MANILA, Philippines — The buzz had kept the neighborhood on edge for days. COVID-19 infections were spreading and a granular lockdown seemed imminent. But details were sparse, with authorities issuing contradictory statements.
Finally, one humid evening in April 2021, barangay officials confirmed the inevitable and gave the community an hour to do its business. The deadline sent frantic residents of this middle-class enclave on Maginhawa Street in Quezon City on a mad dash for groceries and other supplies.
Among them was small-business owner Ana Patricia “Patreng” Non, who vividly recalled those sad days in a recent interview with the Inquirer:
“Ang lungkot talaga. Too many people getting sick, ambulances wailing all day, barangay officials getting overwhelmed with requests for medication. With the lockdown, health workers couldn’t go to work, construction workers couldn’t go home. Walang-wala ang mga tricycle drivers. Deliveries were banned and businesses closed down, including my furniture-making shop.”
Patreng realized how privileged she was. “I thought, hindi ito tama,” she said. “I knew I had to do something. I had hoarded so much food from that grocery run and there was still the ‘ayuda’ from the LGU (local government unit). I was sure my well-off neighbors wouldn’t be able to finish their food packs either.”
Early on April 14 last year, Patreng rolled out a bamboo cart filled with a few canned goods and other food items she could spare for the community. “I thought I’d put out the cart before I go jogging at 5 a.m., then haul it back in when I return from my evening walk,” she said of her original plan.
But the sight that greeted her when she came back from her morning jog changed all that: people patiently waiting their turn to get a few eggs, a tin of food, a bunch of greens—enough for a day’s meal.
In the following days, more people came, but they also left what little they could. A taho vendor gave away cups of the healthy curd. Someone passed around cones of “dirty ice cream” from his cart. A little girl shyly handed over a tall stalk of malunggay leaves.
The community pantry on Maginhawa swiftly grew. Upland farmers were leaving harvests of yams and cabbages, and market vendors were donating baskets of bananas. Kanto boys and tricycle drivers were repacking donated sacks of rice in small bags.
And similar community pantries were being put up in various cities and provinces.
The exuberant give and take of goods eventually exploded into a movement so potent that the government appeared to feel sufficiently threatened to call in its troops to bear down on Patreng and others like her.
The 26-year-old fine arts graduate of the University of the Philippines had begun a community pantry revolution—what some described as the “latest incarnation of people power” and others compared to the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
The initiative that fed thousands, moved thousands more to give and help in various ways, inspired many more to set up big and small food stations, and brought back a sense of pride, dignity and self-worth to a people battered by the pandemic and government apathy made Patreng an easy choice as one of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Filipinos of the Year for 2021. (The other is weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who gave the Philippines its first Olympic gold.)
No one was more surprised than Patreng when her simple idea of sharing extra provisions with the hungry instantly took off and resulted in at least 6,700 community pantries sprouting nationwide within weeks.
She herself denied that it was a grand gesture. She was just “tired of complaining, tired of inaction,” and thought it was “time to do something.”
But that her “weird idea” would become viral also meant it was “a gut issue,” Patreng conceded. “A lot of Filipinos can relate—it is hard to think, study and work when you’re hungry,” she said.
Patreng was speaking from experience. Her parents separated when she was 2 years old, and she and three older siblings learned early on to make do with little.
To support the family, her mother took on all sorts of jobs—as a social worker, call center agent, marketing staff, teacher. The siblings attended public schools, with the enterprising Patreng selling bread and candies to her classmates to augment her baon.
The food on their table was never in excess: “Sakto lang,” she recalled.
Two years into the pandemic and her family’s past story of want became that of most Filipino households. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed that the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in April 2021, which translated to 4.14 million Filipinos jobless during the worst health and economic crisis in the country’s recent history.
In the 2020 Global Hunger Index, the Philippines ranked 69th among 107 countries.
And while the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was signed in March 2020 to give President Duterte more authority to combat COVID-19, it provides for only P5,000 to P8,000 in emergency subsidy to qualified low-income households—a measly amount often given late through a distribution process rife with confusion and corruption.
Gap in gov’t response
This was the gap in government response that the community-pantry movement addressed.
“People want to give, they just need a venue to do it,” Patreng pointed out. “Pagbibigayan (giving) is part of Filipino culture, after all. Kelangan lang ma-normalize yung kindness.”
The community pantry has been compared to food banks in other countries, except that the local version represents much more than generosity of spirit and compassion for the poor.
With ordinary folk putting up stalls where people could take what they needed and leave what they could spare, the community pantry became a symbol of solidarity against an apathetic state—people linking arms to withstand the waves of despair brought by the pandemic and a lumbering bureaucracy.
Some see the community pantry as a form of mutual aid—people helping one another in the absence of government, a national unity born from want and necessity.
