Featured Image: Anjo Lapresca
The school bus I rode to get home when I still had onsite classes was nearly a decade old. Hence, it was unsurprising to encounter more than a fair share of bumps in the road. One of the most notable instances involved the said bus being rendered immobile in a dusty, rocky parking lot enveloped in sweltering Filipino afternoon heat. To say this was an inconvenience was an understatement: I was desperately in need of a shower after my P.E. classes, and the sweat trickling down my all too thick uniform made it impossible for me to stay sane. Some minutes after our bus driver gave up on starting the engine, he got his fellow bus operator friends to lend him a hand. Literally, at least five to seven people used brute force to give our bus the push it needed for sustained motion. Eventually, the bus started moving, and I could comfortably doze off in hopes of quelling my immediate need to wash away the sticky, slimy feeling plaguing my body.
The teamwork of our bus driver’s friends is a prime example of bayanihan: a Filpino custom that involves a community working towards one common goal. Bayanihan literally translates to “being in a bayan,” wherein bayan refers to a country or a community. Simply put, bayanihan is unity, and it is best represented by the image of a bunch of people moving a neighbor’s bahay kubo (trans. “nipa hut”) from one place to another. Bayanihan has become a fundamental aspect of Filipino culture, as seen in the Philippines’ reputation for being one of the most welcoming and hospitable nations. Filipinos love to help anyone at any time, and this is evident in the country’s history of progressing through community action. From the three variants of the People Power Revolution to the numerous protests against the Duterte administration, it’s safe to say that the people’s power is stronger than the people in power.
“People power” in the Philippines could not be more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Filipino government fails to provide a concrete plan to flatten the curve and resorts to establishing the world’s longest lockdown, Filipinos are left to fend for themselves. With merely 1% of the overall population vaccinated, the country won’t be seeing a sustained sense of normalcy anytime soon. (And no, Instagram stories documenting flamboyant and incredibly tone-deaf beach trips are not signs of finally reverting to the pre-pandemic life.) In attempts of combating the bleakness of it all, the community pantry was born.
Community pantries come in various forms, but the first iteration was a simple cart containing rice, canned goods, vegetables, and other staples to the usual Filipino diet. With the message “give what you can and take what you need,” the community pantry has become an instant hit in multiple areas across the Philippines, most especially those fighting against food insecurity brought by the pandemic. The now widespread initiative stemmed from a simple act of kindness from a certain Ana Patricia Non, who, like many Filipinos, have grown tired of the national government’s inaction and lack of concrete plans to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on almost all crucial aspects of Filipino life.
Community-powered initiatives, especially those that hope to fight food insecurity, are not uncommon. Soup kitchens and food banks existed long before the pandemic had begun. Similarly, community action during COVID-19 isn’t anything new, either — from the rise of “community fridges” in different areas of the United States to the mobilization of Brazil’s favelas to better support the nation’s most vulnerable. Despite the familiar patterns found in the newest iteration of people power, the community pantry is welcomed with open arms simply because it centers around kindness and compassion: values that the Filipino people have been deprived of throughout the pandemic. Community pantries push the Philippines closer to a reality the current government has failed to give its people. Through the community pantry’s humble beginnings and overall accessibility, Filipinos can better help and uplift each other, one cart at a time.
Even with the inherent goodness that comes with the idea of community pantries, it still isn’t immune to criticism and naysayers. Shortly after the original community pantry’s virality, the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), baselessly claimed that communist organizations were using community pantries to spread anti-government propaganda. Aside from this, President Rodrigo Duterte urged Filipinos to “wait for government aid” instead of relying on community pantries as the “long lines of people” may contribute to the increased spread of the virus. Moreover, a community pantry hosted by well-known actress and activist Angel Locsin, which attracted a large crowd, leading to one senior citizen’s death, gave pro-government fanatics more room to criticize the overall initiative. From a less political perspective, some have pointed that community pantries may be unsustainable and prone to abuse, with potential hoarders looking to take advantage of free supplies.
Despite the multiple hindrances (that can be attributed to the Duterte administration’s apparent insecurity towards genuine aid), community pantries are helping more and more people every day. Though Non’s idea was originally centered around food essentials, community pantries now provide anything under the sun — from coffee, farmer’s harvests, and even books, among other things that can spark joy or make any Filipino’s life a little more bearable during these trying times. As of writing, the Commission on Population and Development (POPCOM) has also recommended the creation of contraceptive-centric community pantries to better address the nation’s pandemic baby boom.
One can say that the community pantry is not perfect, and they would probably be right. However, something doesn’t have to be perfect to uplift others. Every known act of goodwill and charity has had its fair share of criticism — from the lack of longevity to possible performative roots. Community action is not measured by its flawlessness, but rather by its ability and effectiveness to uplift the people who need it most. Looking back, my bus driver’s friends pushing our bus to get it moving was not the best or perfect solution. We could’ve avoided the problem entirely if we had a better bus in the first place, but clearly, we didn’t have that luxury. And in hindsight, that wasn’t our top need at the time, either. We just needed the bus to move.
As the Filipino people have grown used to being disappointed by our government, with their utter lack of urgency, dolomite beaches, and incessant need to villainize activists, among other things, the community pantry is a breath of fresh air. Only time can tell how sustainable community pantries will be and how many more people they can reach. Future initiatives may outperform it, and perhaps with some life-changing magic, the Philippines can have a better government. Despite it all, one thing’s for sure: the Filipino people simply needed a sign that the bayanihan spirit was alive and well and able to make our lives a little better, and community pantries push us in the right direction.