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Defining the Pantry

When the Community Pantry in Maginhawa Street, a street that runs from Teacher’s Village to UP Village and was, in pre-Covid days, noted for its row of sophisticated and unusual eating places, became popular, other communities followed. There was no time to ask about the meaning of the word; the example was enough – a cart or table filled with vegetables and other basic commodities and the announcement everything was free to everyone.

There was no registration; no recording of names. The community initiative did not advertise its program for there was no program. The marker around the site of the pantry simply said, get what you need and give what you could give.

We know, of course, what ensued next. Even before the red-tagging, critics of the pantry brought up the concerns about sustainability and also the absence of checking who were taking advantage of the free products.

While many were ready to get the products and get more, many were not prepared to witness greed and the judgmental in us.

It was clear that the pantry was addressing a very basic and simple need in our communities – which was the availability of the most essential food items for any home.

This informal project utilizes a term for storage or closet that is seldom used. I don’t think we have a significant number of household conscious of having pantries, and using them. There is an even more confusing use of the word, pantry, and that is making all the items in it free for everyone to take.

The community pantry is really opening one’s home, with its avowed surplus, open and accessible to strangers.

Way back in the late 70s and 80s, there was a proliferation of research methodologies that allowed the investigators or researchers to gather data briskly and in a very quick manner. There was the so-called rural rapid appraisal where a fieldworker, armed with a data sheet that asked him to look for indicators of rural change and progress, went to the rural area, conducted the research in a day or few days, and came back to the office confident he had an idea about the community under study.

The purpose of that approach was to help the rural communities, i.e., depressed communities, as rapidly as possible. The unsaid, of course, was that the said approach was applicable to rural communities because they were simple sites and could easily yield to reading and understanding easily.

A part of this suite of rapid appraisals was the pantry analysis or pantry audit technique. Used for urban settings, it was used also for some rural homes. It was very simple (or simplistic) and was seen as aiding a greater research methodology. In pantry analysis, one enters a home and requests for a permission to look into the cupboard or pantry in the kitchen (usually). It depends on the aim of the research. This analysis could look into the consumption pattern of a household: What do they keep? How much do they store? What are the important food items they save?

In rural communities, in the so-called “poorer” homes, there are no real pantries.

The pantry represents surplus, adequacy, capacity to buy in bulk. The pantry stands for the minimized survival problems. In other words, the pantry where it does not exist speaks volumes about subsistence and not existence. Living is sub; living is below the normal, sufficient level.

From those meanings, we can see how the concept of community pantry addresses subsistence at its rawest, essential point.

The Maginhawa Community Pantry was addressing these meanings and more. It was thinking out of the box, a radicalization of what NGOs were originally meant to address until they were swallowed by their own unique bureaucracies, by techniques that were developed in foreign countries where the foreign donors of these “developmental” organizations were bred.

The community pantries – to include those who were inspired to have their own – are reminding communities that surplus is redistribution.

An old theory developed by Marshall Sahlins could be our source of wisdom for these times. In his book, Sahlins twisted our notions of hunger, poverty and deprivation, as he surveyed the lowest level of human societies – the hunter-gatherers of Africa. Contrary to what other anthropologists and social scientists were saying, the hunter-gatherers did not suffer from deprivation, but instead were in a society in which all their wants were easily satisfied.

Many of those who surveyed and marveled at the community pantries missed the point when they started their own. They were for the long haul. They spoke of sustainability and even resorted to building up a network of donors. Like relationships, these evolved pantries are complicated.

There is nothing wrong with those intentions. But do not call them community pantry. There are no pantries there, and there is no community there but proto-organizations.

Community pantries are not held because of someone’s birthday or because a town is celebrating a patron saint. The former is politics and the latter is a fiesta.

These “real” community pantries could vanish in a week. But they have proven something, and that is the fact that ordinary individuals could help a community. That the “community” in the pantry is not the provider but the receiver.

Go back to the first days of the community pantries. What did we hear from people? That there was hope. That our condition is a solution, where, to quote Vaclav Havel, “hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope.”


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