The first time my daughter saw the post of the Maginhawa Street Pantry on IG, she teared up. I did, too. The idea was simple but it was powerful. Making food available to the hungry for free with no requirements other than to take what they needed and give what they could—it struck a chord with such resonance that I had to share it in one of our neighborhood chat groups.
Since the quarantine began last year, I have become part of several online communities, primarily to procure food and home essentials. It was a matter of survival since we were strongly admonished to stay home. Enterprising persons quickly offered services to do home delivery for anything, from toilet paper, fresh vegetables and fish to ice cream, steak and specialty cuisine.
Eventually I joined special interest groups and it was among my plant enthusiasts chat group that I shared the idea of possibly doing something similar to what Ana Patricia Non had done in Maginhawa. Someone reposted my proposition in the wider residents’ group, adding her support to the idea.
By evening, I received an invitation to be part of our White Plains pantry project that was being organized. It had been brewing in the minds of some neighborhood folk at White Plains and the post served as trigger. Before the night was over, someone had volunteered to make the signage from recycled cardboard boxes, another was put in charge of logistics such as repacking bulk donations. A treasurer was assigned to receive monetary contributions, and liaisons were designated to coordinate with the officials of the barangay and our White Plains homeowners’ association. I volunteered to provide the table where the residents could leave whatever they wanted to give and contacted someone who had access to foodstuff so I could buy in bulk at discounted prices.
I was moved by the generous response.
The plans to put up a community pantry in White Plains, Quezon City, were a combustion of energy, enthusiasm and heart. Hastily put together in the remaining hours of Sunday, the project was launched the following morning. There were minor hiccups like the intended table getting damaged as it was pulled out of storage, and the failure to get permission from the owner on whose side of the property we set up the pantry.
Quickly replacing the table and relocating to what turned out to be a better site, the community pantry opened at 9 a.m.
Throughout the morning, people placed food on the unmanned table just outside the back gate of the village which accessed C5. Apart from the initial eggs, bread, rice, noodles, canned goods, vegetables and medicines, there were also face masks and face shields placed in brown paper packs with child-like scrawling to label the contents. Apparently parents had enlisted their children to draw, decorate and be part of the sharing.
Someone placed a box of rosaries and prayers “para sa ispiritwal na pangangailangan”. This unique feature continued as other women added rosaries and scapulars in individual packs. The boxes were always empty at the end of the day.
Several of the contractual workers doing jobs inside the village were among the first beneficiaries. Initially, they were tentative and hesitant to take anything. After assurances that it was free, they picked out enough for one family meal and expressed thanks profusely.
Grab drivers stopped by to get a can of sardines or a pack of cookies and called across “Salamat, po” with wide grins. There were passers-by in well-worn clothes who watched from a distance before they approached the table and slowly picked out a couple of items.
It struck me that they not only took modest provisions but also unhesitatingly shared with each other
Concerns had been raised by some neighbors about leaving the community pantry unattended, inviting opportunists to take advantage of free food. Others questioned whether or not the workers were entitled to avail themselves of the goods since they had jobs anyway. I felt that the community pantry should be open to all who were hungry, displaced, desperate and needing help. My view was that the laborers, carpenters, electricians, masons and construction helpers were in varying levels of need.
When I observed some of the contractors’ hired hands getting something from the table, it struck me that they not only took modest provisions but also unhesitatingly shared with each other. Urged to get an entire monay, one trabajador said, “Malaki masyado. Hati na lang kami.” (It’s too big. We’ll just share half.)
One donor, seeing photos of her donation posted on the chat group thread, asked why the people had only one pack of longganisa when she had prepared bags of tapa, tocino and other local sausages bundled together. A resident who had been at the site replied that the workers thought to share among themselves so that there would be more for others. Not a few choked and held back tears on reading the post.
Proofs of ordinary people’s generosity were shared online in other places such as the ice cream vendor who approached a community pantry. People thought he would get some freebies. Instead, he started handing out ice cream in cones to those on the food line. Then there was the taho vendor who placed plastic glasses of taho on the table as his contribution.
