Roadside food banks help Thais get by in virus-stricken economy

Linda J. Dodson

BANGKOK — Over the past month, boxes with food and daily necessities have proliferated on streets across Thailand, cropping up near cafes and homes and in front of office buildings.

These tu pan suk, or happiness-sharing pantries, allow people to give or take freely. They offer those with resources to spare an opportunity to aid those who are struggling, helping to meet a need that has only grown amid the economic pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The grassroots effort began with five pantries in Bangkok and swept across the country, now numbering about 1,400. A wide range of organizations including Thai government agencies, the Israeli Embassy and a Honda Motor motorcycle dealership have contributed to the effort by offering space for boxes or contributing supplies.

The project was launched by 33-year-old entrepreneur and business coach Supakit Kulchartvijit, who took inspiration from the Little Free Pantry movement that began in the U.S. in 2016.

“The feedback is beyond my initial expectation in the sense that it spread so fast,” he said.

Among those who have joined the initiative is 34-year-old Saranya Ruddit, who installed a box outside her cafe early last month. “I sometimes buy some dry food and important stuff like soap, washing powder, toothpaste, tissue paper, etc. to add,” she said. “Some kind people also fill it up.”

The pantries are used mostly by low-income people who get by day to day, for whom it can save money, she said.

Mama instant noodles, called Thailand’s unofficial national food, are a particularly common sight in the boxes.

Instant noodles are a popular emergency provision in Thailand, as they keep well in its hot, humid climate. Sales of Mama noodles, which go for just 6 baht (19 cents) a serving, jumped 20% year on year in the first quarter of 2020, when the coronavirus began taking its toll on the economy. Saha Group, the conglomerate behind the brand, says the noodles often sell out.

The pantries are a natural fit for a country with a large population of devout Buddhists, where giving to the poor and to monks is part of the culture.

Tum boon, or making merit, is a habit ingrained in Thais from all walks of life,” said Prompohn Supataravanich, strategic planning manager at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living. “This project is a good example of adapting the tum boon culture to fit the current happenings.”

There are also less purely altruistic factors at work. As Thailand gradually reopens its economy, people use the pantries to offload excess food hoarded before the lockdown went into effect.

And the boxes are a particularly social-media-friendly form of charity. Posting a picture of yourself adding food to a cabinet is “much more on-trend than simply showing a receipt of a money donation, at least for Thais,” Prompohn said.

The pantries do not always take the form of boxes. A shutdown restaurant has been repurposed into a store, with food, personal care products and other types of goods on the shelves for visitors to take for free.

“Waited 30 minutes but it’s worth it,” said Kachanicha Wanaphutinon, a 67-year-old maid who lives in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum and has seen her work drop off due to the outbreak. “I’m so happy because now I will have something to eat and the people in the store are so kind and polite.”

The Thai government in April began offering monthly cash subsidies of 5,000 baht per month to workers in the country’s informal economy, but many have slipped through the cracks. The roadside pantries may serve as a lifeline for those beyond the reach of government support.

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