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  • Cristina Sison

Back to the basics with Covid19: The New Normal

Just seven months ago, I posted a blog about the eating habits of Filipinos and how food away from home such as fast food and take out from restaurants are becoming a big part of the local food system. My thinking back then was that eating habits and food choices of Filipinos are strongly influenced by food service, which may have implications on public health. Just a few months after that blog, this line of thinking is quickly changing with the onset of Covid19, a public health emergency having an impact on the food system and our diets. Since the enhanced quarantine was implemented a month ago, a drastic shift on how we acquire, prepare, and consume food has changed, which will most likely transform our eating habits.

For the past 20 years we have gotten used to doing the “groceries”, or eating at a fast food instead of cooking and eating our meals at home. The big supermarkets replaced many of our local and family owned groceries while fast food chains like Jollibee, Mc Donald’s, Chowking, Pizza Hut replaced home cooked meals. This was a big diversion from our childhood when eating at a restaurant was reserved for a special occasion. With fast food becoming more accessible, the community discovered the convenience of going to Mc Donalds or Jollibee for a regular meal. The decision of “what am I going to eat” turned to “where am I going to eat.”

When the community quarantine was implemented on March 15, I thought “As long as they kept the supermarket and food establishments open, it should be ok.” I was still able to make a couple trips to the supermarket and ordered take out at a near by restaurant but had to queue behind shopping carts loaded with commodities good enough to supply a whole army. Shoppers suddenly became “wholesalers” (more like panic buyers), stocking up on fresh and dry goods.

The visit to the supermarkets became even more inconvenient when the community quarantine was upgraded to enhanced community quarantine, and the province was completely on lockdown. Twenty four-seven curfew was implemented and quarantine pass for one person per household was issued. Every time the government issued a statement in the media, the following day was sure hell day at the grocery limiting entry to 25 people at a time, and what used to be a 40 min to an hour errand now took several hours because of the long lines to get in and to get out of the supermarket. One would have to literally sweat it out in the heat while waiting to get in! To make matters more complicated, restaurants and fast food establishments were in limited operation or closed.

We’ve experienced calamities and states of emergency in the past. Early this year, Taal volcano erupted and our world seemed to stand still for a couple of days. The strongest typhoons in the past, like Glenda and recently Tisoy all seemed like a “breeze” compared to this pandemic. The shift on how we access food and the state of our food security has been drastic and swift compared to any other time in the past because being able to purchase and access food is becoming a challenge for everyone. And unlike any other state of emergency, the impact of this pandemic is more long term and widespread because Covid19 is not going away anytime soon. While other environmental calamities affected mostly the production side of agriculture (damages to crops and farmlands), this pandemic has greatly impacted both the producers and the consumers, with farmers unable to bring their produce to the markets, while consumers struggle to purchase or simply access fresh goods.

While the supermarkets remain open, the fear of going out and getting the virus makes you think twice about stepping out the door to run a simple errand as grocery shopping or marketing. We have had to plan our meals around what we could harvest from our garden and what is available in the small stores in our barangay. The pandemic has definitely changed the way we acquire, prepare and consume food and has led us back to the basics of nutrition relying on food sources that are readily available and literally accessible right from our backyard. And because there is this desire to boost our immune system and protect ourselves from the virus, we are opting for nutrient dense food such as fruits and vegetables more than ever! In recent past (just a month ago), when we had the option to choose “where to eat” a pizza would have won over a home-cooked vegetables. Even the malunggay (moringa) leaves from our small tree that we ignored is becoming an important ingredient because my husband learned from his colleague who is a plant nutritionist that malunggay was good source of Selenium which has the potential to boost the immune system. Who knows? Whatever works right? In terms of cooking, salads and anything raw has been eliminated from our diet for the sake of food safety. Instead, soups and anything prepared with high heat has become our usual meal.

When we started planting (not me, Mang Jimmy) vegetables in our backyard, I imagined the produce as just complementary to our usual diet. While we benefit from our backyard harvest, the vegetable garden was set up mostly for the families who help with the property, especially the small children who seemed to be on the verge of undernutrition. The vegetable garden freed the families from purchasing high priced vegetables, especially during emergencies when prices tend to be higher. But with the pandemic and the quarantine, the vegetable garden has become more than just a “show and tell” for visitors, but a necessity. Fortunately, there is ample space for more plots so harvest has been good and we are able to share with neighbors and friends.

Aside from the basic supplies, I am now on the look out for vendors in our on line market offering vegetable seeds or seedlings, thinking of ways to expand our existing vegetable garden. Not just for our own consumption but to bring it up to scale to allow us to share with more people, especially during time of emergency. Unfortunately, not many are selling seeds and most agricultural supply stores are closed, but one neighbor managed to procure some vegetable seeds and give them away for free. There are many takers for seeds, I realized that there are more people in our neighborhood who are wanting to be self sufficient during this time.

