Urban poor families set up food gardens to cope with hunger amid pandemic

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MAKING DO Arbie Santacera, Apple Montales and Estrelita Sanchez tend vegetables that they have grown on what used to be an empty lot along Clemente Road in Barangay Payatas B, Quezon City. —RICHARD A. REYES

(First of two parts)

MANILA, Philippines — Struggling to put food on their tables through weeks into quarantine due to the new coronavirus pandemic, residents of Barangay Payatas in Quezon City have found a new reason to band together amid the scarcity of food aid and jobs.

They have transformed concrete walls, backyards and empty lots into urban food gardens — where patches of green, leafy vegetables keep their community vibrant despite months of lockdown.

“It also gives us the motivation to wake up every day to see how our vegetables are doing. It would make us smile to see our lettuce leaves or eggplants grow by the day,” said Gilda Rollamas, one of the volunteer mothers of Ina ng Lupang Pangako Parish.

Payatas is still a predominantly urban poor barangay and it has slowly shrugged off its image of being the site of the city’s mountain dump. Scavengers who once sifted through heaps of garbage for a living there have already been resettled elsewhere.

With resources and means of livelihood further limited during the pandemic, some residents had to forgo even simple meals of chicken and meat for canned goods and instant noodles. The crisis has also served as a wake-up call for them to look for cheap and healthy alternatives.

“Even before the pandemic, we don’t usually eat fast food. We can plant our own vegetables, so somehow we are able to survive the lockdown,” said Jesila Palubon. Her husband is a hemodialysis patient.

Urban gardening

The National Nutrition Council (NNC) and the Department of Agriculture have been advocating urban gardening, especially in poor neighborhoods during the pandemic.

“Even if they don’t have space, they can use containers, or walls and small vases, so that they can have access to fresh vegetables,” said Jovie Raval, head of the NNC’s Nutrition Information and Education Division. “You can just eat ginisang munggo with malunggay and some small fishes, and it’s relatively cheaper and nutritious as well,” she said.

With seedlings and gardening tools from the parish and other donors, residents of Payatas were able to grow individual and communal food gardens in their homes, backyards or empty lots. Now, they can harvest vegetables, like petchay, mustasa, lettuce, kamote leaves and eggplants, within a month.

“I was telling my neighbors: We need to show them that we can find other ways to feed ourselves. By planting vegetables, at least we won’t need to worry about what food to eat every day,” Rollamas said.

‘Bayanihan’ spirit

In densely populated areas in Quezon City, the local government said urban farming and agriculture had become “more of a public initiative, an act of volunteerism … mostly undertaken in the spirit of bayanihan.”

True enough, residents in Payatas, Botongan and other villages have established communal gardens, mostly in vacant spaces, in public land or in lots leased from owners.

“Botongan is an interesting site,” said Rogelio Reyes, chief of Quezon City’s Public Employment Service Office (Peso). “It’s a depressed area, but in the middle of a vacant lot, they were able to build their own food forest, initiated by mothers there. They were building a communal life there.”

In Amlac Ville, a residential subdivision in Payatas, community-based members of the Tau Gamma Phi fraternity have been growing lettuce, eggplants and other vegetables at the back of a school building.

“We, in the parish, decided to start the urban gardening project when we realized that the pandemic is not ending anytime soon. We couldn’t just rely on food aid, so urban gardening has become our solution to this,” said Diding Libao, leader of the group of volunteer mothers.

For poor families in Quezon City, the first few weeks of the lockdown has been difficult, said Libao, citing limited food assistance from the parish, private groups and the local government. According to Raval, a prolonged period of food insecurity will have repercussions on the families’ health, and may result in malnutrition among children.

“It took a while for some residents to start their gardens, but we’ve seen a spike in June and July. The program has been sustained since then,” Libao said.

City gov’t program

The Quezon City Sustainable Development Affairs Office and Peso continue to provide assistance to communities involved in vegetable gardening by providing seedlings, teaching technical skills in integrated urban farming and agriculture, and monitoring the activities of urban farms in every district.

In 2010, Mayor Joy Belmonte started the “Joy of Urban Farming” program, aware of the potential benefits of urban agriculture, particularly in terms of food security. That program was intensified as part of the city’s recovery efforts for the pandemic when Belmonte signed Executive Order No. 32 in May.

The order called for the establishment of the Quezon City Food Security Task Force that will oversee initiatives on food security. The city’s food security program is also in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Food and Agriculture Office’s Zero Hunger initiative.

Six model community farms will be put up in each of the city’s six districts. Through these farms, resident gardeners may offer the seedlings they produce in exchange for those in other barangays. INQ(Editor’s Note: This report was produced under the (Un)Covering Trans Fats Media Training and Fellowship Program of the Probe Media Foundation Inc. and ImagineLaw.)



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