The politicization of community pantries in the Philippines

Photo: Eyriche Cortez

Despite its noble intentions, a community pantry relief initiative in the Philippines is not exempt from the harsh realities of domestic politics. Yet it continues to be a national symbol of compassion and solidarity, bringing out the best of Filipinos during the pandemic.    

By Andrea Chloe Wong

“Let a thousand community pantries bloom,” declared Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque. The Philippines’ community pantries are a philanthropic initiative that has spread across the country since mid-April in an effort to feed the poor and hungry as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Roque’s statement came after government officials accused the pantries of inciting rebellion and anti-government sentiments. In an attempt to curtail its politicization, Roque called for the initiative to be replicated nationwide and highlighted the altruism behind it.   

Similar to food banks in other countries, the community pantries in the Philippines offer immediate relief to low-income families. The makeshift grocery booths have sprouted on street corners and in small alleys, offering free bread, rice, fruits, vegetables and canned goods, and have become a means of daily survival for millions of Filipinos. By the end of April, there were already 358 community pantries scattered across the Philippines. Their rapid spread across the country has meant the difference between life and death for many. With the double burden of job losses and rising prices, many families face hunger as the country has yet to recover from one of the world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns.

In an effort to fill the gaps in government relief efforts, many Filipinos in the past month have been inspired to establish pantries in their neighborhoods. The first pantry was opened on April 14 by Ana Patricia Non, a 26 year old in Quezon City. “I’m tired of complaining. I’m tired of inaction… The fact that this has gone viral, it means this is a gut issue,” she said.

The Philippine government provided up to PHP 8,000 (US$ 167) in 2020 and PHP 4,000 ($83) so far this year for each of the country’s 18 million low-income families. But this support is not enough for daily essentials and has left many Filipinos feeling they have to fend for themselves.

Government alleges community pantries linked to Communist Party

Despite the altruism behind the community pantry, some government officials perceive it as a threat against the state, with links to the country’s communist movement. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC) claimed that these pantries are supported by the Communist Party of the Philippines. The task force was established by President Rodrigo Duterte to quell communist insurgency in the country and has since been notorious for “red tagging”—labeling people as communist rebels, many of whom often end up dead. With the expansion of community pantries nationwide, NTF ELCAC spokesperson Antonio Parlade accused Non of deceiving people: “Same with Satan. Satan gave Eve an apple. That’s where it all started.”

The national police have also alleged that these community pantries are a means to turn people against the government. Parlade admitted that the police are profiling pantry organizers and accusing them of spreading propaganda. A few days after Non’s community pantry went viral, police officers showed up in her neighborhood with assault rifles and asked for her personal details.  Fearing for her life and the lives of other volunteers, Non closed her community pantry for a day and reopened only after getting assurances for her safety from the Quezon City mayor and the head of the national Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Politicizing the pantries

These government accusations are not without basis, as some political organizations have used the community pantries to raise criticisms against the government. Some of the pantries organized by one labor group distributed anti-government pamphlets and collected signatures for a petition calling on the Duterte administration to provide more financial assistance to the unemployed. However, the organizers of the labor group explained that the pamphlets contained calls for mass COVID-19 testing and financial assistance for the poor—issues that they have long been vocal about so “there is no hidden agenda.” In addition, the group insisted that they are not forcing anyone to sign the petition and denied having links to communist rebels that seek to overthrow the Duterte administration.

Because of the alarming politicization of community pantries, several mayors in the country appealed to the public not to exploit these initiatives to promote their ideologies. Joy Belmonte, the mayor of Quezon City where the first pantry was established, stated that she is only supporting “colorless and apolitical” community pantries: “Vested interests and political agendas are unwelcome as they can jeopardize the integrity of the majority of our community pantries that are put up for purely humanitarian objectives.”

Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: ACE MORANDANTE/PPD / Public domain

Singing a different tune

Meanwhile, due to public outrage over the temporary closure of Non’s community pantry, the Duterte administration changed its official stance. Within days, it shifted from initially warning that community pantries are linked to communism to voicing support for them, and then putting up government-backed versions of the pantry. According to a press statement from the President’s Communication Office, “The emergence of community pantries is laudable. It exemplifies the Filipino bayanihan (community) spirit during this challenging time of COVID-19.” Even the police force changed course and eventually established community pantries. These efforts are seen by some in the Philippines as a way for the government and particularly the national police to improve their public image.

However, critics argue that the police’s community pantries are not about mutual aid since the food will come from the state. As the Philippine Sociological Society wrote in their analysis, these state-run pantries are a PR move to “hijack the narrative and to rob this movement of its optimism,” rather than to fulfill the police’s mandate to serve.  According to Noreen Sapalo, a lecturer from the University of the Philippines, the intention of the police is “to claim an initiative as their own and to frame the activity according to their set of rules.”

“It’s counter-propaganda, counter-insurgency and a publicity stunt rolled into one initiative—all to cover state failure,” she said, referring to the state’s launch of its own version of the pantries.

Symbol of compassion and solidarity

Despite their politicization by the government and political groups, community pantries in the Philippines remain a symbol of solidarity and compassion. Their proliferation is a display of national solidarity and a collective awareness that, while the pandemic has affected everybody, it is tougher for some and even worse for most. The community pantries also reflect a faith in humanity based on compassion, relying on Filipinos to give selflessly without reward and trusting fellow Filipinos to receive without hoarding.

The community pantry in the Philippines represents many things to different people. For Elijah San Fernando, who set up a stall in his neighborhood in Quezon City, the presence of community pantries signifies the “absence of good governance.” Though he maintains that it is not a condemnation against the Duterte administration, Roque is correct in describing the community pantry as “a showcase of the best in the Filipino character.”

About the Author

Andrea Chloe Wong
Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She previously worked as a Senior Researcher at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines.