PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Approximately one-tenth of the global population suffered undernourishment in 2020. Starting in early April 2021, the Philippines faced further food insecurity under extended lockdowns. In the absence of adequate government support, average citizens — from farmers to health care workers — came together to fight hunger and embody bayanihan, or “collecting community effort,” by setting up community pantries in the Philippines.
Collecting community effort
Dr. Jamie Dasmariñas of the Council for Health and Development spoke with The Borgen Project to provide insight into community pantries in the Philippines. The Council operates in a lower-income area of Metro-Manila called Bagong Silangan and “empowers members of the community to take hold of decisions regarding their health.” Dasmariñas primarily works in the Field Assistance Unit that trains laypeople as community health care workers (CHWs), allowing them to fill gaps left by the public healthcare system.
CHWs in Bagong Silangan started their own pantry in a local church, plugging it into a pre-existing community network. CHWs affiliated with the Council for Health and Development lead this initiative and oversee daily operations. Dasmariñas emphasized their hard work in “sorting donations, maintaining lines, negotiating with [the]local government, local authorities, and…also keeping in communication with the Catholic Church.” The Council facilitates donations from outside Bagong Silangan.
Collaboration such as that between the CHWs, authorities and donors for the sake of the community is at the heart of every community pantry. Dasmariñas calls this custom bayanihan, or “collecting community effort” to achieve a goal, such as feeding vulnerable community members.
Grassroots in the streets
Dire circumstances spurred these efforts. The Philippine government responded to the pandemic with severe lockdowns, unaccompanied by appropriate economic stimulus. This left a minimum 5.8 million people unemployed in 2021. Amid the resulting economic downturn 33 million people suffer hunger.
As cases surged, the government extended strict lockdowns. However, adequate food subsidies did not accompany these measures. When describing the public reaction to this development, Dasmariñas said, “What people really feared was that they weren’t going to survive under lockdown.”
The response to this uncertainty began in the open street. Ana Patricia Non is an average person who wants to help people. She started the first community pantry in April 2021 with a bamboo cart and goods she purchased herself.
People are free to come and go, giving and taking freely. Non’s slogan for running the pantry spread with the concept: “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” Or as Dasmariñas put it: “Give based on what you can, and get only what you need.” This phrase became a hallmark of pantry signage.
It is not the only signage. People across walks of life support community pantries in the Philippines: CHWs, people’s organizations, farmers and, interestingly, K-pop stans. These stans use community pantry signage to promote their idols while helping people.
“It just shows that basically, when you’re in a group of people who [want]to help, regardless of what your background is, you don’t have to have a political background,” Dasmariñas said. “If you just want the help, and you have the means, and you have the network for it, why not do it?”
Bulking up and thinning out
Networks played a pivotal role in the success of community pantries in the Philippines. “I think it’s very lucky for us that we are in the age of social media because it was one very essential component into creating the networks we had,” Dasmariñas said. Pantries benefit from a Facebook group that allows the organization of donations from various sources.
Smaller donations often come from small gardens or in the form of instant noodles. Dasmariñas cited efforts in her community to collect door-to-door donations from higher-income households and deliver donations to lower-income households. Bulk donations primarily come directly from farmers in rural areas who answered calls for donations to urban areas by sending surplus produce. Fishermen and women and other agricultural professionals similarly contributed.
Bulk donations triggered an evolution in community pantries in the Philippines. Larger pantries now operate as relocation centers, sorting donations for a supply chain of smaller pantries. The exact number of pantries is unknown. However, at the end of April 2021, Sen. Grace Poe proposed a resolution commending Non and other operators in which she cited the existence of 6,700 community pantries.
While some pantries expanded their activities, Dasmariñas said others became more “erratic.” The sustainability of community pantries in the Philippines has been in question. Dasmariñas argues that “they’re technically just a temporary measure.”
Community pantries emerged in response to food insecurity under lockdown. As of July 2021, cases in the Philippines have declined 47% from peak infection rates; consequently, lockdowns have relaxed, allowing Filipinos to return to work. “So it would be really understandable that the number of pantries would go down.”
Community pantries in the Philippines may decline alongside COVID-19 cases. However, the questions raised by their existence are important regarding how the Philippines might respond to other crises. Dasmariñas said hunger was already an issue in the Philippines before the pandemic. On that note, she said, “There’s this saying in medicine that ‘food is medicine.’” Health is not just about disease but people’s holistic condition. How can a community combat any health crises while undernourished?
The Council for Health and Development encourages community involvement in holistically addressing health concerns. The pantries represent exactly that type of empowerment. Communities understood their needs and tapped into existing networks to address those needs. Dasmariñas hopes that the Philippine government will adopt this bottom-up approach not only to address food insecurity but health overall.
But Dasmariñas also posed the looming question: “If ordinary people could create a network to distribute food from its sources, to those who needed the most, and it was doable, even by ordinary people, why couldn’t you do it, especially in this time of crisis?”
Bayanihan empowers communities to come together to feed their most vulnerable members.
– Mckenzie Howell