Food shortage looms in Philippines amid coronavirus quarantine

People queue outside a supermarket in Quezon City, in the Metro Manila region of the Philippines, on March 27, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Faced with a looming food crisis, as the financial assistance promised by the Philippine government has yet to reach them, people in various parts of Luzon are left to their own devices to stave off hunger.

Some residents have started eating corn fungus, while others have planted vegetables in once-idle plots.

A local government plans to distribute repacked vegetable seeds to help households grow "survival gardens".

These initiatives came while some 18 million low-income families have yet to receive cash subsidies of 5,000 to 8,000 pesos (S$140 to S$224) for two months under the newly passed "Bayanihan to Heal as One" law.

Mr Elton Caranay, a permaculture expert, said residents in Aggasian and Fugu villages were harvesting "corn smut" as alternative food.

Mr Caranay said he himself had gathered corn smut, or fungi on corn kernels, and prepared it as meal by frying and mixing it with bitter gourd and tomato.

"While this is a famous food in Mexico… we in the countryside consider this as pest (in the cornfield)," he told the Inquirer.

He said cooked corn smut tasted like a mix of corn and mushroom. "It's enough to fill our stomachs during quarantine," he said.

In Pangasinan province, the Bued village council in Calasiao town has started community-based projects to prepare for food scarcity should the Luzon lockdown drag on.

"We have borrowed idle lots in the village and planted vegetables like okra, tomatoes and eggplant," said Mr Carlito Dion, Bued village chief. Village officials also distributed vegetable seeds to households.

Rice farmers in Bued were encouraged to sell their harvest to village officials so rice distribution would remain unhampered in their community.

In Baguio City, the local government said it would distribute vegetable seeds to help households put up "survival gardens".

The seeds would help ensure food in every home, said the Agricultural Services Division of the City Veterinary Office, which is tasked with spearheading the drive.

The delivery of fresh vegetables from La Trinidad, Benguet province, meanwhile, was temporarily halted after the capital town was placed on extreme enhanced community quarantine.

Mayor Romeo Salda last Saturday (March 28) said trucks and cargoe would not be allowed to transport vegetables on Monday and Tuesday because local government and health workers were tracing people who may have interacted with two people infected with the coronavirus.

Benguet supplies over 80 per cent of the country's highland vegetable requirements such as carrots, cabbages, cauliflower, beans and lettuce, which are mainly traded and packed at trading posts in La Trinidad.

Precautions against the spread of Covid-19 have given farmers a tougher time to deliver vegetables to La Trinidad as they have to stop at several checkpoints before queuing at two trading posts to wait for buyers.

More time on the road leads to poor quality of leafy vegetables, reducing their value.

Benguet Vice-Governor Johnny Waguis on Sunday started buying perishable vegetables from farmers who were unable to sell their produce. The vegetables would be donated to needy families.

Senators on Sunday reiterated that the government should provide families with cash doles of up to 8,000 pesos for two months, and not groceries, as spelled out in the law that President Rodrigo Duterte signed last week.

Senator Christopher "Bong" Go said the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act mandated the Department of Social Welfare and Development as the lead agency in distributing the aid to families whose members lost their sources of income due to the travel restrictions.

"The assistance will be given in the form of cash," Mr Go said in a Viber message.

Senator Panfilo Lacson said it was Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III who had proposed that the financial aid of 5,000 to 8,000 pesos be given in cash.

Distributing assistance in the form of goods would flout the spirit of the Bayanihan law, which was crafted as an economic stimulus, according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said last Saturday that aid in the form of relief goods or cash assistance should be distributed to families while maintaining social distancing.

Meanwhile, in Zamboanga, after over a week of trying to stave off a drastic cut in their production, at least two of the 11 sardine canneries have reduced their output by half due to the shortage of workers and fish supply resulting from stringent lockdown rules enforced in this city.

Mr Edgar Lim, president of Industrial Group of Zamboanga Inc (Igzi), said that since public transport was suspended in the city on March 20, most cannery workers found it difficult to report for work. The city has 11 canneries that supply 85 per cent of the canned sardines in the country.

Companies have deployed their own buses to ferry workers, but strictures in the series of barangay checkpoints they must pass through have made it difficult for them to reach the factories.

Mr Lim said the company he manages, Permex Producer and Exporter Corp., which produces the local brand King Cup, has been operating at 50 per cent capacity due to shortage of workers.

Mr William Tiu Lim, chief executive officer of Mega Global, which produces the Mega brand, said his factory could only run at 60 per cent capacity, as its workers could not get through the checkpoints.

With the cutback in daily production targets, the canneries were also forced to reduce their order of fresh fish from fishing fleets.

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