Can we make community pantries sustainable?


Community pantries serve people who suffer from hunger and food insecurity. But is this an initiative meant to last?

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You’ve probably seen the photos circulating online: a makeshift table holding an array of food, from fresh vegetables to canned goods, and a placard that reads: “magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangngangailangan.”

Give according to one’s abilities; take according to one’s needs. We call it a community pantry.

Community pantries are not new; across the world, they exist to serve people who suffer from hunger and food insecurity. But they use various models, and it all depends on where you’re from.

Some exist on the frontlines, in places with high poverty and where people have little to no access to nutritious food. In this case, a pantry works together with a food bank, a non-profit that stores millions of pounds of food surplus from different food manufacturers. Unlike community pantries, food banks don’t distribute directly to the community; instead, they support various feeding programs like pantries, soup kitchens, and donation drives.

Other times, pantries work more like grassroots initiatives, run by members of the community themselves. Some are membership-based, where neighbors are asked to donate a small weekly fee to sustain the pantry in exchange for access. Others work without rules and regulations—anyone is free to take what they need and give whatever they can.

What’s happening right now in the Philippines is a hybrid of both.

Greenwoods community pantry in Cainta, Rizal
Community pantries provide fresh produce, canned and instant goods, and other pantry items to citizens experiencing food insecurity amid the pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Greenwoods Community Pantry page.

The past week has seen over 350 community pantries set up in different places around the country (and even one in East Timor!) after one woman, Ana Patricia Non, set up a community pantry along Maginhawa St. in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Using money from her own pocket, she filled a small bamboo cart with rice, vegetables, canned goods, and other essential supplies that could easily be handed to anyone passing by.

The rule was simple: give what you can, take what you need. But with more Filipinos going hungry amid the pandemic, how realistic is it to expect that these community pantries can stand on their own?

Are these pantries meant to be sustainable?

In Barangay Concepcion Dos in Marikina City, co-organizer Lexa Magat says that their local community pantry has been struggling to match their daily supply with demand. Beneficiaries waited in line even as the pantry remained empty, hoping they could be the first to receive food the moment it replenishes.

“It’s reaching people in need a lot quicker than those who can donate, so the lines have been very hectic,” she says. “Initially, [pantry offerings] were more diverse—toiletries and sanitary napkins for women—but now it’s really just been food: one kilo of rice per person, one to two canned goods, assorted veggies, and cooking oil.”

With more Filipinos going hungry amid the pandemic, how realistic is it to expect that these community pantries can stand on their own?

Lexa says their community pantry receives between 50 to 150 people per day. To cover the arrival of 50 people costs roughly Php12,000. “On top of people from our own barangay, we have people coming in from [nearby areas] so it’s really hard [to sustain],” she adds.

With the wave of community pantries sweeping over the country, many wonder how long this phenomenon will carry on. While they have certainly helped a lot of Filipinos, they have been largely fueled by private donations and not government aid.

The Greenwoods Area 1 community pantry services communities along Sandoval Ave. in Pasig
The Greenwoods Area 1 community pantry services communities along Sandoval Ave. in Pasig. Photos courtesy of The Greenwoods Community Pantry page.

“The reality is that there is enough food in the world but the distribution is just not equitable,” says Tj Malvar, co-founder of the social enterprise Gising Gising, which aims to lift marginalized communities out of food insecurity. Gising Gising has also been contributing what they call "pantry packs" to community pantries; these packs are made up of vegetables purchased directly from farmers, thanks to donations from the enterprise's customers.

“Sobrang okay yung community pantries kasi what happens is that those who have more share with those who have less,” he says. “At the same time, there’s a lot of food waste—from farmers, supermarkets, palengkes, restaurants, households—so the community pantry [in a way] would help lessen that.”

Reports of red-tagging and harassment have continued unabated, making it difficult for volunteers to keep their community pantries running.

This is where food banks like Rise Against Hunger Philippines come in. As the only globally-recognized food bank in the country, Rise Against Hunger supports various feeding and food donation programs, including community pantries.

“When we’re talking about food [in food banks], we’re talking truck loads of fruits, vegetables, biscuits [that] we donate to community pantries, NGOs, churches and the like,” says Executive Director Jomar Fleras. With this level of support, community pantries—especially in places with higher inequality—are less likely to run out of food, and can exist even after the pandemic is over.

