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The urban poor, made up of informal workers, the unemployed, and street dwellers, were among the hardest hit by the extreme enhanced community quarantine (EECQ) in March 2020. Millions of low-income households with no savings to rely on and lived a hand-to-mouth existence knew that the government restrictions enforced on the population meant there was suddenly no way to earn a living–and that no work means no pay means no food. Mas mauna pa kaming mamatay sa gutom kaysa sa virus, this was the widespread sentiment of the country’s poor as the Duterte administration enforced one of the longest, strictest lockdowns in the world. “People have been forced to violate lockdowns in order to provide for themselves and their families.” 1
On April 1, two weeks after the lockdown, residents of Sitio San Roque in Quezon City took to the streets, demanding aid from the local government and were violently dispersed and arrested for mass gathering.2 Meanwhile the small farmers and fisher folks that make up the majority of the country’s food producers were unable to sell their harvest as economies came to a grinding halt, businesses shuttered, and movement was restricted. Monocrops meant for large businesses and exports had nowhere to go, and the possibility of vegetable dumping in these times of scarcity was becoming inevitable. 3
Citizen action in the form of mutual aid flourished during this period.4 One of the food relief initiatives was Lingap Maralita (LM, translated to Care for the Poor),5 which sourced fresh organic vegetables from small farmers and brought to urban poor communities in Metro Manila. Starting on the first week of April, LM was a call for action and solidarity with those most vulnerable to the impacts of the lockdown and barely had social safety nets–our farmers, including the landless farmers organized by Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), who were our food security frontliners and the urban poor whose basic right to food was being ignored.
Food relief was distributed by partners on the ground and volunteers from Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY). The group helped identify the most vulnerable communities in the city, specifically those at risk of displacement through demolition. Crucial to the project were the kusinang bayan (community kitchens) organized by the community leaders and mothers who use the donations to regularly cook meals for hundreds of families. The project made sure that the poor, despite their poverty, still had something to contribute to the program and were not treated as mere beneficiaries of charity. It also became a way for the community members, particularly the women, to express their solidarity with one another. The community kitchens engendered greater camaraderie in a time of isolation and social distancing, a time when we can easily regard one another with suspicion. Sharing food that they prepared themselves with their neighbors helped restore the much-needed mutual aid and spirit of cooperativism among them.
On Crisis and Collective Care
The current political moment is defined by crisis. A year into the pandemic, hunger and food insecurity are still worsening, exacerbated by lockdowns without aid or relief, intense militarization, and increasing trade liberalization as a band-aid solution. Conversely, citizen response to hunger and food insecurity, such as the proliferation of community kitchens, community pantries, and other food sharing initiatives, are grounded upon the practice of mutual aid.
Although the term is only recently gaining popularity, “mutual aid” has always existed—the survival of humankind has always depended on people working with and caring for each other. As we’re witnessing worldwide, in times of acute crisis, after government infrastructure has collapsed and public services are proving insufficient and unreliable, people have always turned to each other to survive. Mutual aid, however, is not charity—it is directly opposed to it, in fact. Instead, mutual aid seeks to build and practice solidarity.
While still a stopgap measure, LM also became a platform for the organizers6 to shed light on the issues affecting the most vulnerable sectors, including food and shelter as basic human rights that they were being deprived of, and to show the interdependence of rural and urban systems. The project also called for free mass testing and called out and protested the militarized response to handling the pandemic, as well as the harassment of relief workers along with the farmers and the urban poor. It was a timely call that resonated with the public. More and more citizens sought ways to help, and LM partnered with different organizations such as with homegrown restaurants and foodmakers to prepare and cook food, as well as to raise funds for the project.7 Because of the widespread support for LM, the impromptu food relief project was able to run for 15 weeks and share food with more than 500 families/households8 every week during that period. Because of the kusinang bayan, sometimes we were able to share food to up to 750 households.
During LM’s run, we were approached by officers of Pinagkaisang Lakas ng Mamamayan (PLM) – Payatas, which organized the weekly kusinang bayan in their community and neighboring areas. They expressed their interest in a more sustainable way to secure food–by growing it themselves. Like a lot of urban poor, some of them were either farmers who migrated to the city in search of a better life or had experience growing food but found the cost of seeds and soil prohibitive, and the lack of viable space in Payatas discouraging.
Together, the core team and PLM, through online consultations, created Food Today, Food Tomorrow (FTFT), which it piloted on November 2020, at Golden Shower with 20 volunteer urban growers interested in co-designing a community-based food security strategy. FTFT combines the food relief model (Food Today, previously known as LM), as a way to immediately address hunger while the micro food gardens (Food Tomorrow) take time to grow. Food Today is a necessary component of the food garden project and is funded by Solidarity Shares, where people with the social safety nets purchase a CSA farmshare at a subsidized rate for families with very limited means and little to no social protection in these times.
In January 2021, FTFT was invited to be part of the international Slow Food movement by establishing the Slow Food Community for Agrobiodiverse Gardens in Quezon City (aka Slow Food Sari-sari). As a member of the Slow Food network).9 FTFT contributes to the vision of “good, clean, fair food for all”10 by creating micro food gardens and bringing back “bahay-kubo biodiversity” in urban poor communities, with the dream of one day making them as common as neighborhood sari-sari stores as sources of healthy biodiverse11 food.
6 LM was organized by Good Food Community, The Vegan Neighbors, Me & My Veg Mouth, KADAMAY, KMP, CURE COVID: Citizens’ Urgent Response to End COVID-19, along with citizen-volunteers.
7 These included Gallery by Chele, Toyo Eatery, WTH Foods by Botany, Accler8, ManilaBake, IISLA Ventures, Project Headshot Clinic, Assumption College Batch 2013, Uber Philippines, Save MoMa design studio, and Sulong Likha artists collective.
8 For urban poor communities, a family is not your typical set of parents and 2 to 3 children. It could mean up to eight children with a grandmother or grandparents, an aunt or uncle or cousins. A household doesn’t always mean a house with one family living in it. One household could mean two or three families sharing a single-family space, sometimes it’s a concrete house, sometimes, it’s a shanty. Our weekly donation of rice and vegetables for 500 families is a crude but handy estimate, and we do not have the final true count of meals distributed.
11 Diversity in one’s diet is a proxy indicator for food security (UN FAO).