Kindness stations and community pantries

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

“Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He said the blessing, broke the loaves and gave them to His disciples to set before the people; He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up 12 wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate were 5,000 men.”

— Mark 6: 41-44

“The Feeding of the Multitude” in Tabgha, Galilee is among many miracles in the gospels performed by Jesus to show Jews and Gentiles His divinity as Son of God made Man, the awaited Messiah. Its parallel miracle in the Old Testament is the “Manna from Heaven,” the food that God provided for the Israelites led by Moses in the desert during the 40 years that they crossed over from Egypt to Canaan. “This is what the Lord has commanded: Everyone is to gather as much as they need” (Exodus 16:16). Is there a meaning to “taking only as much as you need” required of the bountiful food in the deprivation of the Judean desert, and complied with, at Tabgha with the 12 wicker baskets of leftovers? No one took home a “doggie bag”!

The message is communal sharing, according to Fr. James Martin S.J., in his book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage: “The sharing of food is a communal event, underlining the community aspect of faith… Food is also about giving, sacrificing and sharing; someone must labor to grow it and expend time and effort to prepare it. Food requires work and sacrifice. Someone also needs to do the feeding, in this case, Christ. Overall, it is a gift.”

Food for the poor is the most urgent need in the veritable desert that the COVID-19 pandemic has made of the world, parched for more than a year now of its accustomed bounty of capitalist production and supply of wants and needs. According to the World Food Program in May 2020, about 230 million people were at risk of starvation, 130 million more than in 2019. Projections show that the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030 and, despite some progress, most indicators are also not on track to meet global nutrition targets. The food security and nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the health and socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (http://www.fao.org).

As early as April 2020, Caritas Philippines and the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) worried about the more than 100 million Filipinos to be greatly affected by lockdown enforced due to COVID-19, as announced by the Philippine government. (NASSA/Caritas Philippines is the humanitarian, development and advocacy arm of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. It was created by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in 1966 and mandated to accompany the poor and marginalized in the just and legitimate struggle for social justice and transformation.)

Caritas Philippines set up Alay Kapwa (Offering of Oneself), the fundraising program of the Philippine Catholic Church to serve as an emergency fund during calamities and other major social concerns. For its self-funded community food program, Caritas has set up “Kindness Stations” in communities in 30 dioceses across the Philippines, benefitting some 122,000 families. The concept of the “Kindness Stations” is to “decentralize giving and sharing by mobilizing parishes, community organizations, and individuals. This is unlike the relief operations we are so used to doing in the past. Soon, resources from the government and aid organizations will run out, aid will cease and our collection boxes will be emptied. But we will always have more than enough supply of people with generous hearts and selfless souls. We will always be doing the multiplication of loaves and fish,” Caritas Philippines said (https://reliefweb.int May 9, 2020).

Kindness Stations have been set up in villages, town plazas, parish churchyards, where neighbors, farmers in the area, store owners, and whoever else had some small donation in kind can deposit their contribution (of course, seeking no payment or exchange for it), and those in need of whatever was available from donations would pick up what they needed, without having to pay for it. There is just the instruction, honor system, to “take what you need, leave some for others, and give what you can.”

“Take only what you need” is the perfection of communal sharing, as in Moses’ and the Galileans’ times.

And it works, to this day. While the Kindness Stations have fluctuated in exuberance and interest through the seesawing between GCQ (general community quarantine, a less strict quarantine level) and ECQ (enhanced community quarantine, the strictest quarantine level), a young woman’s heart bled for her hungry poor neighbors who have been waiting for the government’s long-promised P1,000 cash assistance to 22.9 million low-income earners affected by the ECQ in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. On April 14, Ana Patricia Non put out in front of her residence a rolling cart of canned goods, vegetables, and various other food items from her own pantry and offered these free to those who lacked food. Something like the Kindness Stations, only, it was a one-woman show.

Now called the Maginhawa Community Pantry, her single cart of donated food has become a row of stalls heavy with donations of rice, canned goods, and other food from the neighborhood and beyond, fresh vegetables from backyard farmers and real farmers, and whatever else — some even high-end food. Donations have come from poor and middle-income individuals more than the rich, Patricia says.

Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan,” or “Give whatever you can, take only what you need.” (Sounds familiar!) This is the motto of the Community Pantry. which has replicated in hundreds of community pantries around the country — in just over a week! It has been encouraged by excited exchanges among like-minded netizens on social media. The idea is not new (the Caritas Kindness Stations started it). The Straits Times reported that “Sharing pantries” also caught on in Thailand last year, where the initiative spread to at least 43 provinces. Similar “Food banks” proliferated in the United States when the COVID-19 outbreak there peaked and millions suddenly found themselves without jobs when their companies had to shut down due to shelter-at-home restrictions (The Straits Times, April 20, 2021). It must be a spontaneous spiritual elevation in the collective (community) consciousness. But it is probably “only in the Philippines” where organizers of community pantries are red-tagged (suspected of being communists) and profiled (with their dossiers placed on watch lists) or called Satanists (really evil) by military authorities out for blood on their “terrorist watch.” Policemen and other military men, in the guise of checking on social distancing compliance and curfew transgressions have arrested and hauled some to jail from the long queues for the free food. Originally, the local officials asked for business permits.

Then denials of harassment were issued on national TV and social media by the military and related officials who said that there is no red-tagging, no warrantless arrests, no nothing. Suddenly, the government factotums are profuse with praises for such a noble groundswell of the bayanihan (community) spirit in this trying time of the COVID-19. Might it be that they want the “looking good” thing, riding on the current hype for this unforeseen sensation? Some government offices and local government units (LGUs) have even organized their own look-alike community pantries — free this and that for everyone, anyone, no matter that they, the government, would not get any donations for the free food and goods given. But local governments have money to allocate for the food security of their constituents. Setting up a community pantry by LGUs “would be redundant because we already shoulder the taxes,” Ms. Non points out (NikkaINQ, April 18, 2021). Greed for glory?

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed (Exodus 16:17-19).

However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them (v. 20).

Ugly greed and personal gain have no place in noble community sharing.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

ahcylagan@yahoo.com