On April 14, 2021, 26-year-old Ana Patricia Non set up a small bamboo cart along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City. She filled it up with vegetables, rice, canned goods, and noodles and put up a sign that said: Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan; kumuha batay sa pangangailangan. (Give what you can and take what you need.)
Since then, this small gesture of generosity has sparked a movement. The community pantry has been replicated in various parts of the country, in even as far as Mindanao, feeding the poor and hungry, whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
Even the government took notice and followed Non’s lead. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in particular thought that the community pantry concept would complement their tree planting and food security advocacies. “DENR-NCR (National Capital Region) has been providing free seedlings upon request,” recalled DENR-NCR Executive Director Jacqueline Caancan. “We saw how the community pantry can help us reach out to more people. So, we coined the project title, “Community PanTREE”.
Also based on Non’s original tagline is the DENR’s Magtanim ayon sa kakayahan; umani ayon sa pangangailangan (Plant what you can; harvest what you need). The project, launched on Earth Day in April, also espouses the bayanihan spirit. While encouraging community members to take free seeds and seedlings, they can also donate their own spare seeds and planting materials. Like its inspiration, the Community PanTREE reaped its own success, and was replicated by other local governments and organizations.
Community PanTREE on a Roll
On its first day, the Community PanTree at the DENR office in North Avenue, Quezon City was already well-attended. “When we started, we organized the lines to follow health protocols. We were able to distribute around 5,000 seedlings on our first two days. The assorted seedlings were indigenous species of fruit-bearing trees like calamansi, avocado and sampaloc. We also included vegetables,” said Caancan. The vegetables were a product of DENR’s partnership with the Bureau of Plant Industry, which provided the seeds. The DENR propagated the seeds and distributed the produce to communities.
Because the Community PanTREE’s schedule changes weekly, Caancan recommends that people follow their FB page for more details. To accommodate more beneficiaries, DENR also provides schools and local government units with seedlings for their own panTREEs. Even tree-planting groups can request for seedlings from the DENR.
Making it Mobile
Last June 25, Arbor Day was celebrated in the country. According to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) website, Arbor Day calls for the “active participation of all government agencies, including government-owned and controlled corporations, private sector, schools, civil society groups and the citizenry in tree planting activity.”
Coinciding with this observance is DENR’s launch of its “Rolling Community PanTREE”, which made its initiative mobile. “The theme last Arbor Day was Sama-samang pagkilos—Ikaw, ako, tayo ang kalikasan (Collective action—you, I, we are nature). This means we are interconnected,” explained Caancan. “If we care for nature, we care for our health. We must be the one to save nature. With our collective effort, we could save our environment and protect it for future generations.”
The Rolling Community PanTree was first launched in Barangay 163 in Caloocan City. Its community is active in the rehabilitation of the Tullahan-Tinaheros River system, which spans La Mesa Water Reservoir to Manila Bay.
To date, the Rolling Community Pan-Tree have been launched in these areas:
- University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman campus
- Brgy. 163 in Caloocan City
- Brgy. Lower Bicutan in Taguig City
- Brgy. 863 in Pandacan, Manila
- Brgy. Marikina Heights in Marikina
- Brgy. Santolan in Pasig City
Benefits of Tree Planting
The main goal of DENR’s initiative is to equip people with food sources amidst quarantine measures in NCR Plus. But as Caancan stressed, urban gardening has other benefits. “It’s a stress reliever. When we’re confined to our homes, we tend to look for something worthwhile to do. Gardening already has value, but it also gives us joy.”
In the bigger picture of climate change mitigation, Caancan believes that urban gardening plays an important role. “Trees have the capacity to absorb heat, so we need to preserve them in our surroundings. In fact, here’s a good example: what’s the first thing you look for when you’re parking your car in an open space? A tree, right? So, we want people to realize that for every tree that they plant, they invest in the future. It is a nature-based solution that will help restore our environment. Trees and plants are essential to life, and we are interconnected.”
Still, planting needs preparation. Caancan reminded plantito and plantita wannabes that specific plants need certain soil types. Planting involves not only burying the seeds; a huge part of it requires maintenance. “To ensure that our planted trees will survive and thrive, their species should be appropriate to the planting site. There are trees that will not thrive in Metro Manila. You need information.”
The Challenge of Urban Greening
Part of DENR’s urban greening initiatives is planting brightly colored flowers along the road, providing commuters and motorists a visual respite. Before this is done, DENR makes sure that the flower species can thrive in the city. Some of these include:
- Caballero – also known as peacock flower or “Bulaklak ng Paraiso”. These are bright red and yellow flowers with clawed petals.
- Balitbitan – whitish-yellow flowers that grow in clusters
- Palawan Cherry Blossoms – light pink or white clustered flowers
“Before every planting activity, our technical staff studies the site. They make a proposal on tree planting activities and materials, which we provide,” Caancan said.
