said in an official press release. “Should there be a need to collect personal information to maintain peace and order, it must be accomplished with transparency, legitimate purpose, and proportionality.”

The QCPD has since taken down its Facebook post red-tagging Non, with an apology from its director, Police Brigadier General Antonio Yarra.

On the same day, Interior Undersecretary Martin Diño said in an ANC interview that he felt community pantries needed to seek permits from their local governments to ensure that COVID-19 protocols would be observed. But Diño’s own superior, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, rendered this statement null when he announced that he would be leaving this decision up to city governments.

Several city mayors have since voiced out their comments. Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Manila, Marikina, Navotas, Pateros, Pasig, and Quezon City are among the cities that will continue to support community pantries without requiring community pantry permits.

Weighing in on the issue, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque maintained that the rise of community pantries did not reflect government failure but instead showcased the spirit of bayanihan. His official statement on the issue of red-tagging was, “Let’s just say the president welcomes all initiatives helping our countrymen while we are in a pandemic.”

On April 22, QCPD fined five individuals who had lined up at Maginhawa Community Pantry as early as 5 a.m. They were asked to pay PHP 300 each in violation of the current NCR+ curfew hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. This earned criticism online and was seen as insensitivity toward the poor who were going to the extremes for a chance to feed themselves and their families. Reporting on the incident, ANC news anchor Karen Davila asked, “Ginto ang PHP 300 sa panahon ngayon. Walang kita ang tao. Why make the poor suffer more?” (PHP 300 is worth gold these days. People are not earning. Why make the poor suffer more?)

Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, who had earlier expressed her support for Non and Maginhawa Community Pantry, paid for the fines.

Meanwhile, on April 23, 67-year-old balut vendor Rolando Dela Cruz collapsed while lining up for a community pantry hosted by actress Angel Locsin in Barangay Holy Spirit, Quezon City. He was rushed to the nearby East Avenue Medical Center but was declared dead on arrival. At first the lines to Locsin’s grocery-like community pantry were orderly, but as hundreds started showing up it became more difficult to serve the crowd.

In an apology posted on Facebook, Locsin claimed accountability for the incident. “Ang nangyari po ay akin pong pagkakamali. Sana po’y ‘wag madamay ang ibang community pantries na maganda po ang nangyari,” she said. “Sa ngayon po, I will prioritize helping the family [of Dela Cruz] and I will make it my responsibility to help them get through this.” (What happened was on me. I hope this does not affect other community pantries where the turnout was agreeable. For now, I will prioritize helping the family, and I will make it my responsibility to help them get through this.)

On Twitter, National Task Force Against COVID-19 adviser Teddy Herbosa posted a screenshot of a news report of the incident along with the statement, “Death by ‘Community Pantry,’ I told you so!” He has since made his Twitter account private.

On Facebook, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes Jr. countered, “Ang elephant in the room ay ‘yong kawalang-aksiyon ng gobyerno sa maraming nagugutom. (The elephant in the room is the government’s failure to address the hunger of its people.)” He said it was the state that should be held accountable for the early queues, long lines, and difficult conditions brought to light by community pantries.

Protecting a Narrative of Mutual Aid

In a section on defending emergent solidarities in their April 18 study, PSS writes,

The very real danger is that there are efforts this early by certain sectors to hijack the narrative and to rob this movement of its optimism and radical content. What should not be lost in the discursive field is that the establishment of community pantries is a transgressive act that lets us see what may lie beyond the limits imposed by the “natural order of things” and that these emergent agencies point us to the possibility of new political horizons.

Community pantries are a form of resistance against an oppressive politics that has allowed millions to go hungry every day. They push the needle on what a society starved of proper aid can achieve. In an effort that is strangely parallel, community pantries are being linked to the radical left, stretching the narrative to make room for local government officials and higher ranking national government officials who only want to ride on its coattails.

At this point in time, a community pantry does not only feed bodies; it also nourishes spirits. In a way, as PSS observes, it is the antipandemic because it is “a different kind of contagion, the good kind representing the best of our fellow Filipinos who engage in collective acts of mutual aid. They are manifestations of new solidarities that are forged out of the collective trauma faced during this pandemic.” Thus, when other parties co-opt the community pantry narrative, what they are doing is taking away another chance for a nation to heal.

Return to Maginhawa

From her bedroom in Diliman, speaking to the press and hundreds of Facebook Live viewers on April 20, Non made sure to focus the one-hour dialogue on stories that were closer to home, relaying scenes of cooperation and even of reconciliation between members of opposing families, faiths, and corporations. She said she was particularly touched by a recent conversation between a sidewalk vendor and a city official, both volunteering at the community pantry, in which the sidewalk vendor asked the city official not to chase her and her fellow vendors away the next time they met. “‘Yong mga ganoong tao, nagkakasalubong talaga, nagkakaroon ng unity,” Non shared. (People like them really meet [at the community pantry], and it brings unity.)

To the question of continuing Maginhawa Community Pantry after its red-tagging, Non’s answer was simply, “Itutuloy po namin, kasi mas marami po ‘yong nangangailangan kaysa sa nagbabatikos.” (We will continue it, because there are more people who need it than those against it.) She also took the opportunity to invite naysayers to find out what the community pantry stood for firsthand, either by visiting one or building their own. “Alam ko po na maiintindihan din nila.” (I know they will understand.)

Non also remains optimistic about sustainably being able to help nourish others. While she is aware that donor fatigue is a possibility, she is also practical in her mindset and confident that there will always be someone who will have food to spare. “Magtiwala lang po tayo na eventually mayroong bahay na masosobrahan ng saing o ng lutong ulam o groceries,” she said. “Asahan lang natin na kahit mabagal, may magbibigay at magbibigay rin, basta ‘wag po natin tanggalin ‘yong venue para makatulong.” (Let us trust that there will always be one household that can spare rice, an entree, or groceries. Let us hold on to the hope that even if it slows, there will always be somebody who can give, as long as we do not take away the venue through which they can help.)

As of this writing, Maginhawa Community Pantry has reopened.

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Marielle Antonio is a researcher, writer, and editor who has worked in education, civil society, and food. In quarantine, she heads Project Nourish by The Moment Group, which cooks and delivers packed meals to frontliners in Metro Manila.