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Community Pantry Beyond The Pandemic

It has been a year and half since the Covid19 pandemic started in the Philippines, and the number of Filipinos infected by the virus continues to increase dramatically. For the past 2 months, daily new cases have reached the five digit mark with 1 in 3 persons infected. As the Covid19 cases continue to rise, the communities are forced to implement strict quarantine measure that have affected livelihoods, income, and how Filipinos are able to access food.

The most affected by these strict quarantine measures are the daily wage earners such as construction workers, service providers, domestic helpers who were unable to work because of disruption to the public transportation or entry restrictions in the location where they work.

No work, no pay! What they earn on a daily basis is mostly spent for food for the day.

At present minimum daily wage in the Philippines is only USD6 to 10 depending on region, which will most likely support a family of 5 or more. According to the World Food Programme, a nutritious diet which would comprise of a balanced quantity of staples, meats, vegetables and fruit cost about USD 4 per person per day. With the minimum wage, a construction worker or other informally employed individuals may not be able to afford a nutritious diet under ordinary circumstances, but also may not have any savings to help them throughout an emergency situation such as a pandemic, especially for a prolonged period which we are all experiencing with Covid19.

According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), food insecurity was experienced in more households regardless if they were in highly, moderately, or low risk areas for Covid19 in 2020. Food insecure households depended on relatives for food, or bought food on credit if possible, or relied on food packs, which typically comprised of 5 kgs of rice, and a few cans of sardines or corned beef. Again, this would be divided among family members (on average 5 or so) and would have to last until the next food pack distribution, which may or may not come in a week or so if donations were available. Unfortunately, fresh fruits and vegetables were hardly included in these food packs because they are highly perishable and difficult to transport, and quite expensive to be included as donations.

However, there was a strong sense of the need to eat healthy and nutritious food especially with the onset of the pandemic to help strengthen the body against possible infection, but access to fresh fruits and vegetables became even more challenging. Even before the pandemic, Filipinos compared to their ASEAN counterparts consume less than 100g of vegetables per day. With the disruptions to the food production and distribution due to the hard lockdowns, fresh fruits and vegetables became more inaccessible even if farmers were having a good harvest.

While farmers are the main producers of food in the country, they are also the most food insecure based on the FNRI National Nutrition Survey in 2018. Unlike in US, Filipino farmers are not big landowners but mere tenants who have to pay substantial amount to be able to till and plant. Their harvest is shared with the landowner who may not have any financial input to crop production, which is usually fully covered by the farmer. Farmers are also dependent on middlemen, who dictate the price of the produce, and to whom farmers rely on to bring their produce to the markets. Because transport was disrupted during the hard lockdowns, farmers were unable to sell their harvest. Because of this, many farmers were forced to (literally) throw away tons of fresh harvest. With the imposed curfews, farmers were also unable to tend their farms at the usual hours. Some farmers decided not to plant nor harvest since they would not be able to sell their produce, thus, losing out on income or returns on their investments from planting and tilling land.

By mid 2020, Filipinos realized that the pandemic was no where near its end and hard lockdowns or community quarantine were inevitable to quell the spread of Covid19. This meant that livelihoods would continue to be interrupted, possible loss of income, and inability to purchase food by many. Donations for food packs were not sustainable, while cash assistance from the government were dwindling. It is during times like these when the true “bayanihan” (collective effort to help one another) among Filipinos come to life.

One of the strongest acts of “bayanihan” started when Ms. Patricia Non from Quezon City set up a bamboo cart on the street where people could give and get food according to their capability to give, and their need for food. Alongside the food cart was the sign which has become the slogan of community pantries, “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan” meaning “give according to your capability, take according to your needs.” Since then the community pantry that Ms. Non started has become a nationwide movement now known as with a large following on social media. The community pantries have become a reliable channel for food donations.

Aside from being a source of free food, one of the intentions of the community pantries is to help local farmers by purchasing their produce and making them available to recipients of community pantry. One community pantry that has continued to help those in need is the Tahanan ng Ama Community Pantry managed by Sister Laura Chavez, better known as Sister Lau.

Tahanan ng Ama is located in Barangay Tuntungin-Putho in Los Baňos, Laguna, Philippines. The Barangay is residence to many informally employed individuals who work as domestic helpers, construction workers, or grocery attendants in near by towns which could restrict entry at anytime when quarantine measures are in place. Thus, disruption to their livelihood and source of income periodically. With the granular lockdowns, instead of a province-wide hard lockdown, daily wage earners are still at risk of losing livelihood. Just by being neighbors or perhaps being in a community with one household infected Covid19, they will not be allowed to leave their areas, even if they are considered essential workers. Fourteen days of lockdown and not being able to work would be a big loss for a daily wage earner.

When Sister Lau started her community pantry, she catered to small number of households around her retreat house of Tahanan ng Ama. As more households were losing their income, Tahanan ng Ama was forced to cater to more households in the village with more than 1000 households. At the height of the community pantry movement, several members of the community provided fresh vegetables from local farmers, together with a few sacks of rice. These donors were mostly private citizens who just wanted to help out but sustaining a regular pool of donors when the needs are continuous has been very challenging.

Fortunately, Tahanan ng Ama is rich with volunteer mothers from the community who help with managing the community pantry. Before the pandemic, volunteer mothers assist Sister Lau with the feeding program for the children at the local daycare center. The feeding program was another means of accessing food by poor households with young children. However, with the social distancing and restrictions from the community quarantine, feeding program was stopped.

It is uncertain how long this pandemic would last. While it is on going, many livelihoods will be disrupted or lost and many households and families will be at risk to hunger and malnutrition. It is for this reason that HAND Philippines is reaching out to a wider group of potential donors to support the community pantry of Tahanan ng Ama.

Why Tahanan ng Ama (House of God)? This has no political affiliation and is well trusted recipient of donations in the past. With enough support, Tahanan ng Ama will be able to serve and provide assistance to the most vulnerable families in its community, while instilling values formation. Since the community is also prone to calamities that may be brought about by extreme weather, such as typhoons and heavy rainfall that may cause landslides and floods, residents are forced to evacuate. When this happens, the community should be ready to provide some form of assistance and that is what Tahanan ng Ama sets out to do. It is therefore important to sustain the community pantry of Tahanan ng Ama even beyond this pandemic to also augment the assistance provided by the local government, which has very limited resources.

The main goal is to sustain community pantry and make it available and accessible during time of crises, which can be exacerbated during this pandemic. More important, to make use of community pantries for other purposes in the event that quarantine measures are lifted after the pandemic. The potential of Tahanan ng Ama include 1) providing continuous assistance in feeding the daycare center in the village, in anticipation to increased number of undernourished children due to the pandemic, and 2) assist pregnant women to have access to vegetables. In addition, the community pantry maybe be a means of assisting local farmers sell their produce.

Estimated cost of food (vegetables, cooking oil, rice) is USD200 to 300 per day. This would highly depend on the price