Here’s How One Woman Started Her Own Community Pantry in Marikina

May 12, 2021 0 comments

It all started with one woman putting up what she referred to as a “community pantry” along the famed Maginhawa Street in Quezon City. It might not seem like much at that time but, as they say, sometimes one is all you need. To provide inspiration. To give hope. To set as an example. 

Ever since Ana Patricia Non set up the Maginhawa Community Pantry, many others followed suit both in Metro Manila and in different provinces all over the country. It’s Bayanihan at its best in the midst of a pandemic many still struggle to cope with. But these community pantries are not without their fair share of stumbles and learning experiences, as well as critics and naysayers. 

Read: 'Red-tagging' of community pantries is a desperate move from the government

To understand more about the community pantries and the everyday experiences of the volunteers who toil under sun and rain to bring much-needed help to those who need it most, we spoke to Ella Mendoza, the organizer of the San Roque Community Pantry in Marikina. 

Believe it or not, that community pantry started with only a few sacks of rice and a small budget for some bread, noodles, and canned goods. What gave its organizers hope that it can continue beyond the first day was their first two donations: a 50-Peso bill and a loaf of bread. 

How the San Roque Community Pantry started

Day 1 of the San Roque Community Pantry. Photo courtesy of Ella Mendoza.

During the same week that Patreng (Ana Patricia Non) put up the Maginhawa Community Pantry, Ella was raising additional funds to proceed with the rice distribution for the remaining 67 tricycle drivers of SRMTTODAI after the first distribution was held a week prior. 

“On the day of the distribution (April 17), I was debating with myself how to proceed, having heard the plight of these tricycle drivers and many others,” she says. “I knew I could keep going with the fundraisers and provide aid every now and then, but I can only give so much at a time. I felt lost and frustrated. I felt the need for some form of continuity and that it had to be executed with urgency.”

Read: Ran out for condoms and pills? This community pantry has it all!

It’s when she learned that a couple of community pantries have popped up elsewhere that she decided to put up our own that same afternoon. “With the few sacks of rice left and a little budget for some bread, noodles, and canned goods, I explained the concept of the community pantry to my trike driver neighbors and asked them if they were willing to help out in manning and organizing the pantry (which was to be situated by the waiting shed),” she narrates.

Did Ella think that her community pantry will succeed right away and continue in the coming days? Not exactly. “There were many doubts whether our pantry will continue operating even before we put it up and more so after witnessing the first 30 minutes of it being emptied,” Ella admits. “But a 50 peso bill and a loaf of bread as our pantry’s first two donations were enough to remind us to trust in the people. Tiwala lang sa masa.

The difficulties that come with a community pantry

People in line and waiting their turn to get their return. Photo courtesy of Ella Mendoza

Ella lists down six things are difficult about setting up a community pantry: striking a balance between stretching out donations and meeting the needs of our target beneficiaries, staying true to the essence of the community pantry over distributing pre-packed/portioned goods, meeting and maintaining minimum health and safety protocols with the increasing volume of people, corruption among self-appointed volunteers, hoarding, and complaints about the times that there’s a very limited selection

The Toge Story

The lumpiang toge a neighbor made for volunteers from the toge donation she received. Photo courtesy of Ella Mendoza

We asked her if she had a particular memory or experience she’d like to share. She has one, she says, about a particular episode that was the Day 7 ‘toge’ donation. “That Friday morning, a donor dropped off three sacks of sprouts for the community pantry. Having instructed the tricycle drivers to make sure no perishable goods spoil, they had to distribute the packs of sprouts right away. That afternoon, as we were finishing up with the distribution, a neighbor riding her e-bike came by to drop off a tray of okoy (lumpiang toge) for the volunteers,” she narrates. “I was told later on that she was one of the several neighbors at the receiving end of the toge distribution that morning. As I was getting ready to go home, another neighbor called me to her house to give me some stir-fried noodles with plenty of sprouts. She, too, was given a pack of sprouts earlier that day.”

The lumpiang toge a neighbor made for volunteers from the toge donation she received. Photo courtesy of Ella Mendoza

It didn’t stop there. The toge series continued the following day when three other neighbors happened to send over plates of okoy to the community pantry just as Ella was typing the toge story to be shared on social media. It just goes to show that a little bit of kindness goes a long way.

“I was completely in awe as I witnessed these acts of generosity unfold,” says Ella. “It’s true that there also were plenty of incidents involving hoarding and when these occur, we leave them be and remind ourselves that we’re not in the position to judge them for doing so.”

What Ella learned

Running a community pantry is an everyday learning experience. For Ella, the realizations and assessments that come from the trike drivers always seem to strike hard. “I grew up in a community very much different from here so I often look to them for details that I’m sure to miss while we’re running the pantry,” she says. “I only realized a few days in that they actually are very natural at caring for people. They’re public service providers, after all. They know the community better than most and so it’s their opinions and advice that I respect considerably. They are able to read deep into the behavior of people taking supplies from the pantry enough to realize the extent of hunger in the community.

Read: What The COVID-19 Pandemic Taught Us So Far

Ella does her best to be present when the pantry opens up and volunteers begin bringing out the supplies. “Neighbors flood in and it’s there that I’m able to get to know the community better. The trike drivers and ‘tambay’ volunteers hand out supplies to neighbors lining up and the short ‘kumustahan’ between them lends newer perspectives. They all make sure that those who lost their jobs and whose families are bigger than others are able to acquire enough supplies to bring home. Street sweepers and vendors passing by, as well as trike drivers from other areas are also provided with supplies. Families whom we were able to identify as most vulnerable and deprived, especially those with disabled members of the family are prioritized and are given supplies when the trike drivers make their rounds - this is to secure their food and minimize their need to go out of the house.”

The volunteers of the San Roque Community Pantry. Photo courtesy of Walter De Guzman and Ella Mendoza

If there’s one thing she learned about running a community pantry, it’s that it runs on trust more than anything—trust among its organizers and volunteers, donors, and recipients - that must be well taken care of. 

Ella says, “Our community pantry has gone from a humble trolley to a line of tables filled with goods enough to supply 400 people, but only through the mutual trust and respect that we give each other that we’re able to continue providing a venue for people who want to help and for people in need.”

She also learned that people naturally self-organize too. “No need for emergency powers and billions of funds to feed the people,” she quips.

A short message to the naysayers of community pantries

Despite all the help they’ve given to those in need, community pantries still have its fair share of haters. It’s been called a range of things, including being a super-spreader for COVID and even a project of the communists. But what many naysayers do not understand is that at the heart of every community pantry is really just the earnest desire to help.

If there’s anything that Ella wants people to understand about community pantries, it’s that “the community pantry does not discriminate. Feel free to give what you can or take what you need.”

Vegetable donations for the San Roque Community Pantry. Photo courtesy of Ella Mendoza

An advice to those who want to set up their own community pantry

Ella has this advice to give to those who’d like to set up their own community pantry: “There’s really no single success formula in running a community pantry. Each community will have a different set of needs, a different population density, and a different giving capacity. Get to know the people, listen to them, and adjust accordingly (all while demanding the government to do the job that they’re hired to do).

━━ Written By  Bella Javier
━━ Illustrations from Freepik

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