Rethinking Food Packs during Pandemic
Filipinos are always quick to pull resources together during an emergency. In just one click, they are able to tap friends and family to make donations either in cash or in kind to come up with a couple of hundred of food packages for distribution. No other time than this pandemic has this generosity been stretched to a huge portion of the population, both geographically and economic standing.
Since there is so much need, it has become necessary to target donations towards specific groups like lactating mothers to make sure they continue to be well nourished and are able to breastfeed their infant, or the targeting the elderly, while some randomly provide to the general public.
What’s in a food package? Rice is the usual main item with a couple of canned goods like sardines and canned meat. Fortunately where we live, a family was generous in donating whole chicken to about 1000 families. Otherwise, several households would have to rely on rice and canned goods for as long as the enhanced community quarantine and lockdown is in place. While there is a desire to provide a nutritionally adequate food basket, it is almost impossible to do so because of the cost and the perishability of fruits and vegetables.
In the past month, we were able to donate some of our own vegetable harvest to a small group of beneficiaries, usually for use as ingredients for a couple of meals. It was not much, and the beneficiaries were few. Like everyone else trying to do their part during this pandemic, and with so many of our neighbors and friends who are affected by the enhanced community quarantine (either senior citizens who are unable to go to the market, or members of the community who are unable to work or lost their jobs), we were challenged how to widen our reach within our neighborhood. I learned a lot from the family who provided the chicken and rice in our barangay. Instead of buying in bulk from stores, which requires a permit from the Department of Trade and Industry, they purchased direct from a network of food companies that were able to supply and deliver to the provinces. Since they were already providing fresh chicken, we explored suppliers for vegetables to supplement the food package, the most practical of which was mungbean or “mungo”. It keeps, it is relatively cheap, and it provides high level of satiety and nutrients.
The challenging part was to be able to include fresh vegetables to the food packages. My thinking was it was going to be expensive and impractical. Besides, how do you access about 1000kg of vegetable for 1000 families?
Meet Aling Doris!
I have known Aling Doris for only a year. We met through friends who helped her daughter Rhiza prepare for the University entrance exams. Rhiza is hoping to take up agriculture so she can help her parents with farming. Aling Doris and her husband Mang Claudio are farmers from Magdalena in Laguna. They grow vegetables in 12 ha of farm land, which they lease for Php 5000/ha/yr. Two of the 12 ha is being loaned to her by a private owner. Their produce include patola, ampalaya, and papaya. Like many farmers, much of their earnings go back to investing on inputs for replanting. However, Aling Doris has also had to split their earnings with major medical expenses for herself and her second daughter. While we as consumers are faced with the problem of restricted movement during ECQ, Aling Doris and Mang Claudio have had to deal with bigger problems such as being unable to acquire planting materials. Even if available, some suppliers doubled their price. In another instance, the planting materials she had reserved was diverted to another customer who apparently was more influential to the supplier. While harvest has been good, they are unable to sell all their produce and earn a full profit because of limited transport to the trading post where they usually drop off their produce to sellers. These problems are not unique because of our current circumstances but it has certainly been aggravated.
That week when we were trying to figure out a feasible way to come up with food packs with some or atleast a few vegetables, Aling Doris called to check on how we were doing, when it should have been me checking on her and her family! She mentioned their difficulties and confirmed what we have been hearing on the news about farmers not being able to sell their produce. But she remained upbeat and grateful. At that time, the idea didn’t click in my head, as usual! Our conversation ended and it was only the following day when I finally realized that she could provide some information on how to acquire about a ton of vegetables.
True enough, Aling Doris was the superwoman of vegetables! Aside from their harvest, she and her husband tapped other vegetable farmers who were willing to sell their produce at farmgate price. In total, Aling Doris and Mang Claudio were able to supply 270 kg of eggplant, 120 kg of string beans, 100 kg of okra, 100kg of squash, 100 kg of upo, and 58 kg of cabbage.
Aside from the vegetables from Aling Doris and Mang Claudio, 450 kg of vegetables from Benguet, which was subsidized by the Department of Agriculture, was added to the stock. Since this was subsidized, the price per kilo of vegetables were much lower than the vegetables from Aling Doris and Mang Claudio. Nevertheless, it helped fill the 1000 or so food packs.
Once vegetables were all packed, each bag contained about a kilo of assorted vegetables. We tried to evenly distribute the contents of the package with some cabbage, or squash, or upo, or potatoes, or chayote, or cucumber, or patola. But each bag had string beans, eggplant, ampalaya, okra, and carrots. What was most surprising about this venture was the cost of the vegetables per capita, excluding transport cost and labor to transport. In the end, each vegetable food pack cost about Php35 for about a kilo of vegetables! That’s about the same price as a can of sardines or a can of meat. While 1000 households will be eating about a kilo of fresh vegetables for less than a dollar, it makes you think about the amount of labor and cost incurred by Aling Doris and Mang Claudio to produce hectares of vegetables, and the problems that go with it. I would like to think that we were able to help a couple of households by providing good quality food, and a handful of farmers by purchasing a ton of vegetables from them. But then the farmers seemed like they were in the losing end.
For practical purposes, it is easier to provide non-perishable goods during emergency. But for prolonged period, such as this pandemic, we can expect nutritional consequences in the long run with the limited food that is available especially among population groups that are already vulnerable to malnutrition. While the government leads in providing food assistance during crisis, the acquisition of food items for distribution by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) are subject to the rules of the Commission on Audit (COA). Usually big food companies that produce canned goods are able to provide the lowest bid and are able to supply significant quantities. Take for example the five month war in Marawi, there were generous donations of food packs comprised of canned sardines and tuna that were widely distributed to displaced families even a few months after the war was over. Children and adults were consuming canned tuna and sardines for extended period of time since it was the only food that was available to them. It came to a point when the beneficiaries were experiencing “taste fatigue” or in tagalog, “nananawa” or “umay”. More important, six months after the war, more than 60,000 children were reported by UNICEF as malnourished, with some severely undernourished.
In times of emergency or calamity, the desire to eat healthy and to consume vegetables is more pronounced than during times under normal conditions (whatever that means these days). Perhaps it is because we all know it is more difficult to access food (that we take for granted) during any given crises. It is human nature to desire something we know we might not be able to get easily! From a food donors’ perspective, many also aim to provide quality food but everyone is faced with some form of constraint such as limited funds, limited suppliers, and other logistical constraints.
Canned goods will continue to be an important and practical component of food packs during emergencies. But we should also consider our local farmers as suppliers, buying their produce will not only help in providing quality food to needy families but serve as income to farmers.
It is important to note that the Department of Agrarian Reform implemented “PaSSOver: ARBold Move for Deliverance of ARBs from the COVID 19 Pandemic Project," which seeks to consolidate the efforts of the department in addressing the problems brought about by Covid-19. The project also assists agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) with food subsidies for their families and technical assistance to allow them to continue farming activities. DAR also provides assistance in marketing their produce through ARB cooperatives, which has generated about P152 million towards the end of April.
Farmers like Aling Doris and Mang Claudio are not considered ARBs, but they can still serve as local suppliers to private groups who put together food packs for emergencies. Explore local farmers in your area who are in similar standing as Aling Doris and Mang Claudio, and are unable to avail of government assistance such as those provided by DAR. They too need your help the same way as beneficiaries of your food package.