Hunger a big problem as surging food prices part of ‘new normal’

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 19) — Clarita Pineda, 64, has been getting by with just two meals a day as her family can no longer afford a steady supply of food.

Some days, all they have is rice, which they sometimes pair with canned sardines if there’s any left from her small sari-sari store that’s also running empty without capital.

Pineda and her family of five have been struggling for the past year, but especially now that food prices soared in recent weeks. Two of Nanay Clarita’s grandchildren were laid off due to the pandemic, while the other, a contractual city hall worker, is waiting until March to receive his salary. They also live with a one-year-old girl.

Kung minsan wala pang ulam, (pero) okay lang basta may kanin. ‘Yun na lang ginagawa namin dahil iisa lang ang naghahanapbuhay sa amin ngayon,” Pineda told CNN Philippines in an interview.

“Sa awa ng Diyos, nakakakain kami ng dalawang beses isang araw. ‘Pag umaga kape lang, minsan may magdala ng tinapay.”

[Translation: Sometimes we cannot afford to prepare a viand, but we make do with rice. That’s how we get by since only one of us have a job right now. By God’s grace, we still eat twice a day. We only take coffee for breakfast, sometimes someone gives us bread.]

The Pinedas are the face of thousands of Filipino families forced into deeper poverty and hunger by the twin crises brought about by strict quarantine rules and the recent spike in food prices.

To ease the burden, Malacañang imposed price ceilings on select pork and chicken products, capping liempo at ₱300 per kilogram and dressed chicken at ₱160 per kilo within Metro Manila — significantly lower than the peak prices of ₱400 and ₱200 per kilo, respectively.

However, these price ceilings also worked against market vendors seen to suffer massive losses if they are forced to sell meat products at rates cheaper than what they paid for. Others opted to temporarily shut their market stalls during the first few days of February as the price caps took effect.

RELATED: Pork supply tightens amid price freeze scare 

“Kung hindi magbababa yung magsu-supply samin, hindi namin pwedeng ibenta. Alangan namang malulugi kami, paano na kami kakain? [If our suppliers do not bring down the wholesale price, we cannot keep selling. We cannot sell at a loss, how will our families eat?],” chicken vendor Emelita Calma said last week.

Annalyn Mansibang, a fruit and vegetable vendor along C.P. Garcia Avenue in Quezon City, said she uses leftover or reject produce to feed her family as the income from her stalls plunged.

Food summit too late?

The Department of Agriculture is mounting a national food security summit scheduled April 7-8, or two months from now, to address these supply and price woes with the help of farmers, traders, and retailers.

But Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, who once served as Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization under former President Noynoy Aquino, said the DA should act faster.

“That’s too late. We should have had the food summit last month,” he said in an interview.

“Dahil walang kinikita ang milyun-milyon o nawalan ng trabaho at mag-iisang taon na itong COVID at ‘yung lockdown –– therefore, ubos na ang savings. Gutom talaga ang magiging resulta niyan [Because millions do not earn or have lost their jobs and this lockdown has stretched to nearly a year, people have run out of savings. That will result in hunger],” Pangilinan added.

A staggering 59 million Filipinos — more than half the population — said they did not have consistent access to good food from 2017 to 2019, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reported last year. Of them, 63 percent also said they cannot afford nutritious food on a daily basis.

The numbers could be worse due to the pandemic.

RELATED: Longer quarantine drives 23M Filipinos into hunger, 4.5M more poor

Agriculture Secretary William Dar insisted that there is no food supply crisis, but admitted that the agency is importing select commodities as a stop-gap measure. He blamed last year’s typhoons for higher vegetable prices, the local African Swine Fever outbreaks for thin pork supply, and shifting demand for the rising prices of chicken and fish.

Filling empty stomachs

The FAO said it supports additional imports of items such as pork and fish but warned that it’s not sustainable.

“People need to eat now, and importing food — even if seemingly unpopular — provides an immediate, albeit temporary, relief. Saying this, however, this ‘band-aid’ solution shouldn’t be the norm in the long-term. The national government and the DA is well aware of this,” Tamara Palis-Duran, assistant representative for programme at FAO Philippines, said in an e-mail interview.

RELATED: The hunger crisis linked to coronavirus could kill more people than the disease itself, Oxfam warns

Another proposal: home farms to feed millions of people in Metro Manila, the country’s congested capital and home to an estimated 300,000 people considered poor.

“At this time when most people are confined to their homes, establishing backyard gardens – even if the plants are simply grown in pots or recycled containers – is probably the most feasible and economical way to get fresh and nutritious food, particularly fruits and vegetables, and cope with soaring food prices,” the FAO official added.

For a lawmaker, the way forward is to pour billions of pesos more into agriculture.

“The political mindset is that agriculture is not as important as other sectors,” Pangilinan said, setting a bold goal of raising agriculture investments by five to 10 times its current funding in the next decade.

“Unless we secure our farmers and fisherfolk, we will not be able to address food security effectively. Rice and food prices will remain high and hunger will continue to hound us,” he added.

People need to eat healthy to better protect themselves against the coronavirus. For those who cannot afford decent meals, starvation rears its hungry head.

Manghihina ka na dyan sa hirap ng (pagkain). Walang sustansya kung minsan ‘yung pagkain na lang,” Pineda said. “Kung makasahod, makatikim kami ng ulam.”

[Translation: You will really feel weak without enough food. Sometimes what we eat don’t have enough nutrients. We can only afford good food if one of us receives a salary.]

READ: To ensure supply amid the pandemic, Navotas grows its own food from the bottom up