Journalist Boying Pimentel said Patreng “reminded us of a powerful idea—that we are one community; that in these dark times, we are responsible for one another, for that is how we can survive and thrive as a nation.”
For Patreng, the community pantry might well be a microeconomy in and of itself. To give to those in need, “we buy from local farmers, fishermen, food hawkers and vendors, even from closed-down restaurants in the area,” she said proudly then.
The abundant donations in cash and in kind allowed the Maginhawa pantry to become a main distribution hub, centralizing supplies and apportioning them to smaller pantries in poor neighborhoods.
Clear sign of hope
For all that it represents, the community pantry thrives because it is a practical idea polished by the pressure of famished times. It’s hard to resist the nearby pantry that offers food healthier and more diverse than what can be found in government aid packs. Donors find it useful to share surplus food that would otherwise land in the trash bin. Environmentalists cite the reduced carbon footprint, with the food exchange happening within neighborhoods.
In one of the best interpretations of the phenomenon, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David described the community pantry as “one of the clearest and most tangible signs of hope” in a desolate landscape.
The cardboard sign inviting people to partake of public offerings will “forever erase the shame of the [signs] hung by killers” under the Duterte administration, David said, referring to the government’s war on drugs marked by extrajudicial killings (EJKs), with the dead identified as addicts in cardboard signs left on their corpses.
Maybe because selfless sharing is such a radical, even revolutionary, idea in times of scarcity, government lackeys were quick to seize on the community pantry as a show of defiance, a public pushback, people flipping the bird at state benevolence—and hey, is that a communist manifesto right there?
To be sure, the earnest “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha ayon sa pangangailangan” (Give what you can, take what you need)—the gracious reminder on the sign that hangs at every community pantry—sounds like the Marxist “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
It was enough to drive the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) on the warpath, with its Undersecretary Severo Catura saying that community pantry organizers were “telling people that our government is palpak (a failure) and incapable of addressing our people’s needs in the time of the pandemic, and questions this government’s moral ascendancy to remain in authority.”
At a congressional inquiry into the community pantry in May 2021, then NTF-Elcac spokesperson Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Red-tagged Patreng and her project, as if to justify the intimidating visits to several pantries by police officers who demanded permits or personal information from frightened organizers. (The police eventually apologized.)
But death and rape threats forced Patreng to briefly suspend the Maginhawa pantry operations in the early days, fearing for her family’s security, and to later seek professional help for her mental health.
In a video posted on her Facebook account on Dec. 14, 2021, Patreng recounted how she had discussed the threats with her mother. If anything happened to her, she said she assured her mom, she was “solved” in her life, she had no regrets, she had done what she wanted: “Wala akong pinagsisisihan, ginawa ko lahat nang gusto ko. Kahit sa last breath, peaceful ako.”
Nine months after Patreng first rolled out the bamboo cart that would change her life, the food donations have dwindled. Is the interest waning? Is her project on the way out?
Well, not that she’d mind, she said. When the time comes that the community pantry is no longer needed, she’d view it as a happy indication that “people are no longer hungry.”
But she remains optimistic that the project will endure mainly because it is an unfinished business being shaped, redefined and adapted by communities to fit their own needs.
“It’s not about me anymore; it’s about the community,” she said, recounting how villagers in Mindanao devastated by Typhoon “Odette” (international name: Rai) had used the fundamental idea to rally neighbors to get back on their feet.
“Schools, churches, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the local community, started collecting goods, packing food, setting up community kitchens, and taking care of the most vulnerable. There was no waiting for government to come in. They started helping themselves. It’s very empowering,” she said.
It’s also proof of people’s innate goodness, Patreng said. “In the long queues to the pantry, you’d see people ushering the elderly, the weak and the pregnant to the front of the line … And there’s always someone who would lead the prayers at the start of the distribution of goods!”
The sense of community is very strong, with people giving what they can and being useful in any way they can be, she observed. “This is the best time to revive our culture of pagbibigayan, when you are not judged by what you can give, or what you take. [There’s dignity now.] You see the sense of pride even among the tambay (street boys): See, we can also help. Even the families of EJK victims see themselves differently. [They’re no longer shunned or seen as frightening.] They’re part of the community now. [What surfaces is what we can do] even in the darkest hour.”
This year, Patreng is “excited” to see the community-pantry movement thriving—“tuloy-tuloy pa rin.”
“We will continue to find ways to help each other,” she declared last December in a video marking the project’s eighth month.
“We will continue to work, but also rest and take care of ourselves,” she said. “At the end of the day,” she said, not one person or one group would save the whole, but each would
be empowered to free the other: “Nasa atin pa rin ang kapangyarihang palayain ang isa’t isa.”