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Food (in)security in times of pandemic

Gusto ko sana mag-panic buying pero wala akong pera kaya nag-panic lang ako.”

These words, oft-mentioned in the past days, may reflect people’s sense of humor even in times of crisis, but underneath them is a grim challenge faced by many Filipinos in times of pandemic: How to secure food for their families.

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To fully understand the nutritional impacts of the pandemic on the poor, it is insightful to look at the four pillars of food security, as articulated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability. Notably, the FAO has also stated that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” For COVID-19, availability and accessibility are particularly relevant.

Food availability means the existence of food supplies in a given area, and calls attention to issues of production, distribution, and exchange. When President Duterte made assurances that there would be no problem in food—announcing guarantees from big companies to keep producing food, and measures that would allow food sellers (e.g., supermarkets, public markets, and even restaurant deliveries) to stay open—he was referring to food availability. Thankfully, we still have food availability, although a protracted crisis will certainly compromise this pillar as well.

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Food accessibility, meanwhile, refers to having the physical and economic means to secure whatever food is available, and it’s this pillar that is problematic. As many scholars and nutrition advocates have pointed out, much of the hunger and malnutrition in the world is not due to the lack of supply, but the lack of means to avail of that supply. In other words: poverty.

Even before the pandemic, the situation has been dire, with the 2018 Household Food Insecurity Access Scale revealing that 53.9 percent of Filipinos are “food insecure” (e.g., anxious over food access) and 7 percent are “severely food insecure” (e.g., having experienced not eating for a day in the past month). With income opportunities cut off, and with public transport suspended during the quarantine, food insecurity will be exacerbated with grave human toll, especially—but not only—in urban areas. As a vendor in Quezon City told one of us: “We will die sooner of hunger than of the virus.”

Of course, people are not powerless in the face of this crisis. Both our separate disciplines (nutrition and anthropology) point out that our people are resourceful and find ways to fend for themselves, from borrowing food and money to restricting food consumption to prioritize children, all for “pantawid-gutom.” These forms of “diskarte,” however, do not guarantee that the quality or quantity of food is enough to maintain good nutrition.

In the face of the nutrition crisis that may arise from the current lockdown, we must move urgently to guarantee not just food availability, but also accessibility. Foremost of these interventions is financial assistance. Laudably, some companies have guaranteed that their employees will continue to receive salaries and even some emergency benefits during the emergency period.

However, initiatives for regular employees will still leave the informal sector, which encompasses about 38 percent of the working population, vulnerable. This is where LGUs, assisted by the national government, should step in, to ensure access to food while adhering to the protocols of community quarantine.

And when travel restrictions are lifted, food prices should still be kept stable for households to recover. Of course, only by addressing the social determinants of nutrition can we ultimately address the chronic problem of food insecurity, but this should not stop us from addressing now the most desperate need of millions of Filipinos.

Sickness or starvation? In this time of pandemic, our people should not have to choose between two forms of suffering.

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Charina Javier is a nutritionist and science research specialist at the DOST-Food and Nutrition Research Institute. Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist.

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TAGS: COVID-19, food security, lockdown, Quarantine
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