I AM standing in the middle of a public elementary school in a rural municipality in the province of Cavite. The playground is without trees and shade. In the searing heat of a late morning sun, the cement building bakes. The steel handrails ribboning the walkways are too hot to hold. The area is nice, though. There are mountain views, fancy cafés and gourmet dining nearby. But the schoolhouse is on the wrong side of the good life. No one here can afford anything from Starbucks. I am waiting for lunchtime recess. For many of the kids, this will be the best part of their day. It will be the only time they will get to eat.
There are 276 students, aged 5 to 12 years old, who attend this school. About half of the students get to eat three meals a day. They come from families with an income of between P5,000 and P7,000 per month. These kids turn up wearing uniforms and shoes and bring with them a small baon, usually a clump of rice and an egg, or instant noodles. On some days a little fish might be included. The rest of the kids come from struggling families with parents who are separated, and are either under employed or with no income at all. These children barely eat. Forty-eight students of this school are categorized as severely wasted or malnourished. They are a heartrending sight. A six-year-old boy here weighs 13 kilograms and has height of 95 centimeters; an almost nine-yea- old girl weighs 17 kg and is 117 cm tall.
A feeding program has been in operation at this school for a year or so. Theoretically, the Department of Education allots a budget of P14,000 per month, or P200 per student, for food. In practice, the allocation is not always dependable. The all-women teaching staff, and volunteer parents, all of whom are mothers of children at the school, have found ways to supplement the budget. They are energetic in soliciting external funds. A group of policemen pledged P1,500 twice a year. Out of this money, the entire school could be fed one meal.
A canteen fund of about P500 for the most needy children was also scraped together. Teacher A, a young graduate of Cavite State University, treats this money with respect and thrift. With some of it, she does the grocery shopping and brings the food to school. Every morning, from 6.30a.m, a group of mothers from the school’s Parents’ Federation come to do the cooking. Each day the menu varies and what is produced from so little is well nigh miraculous. There might be macaroni soup, chicken arrozcaldo, or sotanghon noodles. The dishes are vegetable-rich and protein-heavy. Giving a piece of fresh fruit to each kid would be too expensive, but there are rare sweet treats like champorrado, the chocolate rice pudding, or turron, deep fried banana wrapped in thin pastry.
I am really astonished at how much the canteen fund is made to stretch. In addition to groceries, a portion is put toward the maintenance of a vegetable garden where grades 4, 5, and 6 cultivate malunggay, eggplants, beans, and papaya. Another portion goes toward the work of the clinic, which is run by Teacher H. She trained at the Philippine Normal School and readily shows me charts and data. She combines an obvious analytical approach with enthusiasm. She draws up the school health reports, liaises with the barangay health worker who visits once a month, the municipal doctor who sees the children four times a year, and the municipal dentist who comes once a year. But it is everyday malnutrition and malady that wreck these young bodies. She tells me about the common illnesses of the kids –the deadly quartet of fever, lagnat, ubo at sipon, coughs and colds, and dengue. Malnourished children have collapsing immune systems.
It is well known that hungry children have short attention spans in the classroom. But this seems to be the least of it. Teacher T is the school’s guidance counselor. She graduated from the Far Eastern University and has worked for the school for 26 years. She tells me that children from hungry homes are afflicted with an assortment of behavioral problems that frequently stem from parental abuse. Bullying is pervasive, yes, but there is worse. She cites the case of a young girl who, for three years, was stealing from and beating other children. This child did not know any better. Her mother had a mental illness. There is no professional therapist who will give their time free to poor families, so the teacher takes on the task. “Habang may buhay may pagasa,” she says. While there is life, there is hope.
The mothers who have done the cooking that morning sit in the shade of a hut by the side of the burning road, fanning themselves. On their own time and with no pay, they also clean the school and raise money for activities, including the regional sports fest. But each one of them has a load of other jobs to do. Later in the day, Lina will sell sticks of barbecue; Annabelle is a part-time house-helper and works a field of sweet potato; Lhuz caddies in a golf course.
These women uncomplainingly roll up their sleeves and just get on with it. They are proud of what they do, proud of their initiative and resourcefulness, and the knowledge they have gained. They tell me how they learnt to feed their children better food by attending talks given by the visiting municipality nutritionist. Improving diets at home is difficult and some parents, they say, just don’t get it. They tell me that the school also teaches parents about drug addiction and, in the same breath, recall how two men were recently murdered in a tokhang operation. One of the men was a relative and there is no doubt in their minds that the police was responsible. “The drug problem is lessened by making lives disappear,” Lina remarks in a tone full irony.
The lunch bell rings and the kids bound out of the classrooms. Every meal amounts to a triumph, proof that individual human actions can add up. “Tuloy, tuloy ang laban,” Lina says.
If readers wish to donate to the feeding program of this school, please get in touch with me.