On April 14, Ana Patricia Non set up a small bamboo cart on a pavement in a Quezon City village, stocking it with 800 pesos (S$22.00) worth of groceries, including vegetables, packs of rice and noodles, canned food, and bottles of water.
The 26-year-old resident attached a handwritten cardboard sign that read “Maginhawa Community Pantry”, after the name of the street, and came with a guideline written in Tagalog: “Give according to your means, take according to your need.”
On Facebook, she shared pictures of the cart and people helping themselves to the community pantry’s contents, and encouraged others to set up their own food banks. “You can do it, just don’t expect anything in return,” Non, a visual communications graduate from the University of the Philippines (UP), said in an interview with local media.
Little did she know her idea would soon spread like wildfire. Within a day, another community pantry appeared a few kilometres away. Over the week, hundreds of similar food banks sprang up in Manila and throughout the Philippines, all of them sustained by community donations.
Then trouble started brewing. Soon after Non set up her pantry, three policemen showed up armed with assault rifles. They demanded her personal details and asked which organisation she belonged to.
A post appeared on the Quezon City police department’s Facebook page alleging that the food banks were being used to recruit soldiers for the communist New People’s Army.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC) claimed the pantries were being supported by the Communist Party of the Philippines.
The task force, established and led by President Rodrigo Duterte as part of his vow to end the communist insurgency, has a reputation for “red-tagging” – the act of accusing people and organisations of being communist rebels.
Although communism is not illegal in the Philippines, a new anti-terrorism law allows authorities to brand communists as terrorists. The task force does not use any legal procedures to identify alleged rebels and has accused Duterte’s critics and opponents of being terrorists.
Many red-tagged people have wound up murdered or been shot dead by soldiers and the police.
At the same time that Non was red-tagged, a local government undersecretary, a Duterte appointee, said community pantries would need permits because of the dangers posed by crowding and the non-observance of social distancing.
Trolls started attacking the food banks as “recruitment hubs”, one sneering that it was a “stupid piece of opportunistic rhetoric”. An NTF official declared that there were “no hungry people in the Philippines”.
Evidence of mass joblessness and hungry citizens is widespread in the Philippines, a nation of 108 million people that has spent much of the past year under one of the world’s strictest pandemic quarantine regimes.
The repeated lockdowns confined most people to their homes, restricted movement and shut down economic activity.
In January 2020, just before the pandemic hit, 2.44 million people were unemployed and 6.3 million people were either underemployed or with jobs but looking for additional work, according to data by the Philippine Statistics Authority.
In February 2021, the number of jobless people nearly doubled from the previous year to 4.1 million, while those underemployed rose to 7.85 million Filipinos, the state agency said.
Most of the jobs lost were in Metropolitan Manila – the heart of industry and commerce consisting of 16 cities, including Quezon City, where Non lives. The Philippine government, already struggling amid repeated delays to its nationwide vaccination programme, has fallen short in providing assistance to the jobless and hungry.
Last year, Non had helped to raise funds to buy 155 sacks of rice for jobless drivers of public utility jeeps. After the recent extreme lockdown, she got the idea for the community pantry.
But as the police kept visiting Non’s food bank, asking for her contact details and interrogating the volunteers, she said she felt her life was being threatened and closed the pantry temporarily.
Yoly Villanueva Ong, an advocacy communications specialist who formerly ran an advertising agency, said Non was red-tagged because “she’s woke, she’s young and she’s from UP”, an institution known as a bastion of student activism.
“That’s enough to arouse suspicion and paranoia,” she said.
The shutdown set off a wave of public outrage that prompted politicians, local officials, the police chief and the defence secretary to come out in support of Non.
Quezon City’s mayor Joy Belmonte announced that community pantries did not need permits and offered to send workers to enforce social distancing. She also revealed that in less than a week, 70 community pantries had sprung up in her city.
Philippine national police chief General Debold Sinas lauded the food banks as “an expression of Bayanihan spirit”, a Filipino term that refers to community goodwill and support.
Defence chief Delfin Lorenzana said no matter what Non’s political beliefs were, “if she is helping with her heart, we will support it (because) kindness is everyone’s colour”.
The show of support encouraged Non to reopen the Maginhawa Community Pantry after a day.
‘Gesture of compassion’
Originally open from 6am to 6pm daily, Non’s community pantry now stays open until midnight and has moved to a larger area on the same street to deal with the ever growing lines of people.
Far from running out, the supplies have increased as donors continue to show up with food and basic commodities. Some come from the provinces, including fishermen who donate their catch and farmers who send baskets of their crops.
In Manila, the spirit of sharing caught on with K-pop fans who set up their own stalls – some with signs saying “BTS Army” – to give away food and basic goods.
In Makati, a man walked down a line giving each person a 100-peso note. In another city, an ice cream vendor began offering free ice cream. Soldiers appeared in Maginhawa – to give 20 sacks of vegetables. The German ambassador also visited Maginhawa to bring donations.
Even in Timor Leste, the Philippine embassy helped set up stalls distributing food to locals.
Ong said the idea travelled well because it was genuine and wholesome.
“In a world that is often seen as cold, uncaring and even downright evil, the simple gesture of compassion reverberated across the country,” she said. “There’s a nostalgia for goodness.”
Lisa Ito, an instructor at the UP College of Fine Arts where Non graduated, called the pantry “a vaccine or booster shot we really need at this time, which inspired a lot of us by putting trust back into the hands of the people”.
She said that while there had been some support from local governments, a year of lockdowns had left many Filipinos feeling they had to fend for themselves.
At the community pantries, although people could in theory take all the food they wanted, those who went and waited in line for hours picked out only enough for themselves and their families.
“It trusted people to give selflessly without reward, it trusted people to receive without hoarding,” Ito said.
Meanwhile, officers from Duterte’s anti-communist task force have not let up on their accusations.
Its spokesman Lt General Antonio Parlade on Tuesday compared Non to the devil. “Satan gave an apple to Eve, it all started from there,” he said.
The task force also pointed out that Non had called for Duterte’s ousting on her personal Facebook page.
Non, in an interview with ABS-CBN network, said her personal beliefs were separate from the community pantry.
But the president himself apparently did not seem to mind the community initiative.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said on Thursday: “As far as the community pantry is concerned, the position of the president is clear… let a thousand community pantries bloom.”
Ong, the advocacy communications specialist, however predicted that the harassment from the task force would continue, although they would eventually “back off” once the initiative garnered even wider support.
“I believe community pantries will expand and branch off into various expressions of caring for the less fortunate and showing up this impotent government,” she said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.