What started out as a makeshift communal food station at the most populated city in the Philippines became a movement of solidarity across the country, in response to widespread hunger, job precarity, and inadequate government aid.
Ana Patricia Non organized the Maginhawa Community Pantry in Quezon City on April 14, where the 26-year-old filled a small bamboo cart with food items and other essentials that anyone seeking reprieve can get and those wanting to extend aid can supply. A cardboard sign bearing the words, “Give what you can. Take what you need,” would greet the growing line of pantry goers.
“I am already tired of inaction,” Non told Phillipine media on why she started the effort, which drew from the power of collective involvement. Among those who flocked to the food bank are people who have lost their jobs as the national economy plummeted while record hunger reached new heights amid COVID-19. Recovery for the country, on the other hand, is seen to be the slowest compared to its Southeast Asian counterparts.
Non’s community pantry, while not novel, exemplified in what many say underscores the Bayanihan spirit or the Filipino concept of communal work, derived from the word bayan or nation. In a show of solidarity, others have been galvanized to do the same in different parts of the country. Fishers and farmers, those who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic and state neglect, took part in these efforts, giving the surplus they made from their catch and harvests. As of mid-April, more than 350 makeshift food banks were said to have been set up nationwide.
While Non has made it clear that community pantries are not the solution to the root cause of hunger, the principle central to the ground-up initiative brought to the mainstream the importance of mutual aid and solidarity in spurring collective action.
Ana Patricia Non sets up a makeshift foodstation dubbed as the Maginhawa Community Pantry in Quezon City, Philippines onApril 14, 2021. The cardboard sign written in Filipino reads: “Give what you can. Take what you need.”
Mutual aid; act of resistance?
In the southern Philippines, a 19-year-old communications student, who was inspired by the ripple of community pantries, organized a food hub in Liloan, Cebu. “That concept of mutual aid is probably the biggest reason why I was really drawn to community pantries,” Celine Lagundi said.
One characterization offered on mutual aid is that it’s “a form of solidarity-based support, in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves.” Under this framework, community pantries can be seen as a collective response to the immediate needs of the hungry and unemployed brought about by the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic.
This movement of collaboration has become a point of intersection, bridging different people torn from a highly individualized society. For one, Lagundi recounted that a mute woman who approached the community pantry shared how her family member recently became a victim of an extrajudicial killing, a recurring brutal pattern since President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power in 2016.
“I think this is the most important part of our volunteership at the pantry—the conversations we have and the stories the people would tell. They fuel the need for us to do something; to listen more closely, to help get their calls heard,” Lagundi said.
It’s also because of this that Lagundi considers the community-installed food banks as an act of resistance. “They show the sheer carelessness and incompetence of the government because why else would the countrymen be forced to fend on their own especially in a time of crisis?” she said.
For the likes of Michael Angelo Quijada, a fellow organizer in Cebu City, community pantries are more of extended assistance initiated by private individuals than a display of dissent. Scholars, meanwhile, are keen to point out that “community pantries are not rally or demonstration sites as of yet,” but could very well evolve to be one in the near future as social conditions worsen.
But whatever the orientation, this community-based initiative primarily “resonate with the public’s dire needs and brewing discontent in the context of a worsening economic and health care situation.”
Lessons drawn from solidarity
At heart of mutual aid and of the establishment of community pantries is solidarity.
According to Regletto Aldrich Imbong, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of the Philippines Cebu, social solidarity is the conscious effort of overcoming differences—without necessarily eradicating them—in order to build a strong unity that not only voices concrete demands but also identifies new alternatives.
Without solidarity, Imbong said, collective action will be difficult to come by as people of different classes, races, genders, and sexualities would be constrained to and blinded in their own social identities and, as a result, hamper their capacity to band together.
“It is this understanding and sharing of the common, of the communal, of the community inherent in social solidarity, that allows the overcoming of the particularities and limitations of identities in order to spur collective action,” he added.
For pantry organizers like Lagundi and Quijada, they have learned the importance of trusting the community to achieve common goals and shared interests.
“The best lesson the community pantry has taught me is to trust in the masses. Us volunteers and organizers are not their saviors and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as such,” Lagundi said. “We shouldn’t use their stories and lives for our personal gains. In fact, we should continue to fight and resist alongside them and amplify their voices.”
Quijada emphasized that there is a need to provide communities a platform for mobilizing them and, at the same time, help them especially during this crisis. It is here that Quijada saw the creativity of young members of ONE GUADALUPE, a local movement he spearheaded, in planning and creating projects that fill the gaps that their barangay in Cebu City continues to endure.
ONE GUADALUPE youth members launch a mobilecommunity pantry on May 21 to provide aid to residents living in faraway placesat Brgy. Guadalupe, Cebu City, Philippines.
Solidarity in social development
As scholars see community pantries as emergent agencies or initiatives undertaken by different stakeholders to independently effect changes in their circumstances, these acts, they say, help inform “build back better options [...] to a more equitable and sustainable future.”
For example, the principle and practice of mutual aid and solidarity lend insights to a bottom-up approach in community development — one that gives primacy to local knowledge and local practices of community members in identifying problems and creating solutions.
This differs from the dominant bureaucratic model of organizations that rely on the wisdom of those at the top of the hierarchy. However, the Philippine national government and its attached agencies continue to largely implement projects through a top-bottom approach that often disregards community members in the decision-making process.
To mobilize communities, which is pivotal in sustaining policies and projects catered for and by them, organizing those at the fringes based on mutual aid and solidarity empower communities by giving them agency to changes they want to undertake. This encourages accountability as the communal is put front and center over the interests of the few.
In rethinking society and development, there is no other alternative to collective action, said Imbong. “Its exceptional politics challenges the existing order and ideology, thereby providing the true alternative rooted in social solidarity and communal social organization,” he said.