Community pantries sprout across the Philippines amid flailing govt response to Covid-19 pandemic

Citizens receive free food items from a community pantry on Maginhawa Street, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, on April 19, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - It began last week as a small cart parked unsupervised along a busy street. The idea was, anyone who needed it could get any of the food items on the cart, and anyone who could spare some could put something in.

Photos of this "community pantry", and stories about a homeless man, a street sweeper and a few others rummaging through the cart and picking just an orange or two, or a bottle of water quickly spread on social media.

In just a few days, this modest effort by a 26-year-old furniture designer, who thought she could do more to help strangers at the end of their ropes, has become more than just an act of charity.

It is now a fast-spreading grassroots movement and a flash point for a heated debate over what many see as the government's flailing response to a still-raging pandemic.

There are now over a hundred of these community pantries across the Philippines, and more are sprouting up everywhere.

These were all inspired by Ms Patreng Non, who on April 14 set up a makeshift stall with a modest pile of canned sardines, pasta, rice and vegetables along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City.

There was only one rule: Give what you can, take what you need.

"I'm tired of complaining. I'm tired of inaction," said Ms Non.

"I didn't expect it to trend. I thought it was a weird idea that no one would want to copy."

Why it's spreading like wildfire

Community pantries are neither novel nor unique.

"Food banks" figured prominently in the United States when the Covid-19 outbreak there peaked and millions suddenly found themselves without jobs when their companies had to shut down due to shelter-at-home restrictions.

"Sharing pantries" also caught on in Thailand last year, where the initiative spread to at least 43 provinces.

But the idea has taken a deep, emotional root here because of growing frustrations over the Covid-19 pandemic, the never-ending and fickle quarantine restrictions, and the government's seeming inability to get a handle on things.

"People want to do something, and they are tired of the inaction of the government. There are people going hungry, and they want to help," Mr Jomar Fleras, executive director of the non-profit Rise Against Hunger, told The Straits Times.

Representative Arlene Brosas called the pantries "a scathing indictment of (President Rodrigo) Duterte's failed pandemic response".

There are now over a hundred of these community pantries across the Philippines, and more are sprouting up everywhere. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Despite sweeping restrictions that have been in place since March last year, the Philippines is still reeling from the second-worst Covid-19 outbreak in South-east Asia, after Indonesia, with close to one million infections and some 15,000 dead.

Over 4 million Filipinos are without jobs.

The government's economic managers estimate that lockdown curbs in the past five weeks alone have cost workers roughly 83.3 billion pesos (S$2.3 billion) in lost income.

Meanwhile, only 4 billion pesos of the 23 billion pesos earmarked as cash aid for the poor have been doled out.

But the government has brushed off the flak.

"I don't see it as a condemnation of the government… We continue to give aid," Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.

He said the pantries "simply show the best in us during the worst of times".

Not sustainable

Those running community pantries have to grapple with issues concerning food safety and quality, sanitation and pilferage PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Fleras, whose organisation runs the Philippines' largest network of privately funded food banks, said community pantries as they are now are unlikely to last, especially as hundreds, even thousands, begin lining up for free food.

Those running these pantries would have to grapple with issues concerning food safety and quality, sanitation and even pilferage.

"It can't just be food left on the table, and people rummaging through the stuff to see what they want. It doesn't work that way," he said.

Mr Fleras said the community pantries would eventually have to be run together with an established charity group or with the government itself for these to scale up.

Thailand also saw an outpouring of support when the pantries first surfaced. But interest in them waned in less than a year, as quarantine curbs were relaxed and people began going back to their jobs.

There were also issues with politicking and opportunists raiding the pantries for items they could resell.

Few people have been refilling the racks, so many now sit empty.

This early, politics is already threatening to derail the same movement here seeded by Ms Non.

Ms Non on Tuesday (April 20) had to shut down her pioneering pantry after Mr Duterte's supporters and an official police website began hurling unfounded allegations that communist fronts are using the pantries to fan propaganda against the government.

Policemen with sidearms were also seen dropping in on some of the sites, demanding personal details about those running the pantries.

"I'm now scared to walk towards my pantry at 5am because of the baseless accusations against us… I just want the intimidation to stop," Ms Non told reporters.

Trigger for something bigger

Ms Catherine Scerri, deputy director of the child rights advocacy group Bahay Tuluyan (House of Refuge), said in an online forum on Monday (April 19) that she too does not think the pantries in their current iterations are "sustainable".

"The need is too great… They can't possibly cover all the bases," she said.

"But it doesn't mean they don't have their purposes," she added.

Ms Scerri said the pantries are drawing attention to issues that the government should already be addressing.

The government, she said, "has to fill in gaps" that are forcing those reeling from the pandemic and the resulting job losses and lost income to rely on community pantries.

"Nobody should have to rely on food pantries. People should be able to support their own families from their own hard work," she said.

Ms Scerri said she is hoping that the movement Ms Non started would be a "trigger for something bigger to happen".

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