“People want to help, which is very good. But just like anything, you want the help to be organized,” he says. “There are 7.6 million hungry families in the Philippines; you can’t possibly reach out to each one of them [on your own]. You have to work with organizations.”

Working with food banks and other similar non-profits ensures that food safety requirements are being met—after all, no one wants to receive a half-open jar of food or an expired canned good. Making sure that food pantries also have proper storage also prevents food from spoiling easily.

“How fast can you distribute the food? What is the shelf life? These are also considerations because if you feel like you can’t distribute [the food] before it goes bad, then you shouldn’t accept that,” Jomar adds.

The Greenwoods Area 1 Community Pantry operates from a small truck for easier mobility.
The Greenwoods Area 1 Community Pantry operates from a small truck for easier mobility. Photo courtesy of The Greenwoods Community Pantry page.

How much can a community pantry do?

Aside from supplying food to those in need, community pantries also bring people together, especially when initiatives start from community members themselves.

In Sitio San Roque, where self-regulating community pantries are harder to organize, their sense of solidarity has taken the form of a community kitchen, a volunteer-run operation that makes and distributes ready-to-eat meals as opposed to uncooked vegetables and pantry goods. Aptly called Kusinang Bayan, the kitchen is run primarily by the mothers of Sitio San Roque who came up with the idea themselves.

According to Arvin Villafranca, a development worker who works directly with San Roque, it was the mothers themselves who offered to start the community kitchen, after realizing they could reach more community members if they shared resources. They’ve even assigned specific duties among themselves, from buying vegetables to cooking and distributing food, to cleaning up work stations.

“Sila mismo ang gumagawa ng paraan na i-empower [ang sarili nila] at na-uunite sila doon,” says Arvin. “Iba yung na-ffoster niyang sense of bayanihan and community, and that’s empowering kasi di lang sila objects; sila [na] rin yung subjects, sila na yung bida.”

Arvin also says one of the volunteer-mothers, Olive Melarion, expressed how glad she feels whenever her neighbors ask if they’ll be making lunch that day. “Nakakataba ng puso na umaasa rin sila na matutulungan namin sila,” she told him. “Sa pagkakaisa naming mga nanay, mas marami kaming nagagawa.”

It remains to be seen whether community pantries will become a sustainable solution to local hunger and food insecurity in the long run.

But while this proves that the common Filipino isn’t always as helpless as we think, Arvin emphasizes that demanding accountability from those in power must continue.

“Pag dating sa sustainability, it’s better if these questions are directed to local government units, to those with authority. How are you going to support the efforts of these initiatives? It could be a wake-up call for them din. Dapat hindi mawala yung paniningil sa accountability, kasi at the end of the day, ang taxes natin [nasa kanila],” says Arvin.

Despite the swell of solidarity, reports of red-tagging and harassment have continued unabated, making it difficult for volunteers to keep their community pantries running. Some volunteers, who opted not to be named, have even experienced being profiled by the military inside their homes, leaving them fearing of their lives.

The Loyola Heights community pantry set up by volunteers
Inspired by the Maginhawa community pantry, others such as this one in Loyola Heights have been set up by volunteers. Photo courtesy of Ia Marañon.

What can we expect next?

Community pantries—at least, as we know them now—still have a long way to go before they can be truly sustainable. But one way we can work towards that is through partnering with food banks and non-profits like Rise Against Hunger, who can help support these programs.

“First [people] need to organize. They can use existing organizations, like a homeowners’ association, or civic organizations. But it’s important to have a committee that can handle this [and] come up with proper guidelines, including. . . who the beneficiaries will be,” says Jomar.  “These are the basics but if they can do it, we’ll support them.”

At the same time, governments can learn to work with its people, giving support in a way that not only addresses an immediate need, but also empowers its citizens to stand on their own. At the heart of community pantries—and any community-led initiative—is the genuine desire to see the lives of people collectively improve, not just today, but for the long-run.

“There’s this quote I learned from my college professor in community architecture: ‘It’s time for us to go to the people, rather than ask the people, especially the poor, to come to us,’” says Arvin. “Itong message na ‘to ay directed din sa advocates, pero most especially sa government. Tayo yung pumunta sa tao; wag na natin hintayin na sila ang pumunta sa atin.”

  • Created by a group of local mapmakers, this community map helps you find the nearest pantry in your area. It includes information on specific pantry offerings, as well as complete address and contact details. Want to help from home? You can donate community pantry packs to your chosen community through Gising Gising PH.