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Community pantries: A nutrition perspective

Communities pantries have gone viral all over the country, drawing inspiration from the first one set up on Maginhawa Street, Quezon City, by Ana Patricia Non (may her tribe increase!). The idea, which builds on preexisting local responses to times of crises, is as simple as it is powerful: “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha ayon sa panga-ngailangan” (Give whatever you can, take only what you need). The fact that it emerged at a time of renewed crisis­ e.g. the return to ECQ and the surge in COVID-19 casesʍspeaks of the reality it seeks to address: More and more people have less and less food to eat.

As public health practitioners working in the fields of nutrition and medical anthropology, respectively, we welcome this development for a number of reasons:

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First, community pantries address food access. The community pantries are set up in areas where there is high foot traffic and where many households have no means to buy food. Thus, the economic and physical access to food of these food-insecure households are immediately attended to, and this is especially important for children for whom the prolonged food scarcity during the pandemic is bound to have long-term consequences. Encouragingly, in Batanes where community food sharing during disasters has long been practiced, a majority of the households are food-secure and have relatively low stunting rates among children.

Second, the pantries offer food diversity. Unlike food packs from formal institutions that consist mostly of rice, canned goods, condiments, and instant coffee/beverages, the community pantries owing in part to the solidarity that local farmers and those with access to their produce have shown have featured more nutritious foods like vegetables, root crops, fish, eggs, and fruits. In effect mirroring the food pantry experience in other countries (Ruopong et al. 2019), the pantry clients have healthier food selections likely due to diverse sources of food and the nutritional awareness of pantry organizers.

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Third, they reduce food wastage. Those who have excess whether at home or from their farms share what would otherwise have gone to waste. Beyond the actual food that is exchanged in the pantries, they further optimize community resources by promoting the idea of food sharing.

Fourth, from a planetary health perspective, community pantries contribute to lesser carbon footprints, given that the pantries promote food exchange within communities.

Finally, beyond these observed benefits, community pantries can, in the words of Ruopong et al., serve as a “focal point where additional services can be delivered to improve the diet and health status of the highly vulnerable client population.” They can serve as venues for sharing health education, not to mention avenues for small businesses, local farmers, and fishers to increase their income.

However, with the growing number of community pantries across the country, we also have a few concerns. One is the assurance of food quality and safety. It is assumed that all the donated foods are in good condition, but as the pantries handle bigger volumes of food, issues like food spoilage will have to be considered and best practices imparted from one pantry to another.

Another concern pertains to sustainability and scale. At the moment, there is an outpouring of donations and volunteers coming from people from all walks of life, but in the long run, especially as demand rises, adequate sources of food, storage to maintain stocks, and human resources to manage these tasks will be required. Fortunately, some LGUs and government agencies have been quick to recognize the value of community pantries; hopefully they can contribute resources and technical knowledge to address these concerns.

Lastly, alongside providing the most basic need of people, which is food, there should be complementary programs to address the root causes of hunger and poverty, such as job creation and livelihood assistance especially among those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. Thankfully, the community pantries also offer a clue on what is required to achieve these needs: collective action.

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Charina Javier is a nutritionist and science research specialist at the DOST-Food and Nutrition Research Institute. Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist.

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TAGS: Charina Javier, Commentary, community pantries, COVID-19 pandemic, Gideon Lasco, pandemic nutrition
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