Sustaining pantries

A COMMUNITY PANTRY set up along Maginhawa St., Quezon City, April 18. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

Indeed, it has been a year of living dangerously for many of us. Joblessness, loss of income, rising food prices, and economic uncertainties have left us in the doldrums. We worry about dying from either a contagious and deadly virus, or from poverty and hunger. We have been generally stuck these last 13 months, unable to move on, wondering when this COVID-19 pandemic will end.

In a column in late January 2020, I noted that there were roughly 4,600 reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide at the time, and with about 100 deaths attributed to it, specifically in China. Since then, millions have gotten sick globally. In the Philippines, as of April 20, COVID-19 has affected over 950,000 people, with over 16,000 dying from it. Active cases to date are at 127,000.

Earlier that same month, I also wrote an indictment of the Filipino for having lost the bayanihan spirit: “Gone is the post-war Filipino who used to be known for his values, and his strong sense of others as evidenced by his readiness to be part of any bayanihan to help his fellow man. In our cities in particular, people now look out more for themselves than each there. And with the spirit of bayanihan obviously dead, I can only wonder if bayan itself will soon follow to the grave.

“The Filipino of old, the one with traditional values and who understood the spirit of bayanihan, is as good as gone. And he is unlikely to come back. His ilk evolved, for sure, but not necessarily for the better. The personality traits of his descendants seem to have been shaped less by heredity and more by environment. And given how things are now, perhaps their disastrous end is inevitable.”

It was a harsh condemnation, but it was evident in how we lived at the time. We had lost our regard for others, and thus exhibited a poor sense of community. We celebrated the individual, and de-emphasized the communal — for this was how we believed one could best survive the hustle and bustle of 21st century life.

Little did I realize then how COVID-19 would soon change our lives. For about three months from March 2020, it became a survival of the loneliest as we had to deal with a prolonged lockdown, physical distancing, and “independent” living. Most places where people used to meet socially or congregate were shut down. People were told to stay in their homes as much as possible.

Policy makers tend to believe that physical distancing is still the most effective way of limiting transmission of COVID-19. Lockdowns have been our favored quick fix for COVID surges. Some households actually choose to isolate by choice. But I also believe isolation is among the most difficult initiatives to take as people, by nature, are social beings.

COVID-19 has changed many of us, perhaps for the better. There seems to be greater emphasis now on health and well-being, and greater concern for cleanliness and hygiene. We have also become more neighborly, in a way, with our social life focusing more now on the immediate community. And, I am quite happy to be proved wrong about the bayanihan spirit being lost.

Since last year, many of us have been surviving on the kindness and generosity of others. The business community gave to the extent that it could, for as long as it could. And when it became evident that this pandemic was for the long haul, effective management of resources, amid a crisis, became the name of the game.

I am pleasantly surprised at how community pantries have sprouted all over, and quite happy to note that bayanihan is alive after all. And I beg to disagree that community pantries reflect the inadequacies of government. All over the world, many governments were not prepared for COVID-19, and are presently hard pressed to sufficiently cover all the needs of their people.

Communal pantries work because they help in managing deficits and surpluses. And, I suppose, despite a few bad eggs, in general, people are learning to be more giving and sharing. Judging from the experience of many such pantries, hoarding is an exception rather than the rule. Self-restraint is ensured by peer pressure and fear of public censure.

The fact of the matter is we generally tend to over-consume, building up surpluses when we can, but sometimes ending up throwing away a lot of raw and cooked food. Every day, plenty of farm produce are also left unsold, all ending up in the trash bin. With community pantries taking up these surpluses, they give particularly the poor greater access to available food.

It had to take a crisis, and a few well-meaning individuals, to make people realize once more that bayanihan can work. But it takes a lot of effort, and goodwill, to sustain these pantries. In this line, I believe the practice can be institutionalized. There will always be a crisis, either a calamity or a pandemic, and there will always be a need for improved access to food.

Fresh farm produce like vegetables and fruits go to waste after failing to make it to market on time. Farmers get rid of surplus harvest by either feeding them to farm animals or just turning them to compost. Even harvested grains like rice, after being dried, hulled, and milled, can last only for so long. Old grain end up as animal feed.

We need to look into technologies to improve storage and shelf life. Local governments should look into helping maintain community pantries by investing in food warehousing and refrigeration facilities. If they can afford to build public markets, either at their own expense or through private sector investment, then they should also invest in cold and dry storage facilities.

Community pantries can be sustained only for so long with donations and support from those who can help. Imagine how this initiative can be improved if local governments can also provide suitable warehousing and storage facilities. Storage sufficiency will help ensure food security locally, and will provide for the creation of even bigger community pantries in the future.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council