Feeding the Masses When Disaster Hits the Philippines

Alex Balut and Precious Leano were still feeding families displaced by Super Typhoon Noru in late September. when word came that another major storm, Nalgae, was heading towards the Philippines.

Husband and wife, founders of Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, a volunteer group that provides hot meals after natural disasters, quickly dealt with the impending disaster by consulting maps and satellite imagery to predict its devastating path.

The next three days, starting in October. On August 26, Nalgae hit Luzon, the country’s largest group of islands, causing landslides and severe flooding that left 150 people dead, dozens missing and nearly 4 million people homeless.

ARMK volunteers distribute food to residents from the back of a car.

ARMK volunteers reach out to residents after the village head refused to allow them to attend the community gym due to politics.

(Aye Balagtas See)

Following this, Art Relief Mobile Kitchen volunteers gathered pots, pans and locally sourced meats and vegetables to prepare huge portions of braised pork, boiled rice and other local favorites for thousands of weary victims.

“When you’re in distress and faced with having to rebuild a roof over your family’s heads, the last thing you want to think about is how and when to cook,” said Baluyut, 66, whose group stands out for being serving hot, fully cooked popular dishes rather than handing out canned food and dried grains.

This is an important detail for a country that has suffered from so many natural disasters as the Philippines. A nation of 110 million is on a conveyor belt of ferocious ocean storms and rests precariously over the Pacific Ring of Fire, a tumultuous path of seismic activity responsible for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

An average of 20 tropical cyclones per year hit the vast swath of the Pacific Northwest that spans the Philippines. Five of the 11 most powerful tropical cyclones in history have reached the shores of the country.

In the country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the government has long struggled to provide adequate emergency assistance. Much relied on the army and police, as well as large non-profit humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross. Over the past decade, proactive preparedness has increasingly come to the fore in the form of early warning and preventive evacuation systems. But the policy of patronage ingrained in the country made this transition difficult.

A boy is walking down the street with garbage next to him.

A boy walks over debris left by Typhoon Noru.

(Aye Balagtas See)

Natural disasters give lawmakers an opportunity to improve their image and pocket kickbacks. It is not uncommon for evacuation centers and essentials to be decorated with images of politicians. Several government leaders were charged with stealing relief funds. Even the mobile disaster alert system was criticized this year. trigger alerts on mobile phone to promote the candidacy of current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Balut and Leano wanted to increase the credibility of disaster response. The idea of ​​a mobile kitchen was born in 2013 not as a result of a natural disaster, but as a result of an armed conflict. In the southern city of Zamboanga, fighting broke out between the military and separatists belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front.

Thousands were displaced, and Balut, a photojournalist regularly exposed to the hardships of war and natural disasters, was deeply moved by their plight. As a native of Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines, he was worried about what they would eat and promised to help feed the people the next time there was a disaster.

A few weeks later, one of the strongest cyclones on record hit the Philippines. What would later be known as Super Typhoon Haiyan flattened long stretches of the archipelago, killing 6,000 people and displacing 4.1 million.

“We have to do it now,” Balut recalls, as Leano said.

ARMK volunteers carry a large cauldron as they cross a makeshift bridge to reach residents.

ARMK volunteers cross a makeshift bridge to contact residents after the village head refused to allow them to use the public gym due to politics.

(Aye Balagtas See)

At the time, the couple only had about $90 for two. They combined it with donations to buy rice and made lugaw, a porridge that serves as a cheap comfort food.

The couple set up their mobile kitchen with a handful of volunteers under a lamppost. inside military air base in Manila, which served as a staging area for survivors. Everything went according to plan, until the first person approached Leano with stunned eyes and said: “Lugau again?”

This meeting changed the life of the couple forever.

“I felt so stupid,” said Leano, 56, a theater actress. “Why didn’t I think of that? Here are the 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 have reached out to philanthropists, church groups and farmers to help provide fresh meat and vegetables — anything but grassland or canned sardines, canned meatloaf or dried noodles handed out by government employees. They also announced the recruitment of volunteers, recruiting both activists and artists, which is why they came up with the name of the group.

Their purpose, according to Leano, was to provide people with access to a plate of warm food, such as turmeric rice or binagungan baba (pork in shrimp paste), to comfort them in times of need.

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

Precious Leano is preparing a makeshift kitchen where they will prepare meals for the people of the Dinagat Islands, Philippines.

(Aye Balagtas See)

The Badlaan family did not eat normally for almost a month after their village in the central Philippine province of the Dinagat Islands was hit hard by Typhoon Paradise last December.

When Art Relief Mobile Kitchen arrived in a white truck with a pot of freshly cooked pork shinigang, a hearty tamarind-flavoured soup, the reaction was decidedly tepid until 13-year-old Benji Badlaan returned home with a pitcher. He left his family in disbelief.

“Is this really a Shinigang?” Annabelle Badlaan, the 32-year-old matriarch of the family, said with tears in her eyes.

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

Balut and Leano said it’s pointless to dump dried foods like 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 added to their sense of helplessness, they reasoned.

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

In the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the group engaged local chefs and prepared halal food for people whose homes were destroyed in fighting between the military and Islamic State militants.

Volunteers boil eggs and peel carrots.

Volunteers boil eggs and peel carrots.

(Aye Balagtas See)

In the northern city of Cavite, volunteers prepared the popular local binagungan baba for evacuees from a severe residential fire. In Santa Clara, a city in southern Luzon, pork was excluded from the diet because many of those rescued from the fire were Seventh-day Adventists.

Volunteers try to buy ingredients from local farmers and vendors to boost the economy. They also ask local chefs to help.

Close proximity to some of the most devastating events in the country is not safe. Balut narrowly escaped a bomb blast in Marawi. Volunteers had the misfortune to witness the burial of people under landslides.

The COVID pandemic has taken its toll on the group’s donations. But in 2021, word of Baluut and Leano’s work helping the victims of Typhoon Rai reached World Central Kitchen, a disaster relief program run by celebrity chef José Andrés. Andres’ program agreed to partner with Art Relief Mobile Kitchen to feed the victims.

Since then, the Balyuta and Leano group has 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 estimated that they distributed several hundred thousand dishes.

“There are ARMK kitchens all over the country that can respond to natural disasters,” said Leano, whose ultimate goal is to inspire the government to create community kitchens in every village jurisdiction, known as barangays, so that her organization becomes redundant.

“Community kitchens come naturally to us,” Balut said. “Each barangay had specialist chefs who were called in during joyous occasions such as holidays and weddings. It’s just a matter of using that cultural tradition.”