An unmanned giving table challenges us to believe in the integrity of others and also enables beneficiaries to exercise a nobility of spirit. Author, journalist and activist Ninotchka Rosca posted an observation: “You know, I have not even heard of a country—communist, socialist, much less capitalist—where, one fine day, the citizens just upped and decided to feed whoever was hungry. And provided food to whoever needed it, no question asked.”
When the red-tagging news came out, I was incredulous that such an exercise of generosity would be deemed Marxist-inspired. It was hard to believe that the acts of kindness could be suspect for machinations to undermine the government. However, on the fourth day of our Community Table, residents posted photos of uniformed men around our table. Within the hour of the post, I received a call from a lieutenant in the nearby police precinct. I had been designated as project lead with another neighbor and so the security guard gave my contact information when the policemen inquired who was in charge. The person at the other end of the line identified herself and said that they had a team who went to community pantry and offered any assistance we might need. I thanked her and conveyed the message to the team. Our barangay liaison said that the precinct had been supportive of the village and helpful on different occasions.
My husband’s work in a foundation has championed the recognition of dedicated policemen, soldiers and teachers who have worked tirelessly for the benefit of the community where they are situated. The public-spirited offer of the lieutenant was appreciated and we considered accepting, though mindful that they likely had more important things to do.
Later, I caught Karen Davila’s interview with Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte and Ana Patricia Non. Our mayor categorically expressed her support for the citizen action and lauded the kindness inspired by Ana Patricia’s initiative. I messaged Mayor Belmonte to thank her for the support she expressed and to share the offer extended by the police officer. She responded by assigning health protocol enforcer to help us. Feedback from residents said that these QC personnel were helpful, respectful and did their job well.
It felt amazing to be working together so that families would be able to eat at least one good meal.
Our village certainly wanted to feed the hungry. There were incidents, though, when the guards reported persons coming back again and again every time the table was replenished. Some of the neighbors understandably expressed dismay. We were aware that such possibilities would happen but nonetheless, it needn’t stop us from helping others. Just thinking that a marginalized family would have food on their table because a community chose to give was more than enough reason to continue doing good.
Someone asked how long we would be doing this. As long as people were willing to share, the community pantry would be open.
It wasn’t just the residents. Household staff pitched in, sometimes initiating with suggestions and actions. Our driver worked on repairing the damage table without being asked so that it could be used for the donations. He was an eager assistant in picking up and bringing packed rice and vegetable to the pantry. It was his idea to ask neighbors if he could pick the mangos from their trees and add the fruits to the pantry. The village guards were just as willing to help and tried to maintain social distancing among the people who came. On their own initiative they tried to keep the place clean, arranging empty trays and baskets under the table and putting aside empty boxes.
There was a real effort to reuse, recycle and hopefully reduce wastage. Residents were enjoined to provide ecobags for the beneficiaries. They were encouraged to send empty ice cream containers and paper bags, too.
Fresh produce was also sourced from groups helping agricultural sectors. Fr. Manoling Francisco’s Tanging Yaman Foundation was making available vegetables from farmers in Quirino and Isabela. Home gardens were also providing calamansi, malunggay and alugbati.
The miracle of bread broken and being passed around is unfolding circa 2021
This idea of feeding the hungry and caring for the underprivileged is not new. 2,000 years ago, the revolutionary teachings of Jesus Christ turned the world on its head when He commanded everyone to love one another. That meant feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, seeking justice, correcting oppression, doing good. It was a way of life sprung from a relationship with Him who is love incarnate.
History shows that we have failed many times to care for our fellowmen but opportunities continue to present themselves in every generation to follow His lead.
A community pantry is a simple effort but a good one in the right direction. The collective efforts of my neighbors and in many other neighborhoods not only have benefited those who took enough for one decent meal, they have also strengthened the conviction that people want to do good and should be encouraged to pursue their acts of kindness.
In the end, I believe kindness will win this war against COVID-19. It isn’t so much the amount given as the spirit in which a bag of pan de sal or a pack of tuyo is shared.
I cannot quell the sense in my heart that the miracle of bread broken and being passed around is unfolding circa 2021, and I am moved again to tears.