Community Pantries Emerge in Philippines amid COVID-19 Surge

Marielle Lucenio
Quezon City, Philippines
2021-04-19
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Community Pantries Emerge in Philippines amid COVID-19 Surge Filipinos queue for free food and other goods offered at a roadside community pantry in the Maginhawa neighborhood of Quezon City, north of Manila, April 19, 2021.
Marielle Lucenio/BenarNews

Ana Patricia Non says she started a community-run pantry in Quezon City to help feed fellow Filipinos who are facing hard times because, in her view, they cannot rely on a government struggling to contain a burgeoning coronavirus outbreak.

The 26-year-old artist and activist launched the roadside pantry this month in a neighborhood of the Manila suburb, after seeing similar initiatives in other countries during the global pandemic.

“Right now, we can count on no one, but each other,” Non told BenarNews. “It is sad that there are those who are hungry, but we are also slowly realizing that we have to start acting, even if it means acting by ourselves for our own sakes.”

People have been lining up on the curbside of the busy street since Non and her helpers began leaving boxes of food and other essential items that they’d gathered from donors in the neighborhood.

Barely a week later, other pantries are sprouting up here. 

“I thought of those who do not have the option to stay home because their income depends on their everyday work,” Non said, referring to a COVID-19 lockdowns imposed by the Philippine government in Metro Manila and nearby areas.  

The spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte praised the pantries set up by Non and other charity-minded Filipinos but denied that these reflected a criticism of the government’s slowness in responding to the needs of impoverished people amid the pandemic.

“The community pantry represents the best in the Filipino. I don’t think anyone can claim to be a founder of that,” spokesman Harry Roque told reporters in a virtual news conference on Monday.  “It’s part of our psyche to help one another, so I don’t see that as a condemnation of government, it simply shows the best in us during the worst of times.”

Since the public health crisis started more than a year ago, the government has provided a one-time payment of up to $80 in social assistance to 80 percent of the populace, officials said. 

As of Monday, the total number of coronavirus cases detected in the Philippines since the outbreak began in early 2020 was closing in on 1 million. The cumulative caseload had reached nearly 946,000 resulting in 16,408 deaths.

For the past three weeks, the country has logged an average of 63,000 new COVID-19 cases per week. Meanwhile, delays in deliveries of vaccines have hampered a national program to inoculate the population against the virus.

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Residents queue for free food and other essential items at a roadside community pantry in Quezon City, Metro Manila, April 19, 2021. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]

‘People can relate’

The pandemic forced Non to shut her small wood-making business. She had employed a construction worker and a jeepney driver who had previously lost their jobs.

Now, both help her to run the Maginhawa Community Pantry, as her project has come to be known. The mutual aid project allows those in the Maginhawa, a neighborhood of Quezon City, to “give what they can and take what they need.”

“I’m sure there are those who have excess food, they just don’t know where they can offer it,” Non said.

The project sparked a movement after people from different neighborhoods and cities in the capital region, as well as those from as far away as Mindanao in the southern Philippines, started replicating the idea.

“When you think of why it became mainstream, it’s because people can relate and everyone understands that there is that need to feed the hungry,” Non said.

“It’s inspiring how other people did it in their own places, but it also presented us a sad reality that many are hungry,” she said. 

Randy Calumag, a 39-year-old farmer from the northern province of Tarlac, was one of the first to donate to the roadside pantry. 

The pandemic adversely affected Calumag and his fellow farmers in the town of Paniqui. With most transportation cut off, and many markets and shops shut down, the price of the produce had dropped so steeply that it made more sense to just donate the food. 

“We didn’t count how many sacks we gave out for free as it is in our instinct that when someone is in need, we help. It’s hard to count the help that you give,” Calumag told BenarNews.  

For rickshaw driver Jojo Borja, 44, the pantry was heaven-sent. 

“I saw my neighbors bringing vegetables and rice while I was looking for scrapped junk and they told me to go here,” said Borja, who was initially hesitant to join the queue. 

“I’ll just leave if it’s not yet allowed, it’s almost lunchtime and I have to get food for my family one way or another,” Borja said in Tagalog.  

But to his surprise, a volunteer encouraged him to get whatever he needed for the day. 

Borja had lost his job as a welder. Left with zero income and six mouths to feed, Borja used some of the $160 in government aid last year to buy a side-car that he can use to trade junk. 

“I still have two kids who need diapers and milk, and on top of that I also had debts to pay,” he said.

It was only a week since Borja was able to go back to the streets to scavenge for junk after the government eased the quarantine restrictions.

“I can’t stay home and just look at my family starving,” he said. 

On bad days, Borja feeds his wife and their five children with the relief packs he can get from the neighborhood. If not, they just sleep the hunger off until it’s a good day in the junk trade again.

“This community pantry is a very big help for us. It’s a big load off my shoulders as regardless of how much I’ll earn for the day, I know my family can eat,” Borja said.

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