Thais set up neighbourhood sharing pantries amidst Covid-19

Starting with only five, Pantries of Sharing (ตู้ปันสุข) have reached all 77 provinces across Thailand with over 600 locations providing food and other necessities for those hit by COVID-19 pandemic.

A pantry location in Nakhon Ratchasima being re-stocked (Source: Khaosod English)

Thai business coach Supakit Kulchartvijit and his friends founded the Little Brick group (อิฐน้อย) and came up with the Pantry of Sharing campaign. The idea was to let people in need take what they need from the pantries, mostly filled with instant noodles, canned food, chips and household goods. The pantries are in community areas. People in the area are encouraged to stock the shelves with what they have left to share.

“Grab just what you need,” the sign in front of all pantries stated. “If you have something, put it in the pantry to share.”

Pantries of Sharing are inspired by the Little Free Pantry (LFP) campaign launched by Jessica McClard in the U.S. in May 2016. The LFP is “for neighbours helping neighbours.” It was launched mainly to help those who were experiencing food insecurity but were left out of the government programmes with the idea of not shaming people for needing donations.

“Food pantries operate as service providers, those who use them as clients. The LFP dissolves that professional boundary. Whether stocking or taking stock, everyone approaches the LFP the same way, mediating the shame that accompanies need,” says on the LFP’s website.

The campaign in Thailand by Little Bricks group started on 27 April with five shelves at four locations in Bangkok: Sukhumwit 71, Bang Korlam Market, Petchkasem 54 and Vipavadee 60; and one at Ban Lang in Rayong. The first five shelves were an experiment to see how Thais would react to the campaign.

Supakit posted on 29 April a video on his Facebook page, asking people’s opinions on what they thought would happen if there were public food pantries in Thailand. As the Little Brick group thought, most people doubted if campaign like this was possible in Thailand. The comments ranged from thinking that someone might take everything from a pantry to thinking that whole pantries would be carried off by someone to keep everything for themselves. However, two weeks after the shelves were installed, they received good feedback from the communities.

“The feedback was different for each of the five shelves depending on the circumstances where they were placed,” said the Pantry of Sharing Facebook page. “But the thing that was the same was that all five pantries were still there. None had disappeared. There were always people who came to put things in and some who took things. How much depended on the community. All five pantries had villagers from the area looking after them.”

The initiative by the Little Brick group has led to 618 food pantries in every province in the country as of 12 May. People who are interested in putting a pantry in their community are free to do so without consulting of the Little Brick group but must contact the owner of the property or the authorities where the pantry will be installed.

While the campaign was initially intended to create a sense of community sharing, it also created controversy on the internet. People questioned if this campaign was a good fit in Thailand as many videos have been shared online showing people taking everything from the pantries for themselves and local people demanding more.

A flight attendant and owner of one of the pantries Chatrudee Kopit, 45, told One31 News of her intention when she decided to put a pantry in front of her house and the frustration which led to the decision to take it away. Chatrudee said she decided to participate in the campaign after seeing Supakit’s video on Facebook as she has been volunteering with the airline she works for.

“They looked at everything and chose what they needed,” Chatrudee said. “They had no bag, they didn’t grab everything.”

What made Chatrudee want to keep going were notes from people in the area showing how grateful they were for what she did.

Chatrudee said everything was going well until 11 May, when it was raining, and Chatrudee decided to temporarily take the pantry back inside to keep it from getting wet but left the sign outside. While the pantry was inside, Chatrudee said people were still coming for what they needed. Some asked nicely but some demanded goods rudely. Chatrudee said one person said, “If you don’t have anything, why did you leave the sign out?” She took that as verbal harassment.

“I consider that we were threatened,” Chatrudee said. “I want to keep carry on, but I don’t want problems.”

That event led to Chatrudee’s decision to remove the pantry, as she was concerned for her and her family’s safety. Instead, she contributes by contributing to a nearby pantry.

On May 12, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha publicly criticized people who took everything for themselves. Prayut said this was unacceptable.

“I don’t want this to happen again in Thai society. We must be sympathetic to others,” Prayut said, “because if you keep doing this, there won’t be any people making donations and other people won’t get anything.”

Prayut also said on 13 May he has ordered Pantries of Sharing to be watched by guards and cameras to prevent such incidents.

Pantries of Sharing are not the first attempt to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before this campaign was launched, many people handled out donations in various locations in the country, but were issued warnings or charged with violations of the Emergency Decree.

Voice TV reported guideline from Hunger Free America for individuals who want to contribute to addressing food insecurity, donations are not the solution to starvation in the long-term; the solution needs government policies and structural changes.