MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Even as the public engaged government officials, especially the Department of Trade and Industry, in a loud, querulous debate over the wisdom of "standardising" the so-called national dish of adobo, what many people seem to have forgotten is that for millions of Filipinos, even a small, non-standardised serving of adobo remains an elusive dream.
Just last Monday (July 12), polling firm Social Weather Stations (SWS) said a recent survey found that an estimated 4.2 million Filipino families (16.8 per cent of the total) experienced hunger "due to lack of food to eat" at least once in the past three months.
Conducted from April 28 to May 2, the survey found that the 4.2 million families experienced "involuntary hunger" at a rate 0.8 points higher than was reflected in a similar survey in November last year. "Hungriest" were families from Mindanao (20.7 per cent), followed by Visayas (16.3 per cent), Balance Luzon (15.7 per cent), and Metro Manila (14.7 per cent).
Several reasons have been advanced for the growing number of Filipinos going hungry. Though the numbers have been concerning for the last few years, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua recently admitted at a virtual United Nations meeting that the Covid-19 pandemic "exacerbated" the "challenges being faced by the Philippines in terms of food security and nutrition."
Citing 2019 (or pre-pandemic) data, Chua said 5.8 per cent or around 600,000 children under five years old are victims of acute malnourishment while 19 per cent or 2.1 million are underweight. Another 28.8 per cent or 3.2 million are stunted.
These numbers could only have grown in the wake of the militaristic lockdowns imposed after the spread of Covid-19. There were reports of farmers resorting to burning their crops or letting them rot in the fields in the wake of a deep dive in food prices. Some crops and livestock that managed to get loaded on trucks rotted and perished en route as they were stranded in checkpoints. Heads of families found that just going to public markets could result in arrest and even corporal punishment.
Responses like the neighbourhood pantries that sprouted in response to the need for a daily "bridge" for families facing starvation were not only harassed and threatened with arrest for violating social distancing rules, their managers were also Red-tagged and accused of acting as "fronts" for subversive groups.
Complicating the situation are findings that even when a family is able to put food on the table, the quality and nutrition level of this food has been found wanting. While a healthy, nutritious diet is deemed a basic building block of good health, such meals lie beyond the reach of millions.
"For the poorest people, acquiring sufficient quantities of essential nutrients and nutritious food groups would consume a very large proportion of their total income, or even exceed it," researcher Anna Herforth and colleagues said in a report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Data provided by Our World in Data said that in the Philippines, 64.25 per cent of Filipinos cannot afford a healthy diet, worth US$4.08 (S$5.54) per day in 2017. Out of the total population of 105.2 million, 67.57 million had "limited to no access to a set of dietary recommendations intended to provide nutrient adequacy and long-term health."
In a paper released last year, FAO also reported that at least 59 million Filipinos considered themselves food-insecure. Among them, 18.8 million were considered severely food-insecure while around 15.4 million were found to be undernourished. According to FAO, among South-east Asian countries, the Philippines has the biggest number of food-insecure citizens.
Citing such figures, a number of sectoral groups are calling on the government to pass bills that would provide immediate and adequate assistance to worst-off citizens. "What other reason does President Rodrigo Duterte need before he realises that the people are in desperate need of aid?" read the Ayuda Network statement.
The Duterte administration recently faced off with another international body, the World Bank (WB), when the WB released findings about the abysmal state of Philippine education allegedly without submitting it first to the Department of Education.
There is a direct link between the WB study, the SWS hunger survey, and the FAO paper. Hunger and poor nutrition, especially if persistent and long-lasting, impacts the health of Filipino children, including their physical and mental development.
A hungry, unhealthy child grows up to be an adult incapable of performing the basic requirements of earning a living and discerning the responsibilities of good citizenship. Unless urgently addressed, the country's hunger nightmare represents a calamitous future for the Philippines.
- The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.