But not all our needs can be provided by the vegetable garden, like cooking oil and the famous toilet paper. Still, the trip to the supermarket has become a last option because it was apparently the best place to get the virus. When I did research that paper on changing eating habits of Filipinos, I enumerated a couple of ways how Filipinos purchased their food other than one stop supermarket: 1) the “sari-sari” store (or the corner store), 2) mini grocery, 3) the convenience store (e.g. 7/11 or AlfaMart), and the 4) the “caritela” or food cart. These options for food purchasing were becoming more popular among Filipinos because of their convenience but they do not necessarily provide a wide selection of food that can guarantee good nutrition. However, during this time of pandemic, I have had to rely on the mini-grocery in the barangay and am seeing the potential to improve its inventory through local vegetable production. Fortunately, we have a couple of stores selling fresh vegetables and meats, a fairly well stocked mini grocery for basic supplies such as cooking oil, milk, and even toilet paper.

After the enhanced community quarantine or lockdown is lifted by the government, Coivd19 will still be out there and we may have to continue with social distancing and staying at home. Everything will have to be done differently from how we did things just a month ago, and it makes me wonder how food policies will shift to cope with the virus, social distancing, and with limited movements, especially when it comes to food production, distribution, and trade, which will impact both the producers and the consumers. From my personal experience, we were able to manage with some coping mechanisms when it comes to access and making food available without having to spend so much cash. Perhaps what is happening in the household level can be the basis to enhance and tweak macro level policies.

With or without the pandemic, we should continue to campaign for vegetable gardens, whether home or community ,to ensure food security and enable us to access food when distribution is greatly impacted by an emergency. All sectors were caught off guard when the enhanced community quarantine was implemented. Probably the most impacted were the suppliers and producers, our farmers, who could not bring their produce to market and had resorted to disposing of their produce. What a waste! When so many were struggling to acquire vegetables. In fact, we recently learned that people had resorted to the mountains to search for papayas, bananas and whatever edible plant they could forage. Some have also resorted to stealing bananas from our neighbor’s tree in desperation for food. There is a need to be able to access food at all times, especially among daily wage earners who were unable to work because of the lockdown. But then this is true for everyone! Having a vegetable garden, either home or community, is a low investment but will greatly benefit many. If the government were to come up with policies to ensure availability and access of vegetables, investing in a community garden, and if possible, include a fish pond, will not only make the population more food secure but it could also be a smart political investment. Each barangay, community, or village should have a vegetable garden that can be managed by the locals. Some LGUs are already promoting vegetable gardens and requiring every households in their municipality to plant Malunggay, and other vegetables. This is particularly true for some municipalities who are classified as low income. In fact, some have executed ordinances and require their every transaction in the municipality, whether application for business or a marriage or birth certificate, in exchange for seeds for planting.

A community vegetable garden can also help stock the village mini grocery or local stores. It could be a source of income for the barangay and will help provide better stock and inventory. Every barangay or village should have a well stocked mini grocery. This could be another investment for the LGU, which may be in the form of a cooperative. Since the ECQ, a couple of cases of Covid19 were confirmed in our municipality. Several barangays had one or two cases except for our barangay, and another barangay located in an isolated area in the upland area (proof that isolation works!). I can only assume that our barangay, so far has had no cases because most residents are able to limit their movements within the barangay since much of the basic supplies, whether food or non-food, may be purchased from the mini groceries and mini wet markets. More important, many of the residents have been planting vegetables in their own backyard. For the duration of the quarantine, we have bartered seeds, and seedlings and sometimes cooked vegetables harvested from our gardens. The vegetable garden has not only provided a sense of food security, but more important, a sense of “bayanihan” (the spirit of communal unity).

Some may claim that we are experiencing a new normal with how we access our food. But this new normal is actually going back to the basics and being self sufficient. While this pandemic has brought fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, people are becoming more conscious of their food choices and are shifting towards healthy options, which can be achieved if more community and home gardens are established in every locality. With the fast food chains now in limited operation, it has also become a “last option.” I have learned to live without pizza and fries but I must admit that I miss it sometimes. Now, more than ever, it is important to be conscious of our food choices that can provide us good nutrition, not just to boost our immune system against the virus, but prevent any other kind of illness. Prevention rather than rehabilitation is key.

I don’t have the numbers or proof that vegetable gardens would help solve current hunger situation brought about by the pandemic, but I know it is practical and logical and that providing food packets of canned goods and rice may not be sustainable and costly even in the short run. From what I am experiencing now with our harvest, it has brought some financial, social, and nutritional benefits that may be scaled up. We just need to be innovative and creative and think of ways how we can make it into a standard practice, rather than a novelty.

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