A handwritten slogan can be spotted on cardboard posters at stalls across the Philippines: “Give according to your means, take according to your need.” These are makeshift community pantries, ad hoc efforts that provide free items such as rice, vegetables, canned goods and even facemasks that benefit millions of Filipinos. And while there are food banks in countries across the world, the community pantry in the Philippines has come to represent so much more. It is not only an expression of compassion for the poor, but a political statement against the state – a symbol of national solidarity in a country struggling to survive the pandemic.

Fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

The double economic burden of job losses and rising prices of commodities has afflicted the Philippines, which has yet to recover from one of the world’s longest and strictest Covid-19 lockdowns. Goods from community pantries can therefore mean the difference between life and death for many Filipinos. Most contributions flow from the rich and the middle class. But people who are struggling financially are also donating what little cash or groceries they can share. Some even come from rural areas to give – fishermen give away their catch while farmers donate baskets of their produce.

Community pantries not only exhibit generosity, they also demonstrate respect and consideration for others. Most of those who line up for hours take just enough for themselves and their families, mindful that others behind them are also in need. There is no sign of the type of hoarding that was evident in supermarkets across the world at the onset of the pandemic. Instead, the system is built on what Filipino sociologist Randy David describes as “faceless giving and discreet receiving”. The community pantry, David says, “offers no space for the self-promotion and obligatory acknowledgments that usually accompany the mass distribution of emergency assistance”.

“Sharing is caring” (Marian Ticzon)

But this is more than a noble instrument to help others. The community pantry also sends a political message of public frustration about government ineptitude in providing for the nation. The Philippine government provided only up to PHP 8,000 (A$215) in 2020 and a maximum of PHP 4,000 ($107) this year for each of the country’s 18 million low-income families, not enough to buy their daily essentials. Ana Patricia Non, the 26-year old lady who first started a pantry in her neighborhood that inspired replicas nationwide, explained the reason behind her initiative: “I’m tired of complaining. I’m tired of inaction,” she said. “The fact that this has gone viral, it means this is a gut issue.” As it inadvertently exposed institutional shortcomings, the boom in community pantries should therefore serve as a wake-up call for the government to do more for its people.

The community pantries in the Philippines can also be seen as a political statement repudiating government malice towards charity and volunteerism. A few days after Non’s community pantry spread far and wide, the national police openly linked it to the communist movement and accused it of being a vehicle to recruit members. In keeping with President Rodrigo Duterte’s resolve to quell the long-running communist insurgency in the country, those “red tagged” as communists by the police often end up dead. Fearing for her life and the lives of other volunteers, Non was forced to close her community pantry after police officers visited her and started asking questions. It took assurances from the city mayor and the head of the country’s Department of the Interior and Local Government for her to reopen.

The temporary closure of Non’s pantry prompted public outrage, which unexpectedly resulted in more food and cash donations, which she used to support other community pantries. Its growing support tacitly indicates the Filipino public’s pushback against the Duterte administration’s unwarranted intimidation.

Batasan Hills, Quezon City (Eyriche Cortez)

Because of limited government assistance, community pantries symbolise national unity born out of necessity – of weary folks finding solace in helping others. From just one community pantry in Metro Manila, by the end of April there were 358 community pantries scattered across the Philippines. Such initiatives are essentially a stopgap measure to help more people survive the socio-economic crisis plaguing the country. The community pantries essentially target these Filipino families who have gotten used to not knowing when their next meal will be. As Non puts it: “If the items in the community pantry ran out, that is a good problem. The goal is for the food to be consumed, not to be displayed.”

But as with other charities, these community pantries may eventually suffer from fatigue and slowly fizzle out, as their sustainability and longevity are not guaranteed. Yet community pantries in the Philippines demonstrate a revolutionary expression of human compassion, political activism and national solidarity that will continue to bring out the best of Filipinos during the worst of times. Philippine Senator Francis Pangilinan regards such initiative as a form of people power against hunger: “It warms the heart. It fills the tummy. I believe that there's no greater power than a united, empathetic action altogether toward one goal.”