April 24, 2021
Giving Filipinos help and hope through a community pantry By Joy Rojas
By Joy Rojas
At a time when Filipinos had just about given up—lengthy lockdowns in the ongoing pandemic had left businesses on the decline, millions unemployed, and fresh cases and deaths due to COVID-19 on the rise—26-year-old Ana Patricia Non introduced a humble initiative that sparked much-needed hope in the country, and a movement that has been called a “good virus” and “the new People Power.”
The initiative is a community pantry. Non, whose modest furniture business was affected by strict quarantine measures, gathered a few canned goods, vegetables, rice, and other basic necessities, placed them on a bamboo cart, and parked it next to a post along trendy food hub Maginhawa Street in Teachers’ Village, Quezon City.
“Maginhawa Community Pantry,” read the sign written on carboard and taped to the post. “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” (Give what you can, take what you need.) Once the image went viral on social media, people from all walks of life trooped to the site, many to take items home to their hungry families, others to replenish the stocks.
No donation is too small to make a difference: not the sacks of kamote (sweet potato) donated by farmers from Paniqui, Tarlac; the 50 kilos of freshly caught tilapia from fishermen based in Binangonan, Rizal; or the three packs of noodles from the balut (duck egg) vendor. And despite the seemingly endless line of people waiting for hours to take what they need, pledges have never run out and no one has ever left empty-handed.
Community pantries have also sprouted left and right. As of April 22, there are 81 pantries in Quezon City alone and more than 350 nationwide. Non’s initiative has even reached international shores: Inspired by her efforts, Timor-Leste set up its own community pantry. Variations of the community pantry have cropped up as well, from one that offers pet food to another that gives away books, and another plants. Somehow, Non’s unassuming initiative had tapped into everyone’s innate desire to help.
As such, any attempts to shut the Maginhawa community pantry down have failed. Forced to close for a day after police questioned her motives and a military general suggested communist ties, Non now runs her community pantry with the blessings of Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte and other heads of local government units, who say that kindness does not require a permit. Various lawmakers have also lauded her efforts, and scores of netizens have her back. When Non expressed fear of stepping out of her house at 5 in the morning due to malicious red-tagging, a neighbor texted her, offering to accompany her on her walks.
“I’m happy with the response to the community pantry and how it’s helped so many people. Now they’re able to bring food home to their families,” says Non, speaking in the vernacular. “But at the same time, I can’t shake off this sadness knowing that there is a great need for community pantries. People wouldn’t be coming if they didn’t need to. The long lines show that [government] aid is not enough. Still, the beauty of community pantries is that they empower people to help each other.”
“People are genuinely good and they really want to help,” she adds in reference to the non-stop arrival of donations from individuals and groups who prefer to remain anonymous. “They’re just looking for a venue.”
Helpful by nature
Helping people comes naturally to Non, one of six siblings. Her father, who is from Pampanga (a province about 40 km north of Manila), taught her to respect and support the endeavors of the indigenous Aetas, while her social worker mother exposed her to the lives of marginalized families. “Street children were my playmates,” she says.
At the University of the Philippines (UP), the fine arts major was also part of UP’s University Student Council, a stint that saw her living for days with the likes of farmers and calamity victims. “I was in Tacloban six months after Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 and I learned about the Tzu Chi Foundation’s ‘Cash-For-Work’ program, its cleanup drives, and rebuilding programs,” she says. “If we visited 50 homes to find out how they were doing after the storm, all 50 mentioned how Tzu Chi helped them get back on their feet.”
Prior to the Maginhawa Community Pantry, Non, together with members of the UP Artists’ Circle Fraternity and Sorority, organized a rice drive in July 2020 for jeepney drivers who could not work during the months-long lockdown.
For now, the Maginhawa Community Pantry takes up much of her time and attention. It can be exhausting: Up before sunrise, she is at the venue early where she hauls pledges, meets donors, and distributes goods to beneficiaries for 12 hours. “Community pantries rely on donations. They are not the answer to hunger and poverty,” she says. “I think they can only be solved if they’re addressed by government. Increase the budget for food and aid, especially since poverty and unemployment rates are so high in the Philippines.”
Until that happens, her initiative lives on. “When I’m in the pantry and I’m surrounded by volunteers, donors, and people lining up for food, I feel safe,” she says with a smile. “I know these people will look out for me. I entrust my life to them.”