On Tuesday, April 20, the normally well-stocked wooden cart and the long-line of people at the Maginhawa Community Pantry in Quezon City were conspicuously absent. The site had been increasingly bustling with activity over the past six days.
Volunteer Jeric Pavillon was busy separating perishable goods like fruits and vegetables from the rest of the donations, saying they must get those soon to the nearby pantries—on Matatag, Maharlika and Kalayaan Streets—to benefit others before they wilt or go bad.
The canned goods and other non-perishables would be made available the following day, when the Maginhawa pantry’s operations resume.
The Maginhawa pantry’s organizer, Ana Patricia Non, decided to suspend the day’s operations after several police officers tried to get her phone number and asked about her affiliations. The Quezon City Police District also shared a Facebook post about how such pantries—dozens of community pantries have sprouted in other areas across the country—were fronts of the communist movement.
Non held a press conference over Zoom Tuesday afternoon, expressing her sadness at telling people there would be no goods available that day. She also reminded authorities that it’s the people who suffer when the pantry organizers get intimidated and have to suspend operations.
“This means meals for several families,” she said.
Givers and takers unite
Non came up with the idea for the Maginhawa Community Pantry to help people affected by the pandemic. It’s a simple principle: To give according to one’s capacity, and to take according to one’s need.
A week into operations, Non marveled at the unity fostered by the pantries. “There is no distinction as to social class,” she said in Filipino. “Everybody is willing to chip in.”
In the past few days donations have been pouring in not only from affluent community members. Farmers, fishermen and vendors have given whatever they could. Restaurants in the area, hard up as they were because of the quarantine, have also donated. Healthcare workers have dropped by to donate vitamins.
“Some people donate because they feel they are fortunate,” she said.
Others do so out of a sense of solidarity. It is also not uncommon for those who take from the stack to also give some modest contribution.
Others, like Pavillon, a tricycle driver plying the Philcoa-Teachers’ Village route, use their time and effort as a way of giving back. He and his wife decided to help out after they saw Non sorting and repacking donations on her own. Now he is one of 10 volunteers at the Maginhawa site.
Non, a graduate of the University of the Philippines who runs a small business, admitted she found the government response lacking, hence the idea to help. “People would not line up like that if they were getting adequate help,” she said. People showed up as early as 3 in the morning even though the pantry opened at 7.
But despite efforts to link the initiative to the communist movement, she said she did not have to explain herself to anybody. “I would just invite our critics to the pantry to see the lines and converse with the masses so that they get an idea of what is happening there,” she said.
Police officers have actually been going to the pantry for several days, and Non believed they were there to help -- even as she requested them not to bring their rifles because it might scare people.
When volunteers told her that several officers tried to get her number and wished to speak to her, however, she began to feel uneasy.
Similar intimidation has occurred in community pantries in other areas. In Manila in the past week, signage for a pantry was removed twice by the police, who were also seen roaming near the site. When the organizer raised the matter with the barangay, she was instead interrogated, asked why she put up the pantry in the first place.
“But do you have to have a reason for wanting to help?” the organizer asked.
The way forward
Numerous community pantries have been put up in recent days, driven by the spirit of bayanihan and a genuine desire to help those who need it most.
Unfortunately, some local government officials have found a convenient way to call attention to themselves by donating to other pantries. Non advised them to just use their office’s resources to help their own constituents.
She also expressed hope that the government would not require permits for operating community pantries. How hard is it to put donations on the shelf and to take what you need for that day?
And while she acknowledges donor fatigue may set in after a while, Non said that they should not remove the venue for helping. “There will always be households that might have an excess of food.”
The Maginhawa pantry resumes today.
Because of the publicity generated by redtagging reports, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte issued a statement assuring Non of her safety.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government and Philippine National Police officials have also issued statements denying any policy to intimidate organizers of community pantries.
“We need to focus our energy on the real issue,” Non said. “Let us not feed the ego of those who criticize us.”
She added: “These are hopeless times but we have a bigger chance of surviving if we help each other. If there are those who do not understand, let us be patient in explaining to them why we are doing this.”
“People are not perfect, but there is an innate good in each of us.”
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