On community pantries
Community pantries were all the talk across social media this week, with the Maginhawa Community Pantry being the first to generate media buzz. A community pantry is a service that provides food directly to locals suffering from food insecurity. Some rely purely on local donations. Some coordinate with food banks and organizations for steady supplies of food and essential goods. Some also organize other socio-civic activities for patrons. The community pantry is not a new idea, as many have been established elsewhere as an immediate, local response to hunger, but in the context of the pandemic and millions of food-insecure Filipinos, the idea has proven nothing short of revolutionary. In less than a week, the Maginhawa cart has served thousands of individuals and inspired many to help sustain the pantry. Other communities across the country have been inspired to start their own pantries, such as those in Quezon City, Rizal, and Nueva Ecija. In a news week filled with petulant presidents, VIPs easily gaining admittance to hospitals, and yet another dose of dolomite, the efforts of community pantry organizers have been a pleasant change.
With praise comes criticism, and some have expressed doubt as to how feasible or sustainable these carts can be. When we’ve seen Filipinos scrambling for “ayuda” and hoarding basic needs, it might be easy for some to equate extreme need with greed. Community pantries operate on trust systems and encourage donors to give what they can, and recipients to take only as much as they need. So far, if the anecdotes and photos are anything to go by, this seems to work, at least with the guidance of organizers and volunteers since there are still some who risk trying to hoard supplies.
As to how sustainable such projects are, this would depend on the commitment of united communities, the goodwill of donors, and the level of organization of such pantries, especially for those who source goods from farmers or companies. In pursuing the latter, community pantries may help combat the extreme levels of food waste in the Philippines. According to the World Wildlife Fund Philippines, hundreds of thousands of tons of rice are wasted yearly, and more than 2,000 tons of food scraps are thrown out daily—sad statistics given how many Filipinos deal daily with hunger.
At the end of the day, community pantries may not be immune to abuse and fatigue, and are not guaranteed any longevity without consistent community action and some degree of organization. The fact remains, though, that such initiatives can mean the difference between life and death for some. Community pantries are a way for individuals and private groups to attempt to address gaps in the way government is handling the twin problems of unemployment and hunger.
Amid the discussion of community pantries, things are bound to get political. Some, like human rights lawyer Maria Sol Taule, argue that “community pantries are political,” as she said in a Twitter post last week—that such initiatives are one of many that continually try to fill in the gaps of government response. One recalls the donation drives for personal protective equipment for hospitals. One recalls the sheer amount of food donated to hospitals and impoverished communities since the start of lockdown. Each is an attempt to make the burden a little lighter for Filipinos in an immediate, tangible, and, sometimes, sadly, temporary way.
Critics argue that politicizing community pantries to complain against the government’s neglect disregards the goodness and spirit of “bayanihan” behind such initiatives. To an extent this is true — Filipinos of all political colors may indeed donate to, and benefit from, such pantries. However, how can we deny that the circumstances producing such hunger, such widespread need, are political? How can we deny that misuse of resources, disregard of scientifically sound advice for mass testing, contact tracing and appropriate quarantine, and consistently defaulting to different degrees of lockdown are not contributory to widespread hunger? The founder of the Maginhawa Community Pantry, Ana Patricia Non, told Rappler that she started the pantry because she was tired of complaining, and tired of “inaction.”
How many of us can identify with this feeling? So many legitimate complaints about government incompetence fall on deaf, even contemptuous, ears. So often we are met with confusing and unhelpful initiatives like the P389-million dolomite project, which resumed its “beautification” of Manila Bay last week amid cries for timely and prioritized vaccine rollouts and support for packed hospitals dealing with COVID-19. Community pantries are a wonderful result of altruism, compassion and Bayanihan spirit, but right now they are also one more sign of Filipinos supporting other Filipinos who bear the brunt of government failures.
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