How a Community Pantry Sparked Movement of Mutual Aid in the Philippines

How a Community Pantry Sparked Movement of Mutual Aid in the Philippines
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

To help those struggling financially during the pandemic, hundreds of community pantries have been set up across the Philippines, and more are sprouting up.

On April 14, Ana Patricia Non put out a small bamboo cart along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City filled with canned goods, fresh vegetables, vitamins, facemasks, and other necessities amid the pandemic. At the top of the cart was a handwritten sign on cardboard, “Maginhawa Community Pantry. Take what you need. Give what you can.”

In the week that followed, the initiative exploded. From around 10 visitors a day, the pantry now has dozens of volunteers from local tricycle drivers and street vendors working with Non to serve an estimated 2,000 families each day. Each passing day, community pantries have been popping up across Metro Manila, eventually reaching as far as Iligan City in the far southern region of Mindanao.

Activists, church workers, and all manner of good Samaritans across civil society have been pooling their efforts together in a stunning display of mutual aid. Non shares that donations have been pouring in from a multitude of backgrounds, from nearby restaurant owners to those from low-income backgrounds and even well-off anonymous supporters. The same can be said for the 350 pantries following in Non’s footsteps.

The movement has struck a chord in the Philippines, whose people have been struggling during the pandemic. Little to no financial assistance and aid has been afforded to the country’s poorest. It’s no wonder why the queues for the pantries are long enough to encircle entire street blocks.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
People wearing face masks and face shields as protection against Covid-19 queue outside a grocery store in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 28, 2021.

The Philippines has the unfortunate reputation of imposing the world’s longest lockdown. It has inevitably hurt the economy and the most vulnerable. Towards the end of March, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte reinstated tighter quarantine protocols, but promised a relief check of around US$20 to 22.9 million impoverished Filipinos.

In a month, the Department of Local and Interior Government, or DILG, reported that 4.4 million families have been given the promised US$20. By government standards of poverty, the amount is only enough to cover three days of subsistence, but it takes the entire bureaucracy months to distribute the cash. There are glaring inefficiencies in the pandemic response, and it is the same reason why community pantries have become so popular: people are hungry.

“Efforts like these give us hope that we can come together and help each other out. I felt that the state response was not enough. They’re doing something but it isn’t enough. People wouldn’t be lining up at the pantries if the help was sufficient,” says Non.

She illustrates, “This initiative does not discriminate against gender, class, affiliation, religion, or anything else. It’s just based on our capacity to help. There is freedom in that.”

Pantry Poopers

On April 18, pictures were circulating on social media that the Police were visiting the pantries and inquiring about their nature with high-powered rifles. On the following day, the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which is under the President’s direct command, accused the entire movement on its Facebook page of being funded by communists, who aim to spread propaganda. They went on to say that soliciting donations is a way to fund the guerrillas in the mountains.

This practice of accusing an individual or group of collaborating with communist insurgents on mere suspicion is colloquially called red-tagging. Most accusers tend to be government authorities, and many accused are ordinary citizens who may or may not be critical of the administration.

Referring to the supposed communist infiltrators, NTF-ELCAC spokesperson Lorraine Badoy said, “Stop using the good nature of Filipinos to fool them and put them in harm’s way.”

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Protesters display placards during a rally outside the general headquarters of the Philippine armed forces to denounce alleged military’s red tagging of leftist protesters Tuesday, October 2, 2018 in suburban Quezon city, south of Manila, Philippines.

Non herself was questioned by the police several times. At first, she gave them the benefit of the doubt. She also appreciated how they would simply remind those in line to maintain social distancing. However, she felt disheartened at the sentiments conveyed by the Quezon City police on social media, which echoed the NTF-ELCAC.

Many red-tagged people have been either arrested or murdered. For fear of the same fate, Non halted the Maginhawa Pantry for a day to ensure her safety and that of the volunteers and beneficiaries. “I was saddened by this. They could have just talked to me if they wanted to know something. At one point we just asked the police to stop bringing rifles because they can create fear. This culture of intimidation must stop.”

Non says that this is the opposite of what she envisions the pantry to be, a cross-cutting way for collaboration and community building, especially for those in need, not a venue for political intrigue. She has sought the help of Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, who said she would look into the matter.

Amid the commotion, the DILG also announced that it is looking to require those running community pantries to acquire special permits from the government for “safety and security.”

In response to the proposed policy, Non said, “Do we need permits to support each other? This is unnecessary. We shouldn’t need to ask permission to help. I don’t want to delay people’s needs and requiring permits could discourage people. We should focus on the real issue.”

Non added that while she was open to partnering with local governments, she urged officials not to donate to citizen-led efforts, but to use existing resources to help communities in need.

By no means does Non consider herself the leader of this movement, though everyone that has followed suit has undoubtedly been guided by her actions and decisiveness. She maintains that the root of the matter is simply to “take what you need and give what you can” and to “trust and learn from the masses.” She attributes these values to her exposure to progressive ideas at the University of the Philippines, the activist groups on campus, and a supportive family.

Despite the recent kerfuffle, she pledges that community pantries must continue. “People will not stop giving as long as there is a venue for it,” she says. “There are more people in need than those criticizing.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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