But is rapid development balanced with environmental care? Caancan said that for every tree cut down, developers are required to plant fifty indigenous trees in its place. “Big developers need to secure an Environment Compliance Certificate, which identifies their projects’ environmental impacts. As much as possible, we encourage them to incorporate existing trees into the development. If not, they are required to have greening components. But it’s good that there’s awareness now among the public. If a company cuts down too many trees, it will be bashed in social media. Developers are aware of the public’s environmental consciousness, so they adhere to regulations.”
Still, city-dwellers are encouraged to do their own urban greening in their homes. “Space is a challenge, but we have rock beds which we can put in pots. We can place these in the corners of our homes. You can use your small spaces in your bakuran. Our own small way of greening our spaces can go long way. We all need nature because we, ourselves, are nature,” ended Caancan.
Sometimes, it only takes a small step to spark a movement.
When 26-year-old Ana Patricia “Patreng” Non decided to start a community pantry near her home in Maginhawa Street, Quezon City, it was because she wanted to help. “My small business was affected because of the lockdown,” she explained in Filipino in a Panahon TV interview. “But even if I didn’t have any income, I could still eat three times a day. I thought of those whose livelihoods depended on being out on the streets. They needed support.”
Soon, news about Patreng’s Maginhawa Community Pantry, fashioned from a bamboo cart, spread like wildfire. People came in droves, dropping off food donations, and getting food. The initiative was so popular that even the German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel dropped by to donate goods. She tweeted that she was “deeply impressed by the solidary spirit of the Filipinos.”
Patreng and her bamboo cart of donated goods (photo from AP Non)
Maginhawa Community Pantry’s Evolution
To accommodate the growing volume of crowd and donations, the pantry relocated to a bigger space at the Teacher’s Village East Barangay Hall. Quezon City authorities were called in to maintain health protocols. But the line continued to grow, extending all the way to Philcoa along Commonwealth Avenue. Senior citizens, though prohibited to go out of their homes, joined the queue. To get in line early, people broke curfew.
To address these challenges and to meet the needs of community pantries that mushroomed in the area and all over the country (as far as Mindanao), the Maginhawa Community Pantry recently announced that it would no longer serve beneficiaries. Instead, the pantry has evolved into a drop-off point for donations, which will be distributed among other pantries and places that needed aid. This decentralizing move seeks to promote better barangay coordination and observation of health protocols, and to spread out the crowd lining up for goods.
Inspired by Patreng’s initiative, UP Campus residents set up their own community pantry. (photo by Mary Jhoy Aap)
Ensuring Safety in Community Pantries
Though initiating community pantries is commendable, organizers should always remember that the country is still grappling with the pandemic. Safety and Preparedness Advocate Martin Aguda Jr. explained in Filipino, “Each time you go out—whether you’re an organizer, a volunteer, a donor or a beneficiary—you are at risk for COVID-19, especially in crowded community pantries.”
On the day when a senior citizen collapsed and died while waiting in line at a community pantry, the Quezon City government released its Community Pantry Guidelines to minimize health risks. Aguda also offers these tips:
Map out a risk management plan. Recognize the risks of your endeavor. How will these affect everyone involved? “You have to check the risks and you have to put in your safety measures,” stressed Aguda. The risk management plan involves wisely choosing the pantry’s location, which will largely depend on the crowd volume you are capable of handling. “Is this an area that will draw in crowds? You need to survey the place because from there, you can gauge your expected crowd.”
Check if your resources are enough. Make sure that the amount of goods you will be distributing matches the expected number of beneficiaries. “When the people outnumber the goods, that will result in long lines and extended waiting time. The longer people wait in line, the more they are exposed to other people and the risk of COVID,” shared Aguda. Limited resources may also cause people to forego discipline and cause a stampede.
Ensure the safety of everyone involved. Aside from making sure everyone is wearing a mask and a face shield, and is practicing physical distancing, organizers should also check the pantry’s surroundings. Aguda explains, “The location should be away from traffic to prevent accidents. Physical distancing can be enforced through physical markers. Enlist the help of safety officers or barangay officials to ensure that lines and health protocols are followed.” Aguda also suggested to set early operation hours so people don’t have to wait under the heat of the sun. This reduces the risk of heat stroke and dehydration.
Regularly brief the crowd. Reminding the crowd to follow health protocols cannot be made often enough. Because there’s always a fresh batch of people joining the line, always reiterate the measures to ensure their safety. Set an example by wearing PPEs and following physical distancing. Provide alcohol for public use.
“It all boils down to planning. We all want to help, but we don’t want to deal with unintended consequences,” warned Aguda. He advised people going to community pantries to also bring drinking water and umbrellas. “Learn to be practical. Remember your health is at risk.”
In turn, Aguda advised organizers to never let their guards down. “You need to protect yourself because you are interacting with different people. Don’t remove your mask at any time. Your volunteerism is a noble act, but you can still help others by ensuring your own safety,” he ended.
Watch Panahon TV’s full interview with Martin Aguda Jr. here.
For those who want to donate to the Maginhawa Community Pantry, visit its Facebook page.