“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”― Virginia Woolf
In September 2016, I launched my volunteer feeding program in Manila, Philippines called Feed A Kid Initiative. It is not a non-profit, as I am quite averse to the bureaucratic requirements that setting up a charitable organization requires. It is a simple Facebook page that promotes the use of fortified VitaMeal — a $22 bag of rice and lentil (maize if the feeding site is in Africa) that can feed up to 30 children.
One (1) bag of VitaMeal contains 30 meals. Each meal costs $0.70 and each child is guaranteed these essential nutrients:
- Vitamin A — essential for normal sight and immune functions
- Bone nutrients — enhance normal growth and skeletal development
- Zinc — reduces the duration and severity of childhood diarrhea
- Electrolyte — maintain normal fluid balance and muscle function
It was a damn-the-torpedoes approach, and for good reason. In that same month, there were reports that of all the items in the national budget our government could have slashed, it chose to cut the budget for the nationwide feeding program by ($16.9 million). This program helps address malnutrition among day-care Filipino children to ensure that they function better in school.
The government’s dysfunction is about to breed a generation without a fully-functioning brain that the world already has a lot of. I felt the need to act.
So with a click of a button, Feed A Kid Initiative on Facebook was launched and served as a repository of donation updates and inquiries. I used Indiegogo for the VitaMeal fundraising and got my friends abroad to support it. I also sent emails to reach out to friends with no social media presence. In total, I was able to collect close to 100 bags, which are equivalent to 3000 meals, most of which were distributed to typhoon-hit areas in the country that year. The rest were donated to a non-profit that conducted a 6-month supplementary feeding program in an underserved community in Metro Manila.
The nascent Feed A Kid Initiative was quite successful for what it had achieved despite its lack of sophistication, but it was not sustainable. The people who donated in the first typhoon fundraiser did not give in the second, and will not give in the third, which is unfortunate in a country like the Philippines that experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year. We are not the only country in the world bearing the brunt of climate change, and media coverage, no matter how extensive, eventually loses its sheen.
This donor fatigue is also common in feeding programs for smaller groups. I once handled a group that purchased 50 bags for an underserved community in Manila. These bags were donated to a non-profit called HAPAG-ASA (a portmanteau in the vernacular that means hope at the dining table). They accept food donations, no matter what the volume. They identify an underserved community and implement a 6-month feeding program. They did the weight assessment and deworming, the whole nine yards. But the group that sponsored the 50 bags chose not to donate again, despite findings at the end of the program that the kids’ nutrition improved significantly.
A year later, I agreed to consult for Hands on Manila, a non-profit that mobilized volunteers. Feeding was not its sole focus, but I wanted to understand how non-profits worked, so I was forced to place my feeding program in the backburner. But it has never left me. As a foodie who self-imposes hunger only as a matter of discipline, malnutrition is too vital and urgent an issue for me to ignore.
“Freedom from hunger is such a basic human right, yet more than 10% of humanity remains hungry.” — Food Security in the Developing World, 2016
In 2017, strife hit the southern Philippines and the residents of Marawi had to be evacuated. The situation was so dire at the tents in neighboring Iligan City that a year later, many of the children staying there still had no food to eat. With Hands on Manila’s network and support, I was able to raise funds for 100 bags of VitaMeal. These were endorsed to the Community and Family Services International, a non-profit working perilously at the trenches and helping affected families in the besieged city.
“Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.” — UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Early this year, I was assigned a project by a private philanthropist that could prevent malnutrition and help protect the environment. The initial idea is to figure out a system that would safely channel unspoiled excess food from hotels and restaurants into underserved church communities. This will help keep a staggering 33% of the total food produced in my country away from the landfills, which produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is exacerbating the warming of the planet.
The refined version is that hotels and restaurants that donate their surplus food to an accredited non-profit that runs feeding programs will receive tax credits. By law, this is allowed but it seems that many entrepreneurs in the food industry are unaware of it, or just risk-averse given the potential public relations nightmare a food safety issue can cause.
Last week, I visited an established feeding facility in Tondo, Manila which is run by our accredited partner Caritas Manila. Joining me was a donor of frozen potatoes that do not meet their restaurant’s standards. This site was perhaps the most efficient feeding program I have ever seen. Seven (7) volunteers, all elder women, start work at 8 AM to prepare two hundred (200) meals. There is a 3 PM service and a 6 PM service and the unsung heroes of the Caritas Tondo soup kitchen go home at 7 PM. They do this every day from Monday to Saturday.
The kitchen is modest yet robust for the amount of productivity it yields. The ladies get by with a single burner stove, 2 giant woks, and 2 rice cookers. I noticed a dormant electric range right next to the stove and curiously asked why it was not being used. The ladies said they just never thought of using it. I directed their attention to the oven that could be used to toast bread. “The kids here like rice,” they assured me. I guess there is not much need for that.
The menu for the day was squash with coconut milk and rice, which were lined up neatly in reusable plastic lunch boxes. Each meal costs only P10 ($0.20), which means that $40 can feed 200 children in one day. This is cheaper than the P13 per child budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. I was impressed. The master chef, Ate Lydia, said that they prioritize vegetables for health reasons and teach the kids to eat them at a young age. I noticed the children getting second helpings of rice, and children feeding other children with. One of the volunteers explained, “She’s the eldest of 11 children, and she is feeding her younger siblings. Their parents are in jail for drugs.” The real cost of the country’s drug war has come to this.
Groceries squander a lot of fresh produce, including squash, every day. There must be a way we can collect those excess vegetables before they spoil and give them to Caritas so they can feed more people. But will supermarkets pay for their disposal and delivery in exchange for tax credits? I hope they consider it.
I asked Ate Lydia if donations of VitaMeal will help. She replied in the affirmative. “We do not turn away gifts. Lentils may not be familiar to Filipino children, but we can make something out of it that they will eat.” She is right. I tried to cook something out of VitaMeal myself and it just tastes like rice mixed with beans. Maybe the kids would like to try Mexican burritos sometime? Sponsors, anyone?
I asked these lovely ladies how else we can make their operations more sustainable, and they said they would appreciate a small plot of land where they can grow their own vegetables. I did a quick tour of the site. The open area that used to be earth has been completely layered with concrete. “Soil is expensive,” Ate Lisa, the other cook said, “but if we can have some, we can grow chili and some herbs indoors and save more money.” They would need to learn proper composting too. I wonder how much the investment for indoor farming options is, but perhaps, for the sake of these unsung heroes I had just met and would soon work with, I should begin to find out.
Wherever we are in the world, we should help scale efficient feeding programs like the one in Caritas Tondo and its ability to maximize the benefits of their minimal resources. It is not that simple to do, given present logistical challenges, but it is not rocket science either. Fortified VitaMeal will immediately address malnutrition, a rotating but affordable vegetable-based menu will sustain children’s appetites, excess food from donor hotels and restaurants will conserve resources and protect the environment, and ultimately, indoor farming will supplement other food requirements. It seems like a win-win situation for all parties that can attract even more players. We begin our pilot at this particular site next month, and I am quite confident it will yield the positive results I have been visualizing in my head for years that we can scale throughout the country.
In hindsight, my early foray into the war against hunger is no longer on the backburner.
The fight is on.