Feeding the masses when disaster strikes in the Philippines

Alex Baluyut and Precious Leano were still feeding families displaced by Super Hurricane Nora in late September when news broke that another powerful storm, Nalgae, was on a collision course for the Philippines.

The couple’s founders of the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, a volunteer group that provides hot meals in the aftermath of disasters, quickly came to grips with the impending disaster, poring over maps and satellite images to predict its destructive path.

The next three days, from Oct. 26, Nalgae hit Luzon, the country’s largest island group, causing landslides and massive floods that killed 150 people, left dozens missing and left nearly 4 million people homeless.

ARMK volunteers give food to residents in the back of a vehicle.

ARMK volunteers reach out to residents after the village chief refused to let them use the public gym over politics.

(Aie Balagtas See)

Afterward, Art Relief Mobile Kitchen volunteers pulled together pots, pans, and local meat and vegetables to provide heaping portions of pork, steamed rice, and other regional favorites for thousands of weary victims.

“When you’re in a disaster and you’re faced with the pressure of rebuilding a roof over your family’s head, the last thing you want to think about is how or when to cook,” said Baluyut, 66, whose group separates serves hot, ready-to-eat popular dishes rather than distributing canned foods and dried grains.

This is no small matter in a country that has experienced as many natural disasters as the Philippines. The nation of 110 million sits along a conveyor belt of fierce ocean storms and rests precariously above the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a blistering path of seismic activity responsible for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

On average, about 20 tropical storms per year cross the vast area of ​​the Pacific Northwest that includes the Philippines. Five of the 11 most powerful tropical storms in history made landfall in the country.

In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the government has long struggled to provide adequate relief. Much reliance has been placed on the military and police, as well as large non-profit humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross. In the last decade, proactive preparedness in the form of early warning systems and proactive evacuations has increasingly come to the fore. But the country’s entrenched protectionist politics have made this transition difficult.

A boy walks down the street with trash beside him.

A boy walks through debris left by Hurricane Nora.

(Aie Balagtas See)

Natural disasters provide an opportunity for parliamentarians to burnish their image and avoid losses. It is not uncommon for evacuation centers and relief supplies to be decorated with pictures of politicians. Several government leaders have been accused of stealing aid money. Even the country’s mobile disaster warning system got a rundown for this year triggers cell phone alerts to promote the candidacy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Baluyut and Leano wanted to add credibility to disaster response. The idea for a mobile kitchen was born in 2013, not because of a natural disaster, but because of an armed conflict. Fighting had raged in the southern city of Zamboanga between the army and separatists belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front.

Thousands were displaced, and Baluyut, a journalist regularly exposed to the miseries of war and disaster, was deeply moved by their plight. Being a native of Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines, he was worried about what they would eat, and he promised to help feed people the next time disaster strikes.

Weeks later, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded made landfall in the Philippines. What would later be called Super Typhoon Haiyan flattened long stretches of the archipelago, killing 6,000 people and displacing 4.1 million.

“We have to do it now,” Baluyut remembers telling Leano.

ARMK volunteers carry a large pot while crossing a makeshift bridge to reach residents.

ARMK volunteers crossed a makeshift bridge to reach residents after the village chief refused to allow them to use the public gym over politics.

(Aie Balagtas See)

The couple had only about $90 between them at the time. They combined that with donations to buy rice and make lugaw, a porridge that serves as a cheap comfort food.

The couple set up their mobile kitchen with a handful of volunteers under a lamp post inside a military airbase in Manila that serves as a staging area for survivors. Everything was going to plan until the first person approached Leano with dead eyes and said, “Lugaw again?”

That encounter changed the business of the couple forever.

“I felt so stupid,” said Leano, 56, a stage actress. – Why didn’t I think of this? Here are people who have been eating porridge since the storm destroyed their homes, and here we are giving them a bowl of porridge again.”

The couple asked philanthropists, church groups and farmers to help provide fresh meat and vegetables – anything other than lugaw or canned sardines, canned meatloaf or dried noodles pumped out by government workers. They also called for volunteers, hiring both activists and artists, which is how they came up with the group’s name.

Their goal, Leano said, was to make sure people had access to a plate of hot food like turmeric rice, or binagoongan baboy (pork in shrimp paste) to comfort them in times of need.

Two men carry a large metal pot into a room with other large pots.

Precious Leano prepares the makeshift kitchen where meals will be cooked for the people of the Dinagat Islands in the Philippines.

(Aie Balagtas See)

The Badlaan family had not eaten a proper meal for almost a month after their village in the central Philippine province of Dinagat Islands was heavily damaged by Typhoon Rai last December.

When the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen arrived in a white truck containing a pot of freshly cooked pork sinigang, a hearty tamarind-flavored soup, the response was decidedly lukewarm until 13-year-old Benjie Badlaan came home with a pitcher. He left his family in disbelief.

“Is this really a sinigang?” Annabel Badlaan, the 32-year-old mother of the family, said as tears welled up in her eyes.

“We have meat for dinner,” the other children cheered.

Baluyut and Leano said it is pointless to deliver dried food such as rice or beans to families in the early stages of a disaster because homes or kitchens are usually in disarray. Any reminder of their inability to cook only adds to their sense of helplessness, they said.

The couple’s empathy and sensitivity also extends to the dishes they choose to cook.

In the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the group targeted local cooks and prepared halal food for people whose homes were destroyed in clashes between the army and Islamic State militants.

Volunteers boiling eggs and peeling carrots.

Volunteers boiling eggs and peeling carrots.

(Aie Balagtas See)

In the northern city of Cavite, volunteers cooked a local popular binagoongang baby for evacuees from a massive residential fire. In Santa Clara, a city in southern Luzon, pork was omitted from meals because many evacuees from the fire there were Seventh-day Adventists.

The volunteers try to buy ingredients from local farmers and vendors to stimulate the economy. They also ask local chefs to help out.

The proximity to some of the country’s most devastating events is not without its dangers. Baluyut narrowly escaped a bomb blast in Marawi. Volunteers have had the misfortune of witnessing people buried in landslides.

The COVID pandemic took a toll on the group’s donations. But in 2021, news broke of Baluyut and Leano’s work helping victims of typhoon Rai World Central Kitchen, the disaster relief program headed by celebrity chef Jose Andres. Andres’ program agreed to partner with the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen to feed victims.

Baluyut and Leano’s group has since expanded to include chapters in Tacloban, Davao, Surigao del Sur, Iligan, Zamboanga and the couple’s base in Los Baños, about 30 miles south of Manila. They estimate that they have served several hundred thousand meals.

“There are ARMK kitchens all over the country that can respond to disasters,” said Leano, whose ultimate goal is to encourage the government to establish community kitchens in each village jurisdiction, known as barangays, making each institution redundant.

“Community kitchens are natural to us,” Baluyut said. “Each barangay had special cooks who were called upon for happy occasions such as feasts and weddings. It’s just a matter of activating this cultural tradition.”

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