There is no question that hunger stalks households in this country all the way from Metro Manila to Eastern and Western Visayas, the ARMM area, Bicol even Central and Northern Luzon. The impact of food insufficiency falls hardest on children, particularly the 0 to 14 age group. It explains the lack of energy seen in schoolchildren, their absence from schools, their stunted growth and diminished mental capacity.
This is a situation that any government must address. Even developed and rich countries of the world have on-going programs to stave off hunger through soup kitchens, charity programs, official government dole outs (food stamps). School feeding programs are a well-established method. Public school children in the US have free lunches of balanced meals that use inexpensive but wholesome ingredients commonly available in the community.
In the Philippines feeding programs do exist and have been here for years now, however sporadically. Decades ago there was the US Food for Peace initiative providing milk and soy-wheat flour which were distributed in some school districts. That program has since been phased out. Catholic Relief Services was also involved in feeding programs here through church groups but if they are still at work, we have not seen much of an impact lately. There was also CARE (Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere) but they may have moved elsewhere to war-ravaged, refugee-deluged regions. These programs were good but were not universally available to all those who needed to be served by them.
The fact is that the Philippines at this time with its increasing population of mostly young people who are in the economic bottom half is facing a serious food insufficiency among school children. Senator Poe has pointed to this situation numerous times and her latest message is thought-provoking as well as a serious demand for action.
I think school feeding programs would be a good interim if not a permanent solution at least for children. It will take an organizational effort, cooperation from the community and school authorities as well as critically, local government. It will be expensive and it will be a dole out. But it is necessary. Hunger has reached critical levels. School children go to school without breakfast. Anecdotal information is that they drink coffee on empty stomachs, go through the school day without having had a meal and then trudge home to an insufficient repast.
This is an emergency situation and no demurrals about lack of funds, lack of organized facilities, etc. are acceptable. Time to think out of the box and be creative. Cut through red tape and silly controls. Reputable NGO’s, parent-teachers’ associations, church groups and volunteers must be used.
Here is an example: La Gota de Leche, the oldest NGO in this country, conceptualized to help poor nursing mothers who could not meet the necessary nutrition for their children, is still in operation, toiling away at their facility donated to them by philanthropist of yesteryear, Teodoro Yangco and an act of Congress. They face straitened circumstances but somehow they carry on with their work even providing medical examinations of the mostly malnourished and poor children that gravitate to them in the Sampaloc district, their original home where they selflessly serve their child constituency. They can be part of any school feeding or child-feeding program without missing a step. So, in fact there are organizations ready and willing, all they need is the funding.
Whether their proverty is from no fault of their families or something else is immaterial. The fact is that there are hungry children who must be saved from malnutrition, given food for energy and the ability to help themselves through education.
That is the long and short of it. The national budget must accommodate this need as soon as possible. Meanwhile, local government units that receive IRA funds for their governance needs must include school feeding programs and other hunger alleviation methods using these same funds in their various barangays. Citizens must look over the shoulders of their local officials and see to it that some of these funds are put to good use in the fight against hunger.
Many will oppose school feeding programs on the ground that they are expensive and dole outs (which is a given), but these feeding programs have their virtues aside from addressing hunger quickly and directly. One is that they teach the community at large about health and nutrition and the availability of foods in their surroundings that can supply it as well as influence behavior. Usually mothers and other community members are recruited to assist the school feeding program and they can learn about healthy cooking and ingredients. They can also alter their social behavior to be more community-oriented and cooperative with one another. There is too the show of government concern which then translates to political attitudes which will then recognize better governance from local officials and set standards that these officials should meet if they claim to be public servants.
India has a massive school feeding program which has had its problems but they are plodding on and learning from their mistakes or their scarcities. Meanwhile, vulnerable children are being fed. We can do the same and we should start now. Our children need to stop being hungry and go to school prepared to make the most of education.
Maria Isabel Ongpin