FOOD

Amid lockdown, backyard farming gives food security to families

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At just ₱2.50 per head per meal, the ARK pilot program has been able to provide a million meals comprising locally sourced vegetables and protein. Photo courtesy of ARK

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The great irony is that the people living closest to our fields and seas are the ones who struggle to keep food on the table.

When New York-based Ayesha Vera Yu went home to the Philippines to revive an organic farm that had been in their family for years, she and her husband immersed themelves in the community and heard firsthand from the parent-teacher association (PTA) president of the local school: that some kids weren’t going to school because they were hungry.

Brainstorming, they landed on an idea for an affordable lunch program.

They called a meeting of parents at the school and asked: what can you afford to give your kid as an allowance every day? After calling out different prices, 70% of the hands in the room shot up at “2 pesos and fifty centavos,” and that became their budget to cook every meal.

Feed Back is an eight-week vegetable basket exchange program that gifts fresh vegetables to families at-risk of hunger. Photo courtesy of ARK

At a food cost of just ₱2.50 per head, the pilot scheme was able to provide a locally sourced protein, from land crabs to chicken to beans, plus a vegetable, cooked by a local chef, whose services are also included in the budget. One reason they’re able to maintain this food cost — and sometimes even go under ₱2.50 — is because they don’t get marked up for the commute nor the market stall. All vegetables are bought from the community and are sometimes even donated by parents from their backyard gardens. “It's all organic or natural, napitas lang yun hours or minutes before it went into the pan,” Yu says.

The scheme has since served a million lunches across 16 communities, and the organizing team, which calls itself ARK: Advancement for Rural Kids, now finds champions in other rural communities to partner with locals just as Yu did.

Co-designing solutions

Having once worked in the world of mergers and acquisitions, Yu kicks into gear when she describes how ARK provided seed money to defray the cost of the initial meals and allow the parents to adjust. She says, “Day one, parents are paying into that lunch, so they pay 20% of that 2 peso and 50 cents; ARK pays 80% of it. Year two, fifty-fifty. Year three, sila na yung 80%, kami na yung 20%, year four, sila na, 100% on their own.”

Within a week from launch, teachers, who also volunteered to organize the meals along with the parents, who volunteer in the kitchen, reported that attendance rose from 70% to over 90%, and the students became more participative.

Backyard farming has become a community activity. Those who decided to join danced Zumba on basketball courts and held vegetable costume contests to kick off the planting cycle. Photo courtesy of ARK

When lockdown prevented them from going to school, ARK channeled its energies into developing a new scheme: a 10-week program to distribute a weekly vegetable basket for families at risk of hunger. In order to receive a weekly basket, each member needed to sell vegetables to the program.

Ma'am Analyn, a Grade 1 teacher who serves as an on-ground coordinator for ARK in Brgy. Traciano in Capiz, helped co-design the new initiative. When she heard that one of the ideas being floated was to get the parents to volunteer to cook the meals in school and then distribute them to each house, the schoolteacher voiced her objections on calls with her counterparts.

“Sabi ko, parang mahirapan tayo kasi pandemic nga. Mahirap na papuntahin natin yung parents sa school to volunteer to cook.”

With her input, the group co-designed the scheme — a self-sustaining loop of feeding and farming — in three months. They called it “Feed Back.”

Ariana "Yang" Obrero, ARK's Relationship Officer who is taking the lead in bringing it to communities in Coron, Capiz, Rizal, Romblon and Zambales, emphasized that it’s not a handout. “It won't work if community leaders don't wanna do it from the get go, it won't work if our partner families don't plant and create abundance within their backyards, it won't move if only one party is dancing.”

One barangay marked the start of the planting cycle with a vegetable costume contest (left). In Bogtong (right), members submitted a ₱200,000 proposal for the local government to fund the growth of backyard gardens via seeds, organic fertilizers, tools and training. Photo courtesy of ARK

Real impact

Serna Yapla de Silva is a mom of three kids from Coron who used to work in a small restaurant in town. When the weather is nice, she goes out to sea with her husband to fish using a borrowed net. “Simula nung paglockdown, umuwi po kami sa Borac at naglalaot po kami kasi wala nga pong ibang mapagkukunan sa pangangailangan namin araw araw,” she says.

When she heard about the ARK program coming to their community, she thought of giving backyard farming a serious try — they had planted a few edible plants like talbos ng kamote before — and started to sow more seed varieties in the front and back of their house.

“Yung mga punla, hinihingi-hingi lang sa mga kapitbahay, sa mga kakilala,” she says.

From once being seen as extra work, backyard farming has become a community activity. Those who decided to join danced Zumba on basketball courts and held vegetable costume contests to kick off the planting cycle. And families make a day out of going to market, passing for each other at the doors of each other’s houses until they reach the weekly venue designated by councilors for each purok, and where tables are pushed together for members to land their produce, have them weighed, get paid, and take home different types of food other than what they grew.

Unlike micro-loan programs for farmers that have been started up in the last few years, some with a lack of communication about results, ARK’s programs place emphasis on reporting impact. Photo courtesy of ARK

The community spirit is most felt in Traciano, where 100% of families signed up, and five weeks in, malnutrition went down from 38% of kids to zero — a result of the food being local and prepared at their peak nutritional value.

The success shines a light on how vital a smaller administrative zone like the purok or sitio is to roll out a new solution in remote areas of the country. But also, the importance of reporting and pushing impact. At the moment ARK is hiring a relationship officer, a research officer, an analyst, and even an entrepreneur-in-residence who will help launch food businesses with their partner communities.

Yu says, “The number one principle of ARK is we co-invest. They're the ones leading us. And what I mean by that is before we invest in a community, they have to inspire us with their own investment.”

Oftentimes the only buy-in needed from the members is their time and effort.

Fighting malnutrition

On the phone with CNN Life, de Silva, a mother of three and ARK member, lists her current produce for the week: “Papaya, talbos ng kamote, bunga ng saging…”

What she likes about the scheme is the variety it brings to their table. “Halimbawa po ang gulay ko mga papaya lang at talbos ng kamote, nakakatikim po kami ng ibang gulay galing sa ibang myembro… tulad ng ampalaya, upo.”

She also appreciated the additional income, about ₱200 on average per week, depending on what vegetables she was able to bring to market. “One time marami po akong labahin, namroblema ako kung saan ako kukuha ng gagamitin ko panglaba. Sabi ko bukas pala, Friday na. May mabebenta pala akong mga gulay. Yung bayad po nun, dun ako kumuha ng ginamit ko sa paglalaba. Yung iba naman po mga asukal, gatas…”

Vegetables sold by weight. To make sure the families get a mix of nutrients and flavors, councilors went door to door to ask the budding food gardeners the three vegetables they wanted to sell that week. Photo courtesy of ARK

The ultimate beneficiaries for her are her kids, aged 12, 9 and 3 years old, who are excited every Friday to greet her when she comes back from the market: Mama ano na naman yung mga dalang gulay mo? They ask, counting the number of vegetables, which Serna prepares simply: sauteed with a bit of salt or onions, sometimes adding water, or fish, or sometimes no fish at all, to make a soup that her three-year old particularly likes.

“Fresh na fresh,” Serna says. “Maganda talaga sa kalusugan nila.”

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To launch Feed Back in your own community, email [email protected]