Pandemic weakens food security in urban poor communities

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(Last of two parts)

MANILA, Philippines _ “Like thieves in the night” was how women leaders in Barangay Payatas B, Quezon City, described their difficult task of providing food aid to the poorest families in their community, despite the risks of catching the dreaded virus.

“People were panicking without access to food when the lockdown started; they were fighting over it. That’s why we decided to deliver the food packs at night, to avoid conflict among those who received them and those who didn’t,” said Diding Libao, who leads the group of volunteer mothers in the parish.

As early as March, around 60 mothers tapped by the Ina ng Lupang Pangako Parish, headed by Fr. Danny Pilario, took on the role of distributing packs of rice and pandesal to their neighbors. They considered it a noble task to ensure that no one would get hungry, as food assistance from the local government remained scarce.

“Most of the people living here, they don’t have jobs or their means of livelihood have been halted due to the pandemic. So the main problem of families are really food and rice,” said Libao, adding that they struggled with a limited supply of food aid during the early days of the lockdown.

Disrupting food systems

“People were telling us, rice would be enough — we can pair it with anything, like salt or cooking oil,” she added.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting food systems worldwide, particularly those in developing countries like the Philippines.

“The bottom line is that poor people in urban areas are seriously affected not only by the spread of the virus itself but also by policies and measures to contain its spread—unless effective [programs] are put into place to mitigate these effects and to support their livelihoods,” the FAO said.

With some 2.5 million people living in the slums, families in urban areas in Metro Manila who do not have regular livelihood are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, said Jovie Raval, chief of the Nutrition Information and Education Division of the National Nutrition Council (NNC).

“Consequently, their food security is affected because they don’t have regular food sources,” Raval said.

This phenomenon, she said, would likely lead to malnutrition of those belonging to the poorest families, like farmers, fisherfolk and those engaged in hard labor.

Unhealthy food options

As poor families are forced to tighten their belts even more, they would often resort to cheap but unhealthy food options, such as canned sardines, dried fish or tuyo and instant noodles.

With healthy food less accessible, they may not be able to maintain proper nutrition, said Dr. Joshua San Pedro of the Coalition for the People’s Right to Health (CPRH).

“We also have to take into account the different nutritional needs at different stages of life which are overlooked, especially in families with more children,” San Pedro said.

He said this results in stunting and a weaker immune response, making them susceptible to infectious diseases, especially with lack of protein sources.

“Lifestyle diseases are also brought about by poorly balanced diets, as in diabetes (sugars/carbohydrates) and dyslipidemia (fats) which lead to more complications in heart disease and stroke, while also making such patients susceptible to more severe effects of infectious diseases like COVID-19,” San Pedro said.

COPING WITH THE TIMES Residents of Payatas B village in Quezon City have turned an empty lot along Clemente Road into a garden that will help sustain the food needs of this neighborhood amid the lack of jobs and income and other consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. —RICHARD A. REYES

Obese adults

Families with malnourished children but obese mothers are another phenomenon observed by the NNC in poor neighborhoods.

“There are more obese adults in urban areas,” said Raval. “It’s likely that when they were young, they were also malnourished so they’re likely to be obese when they grow up as adults.”

In the Philippines alone, almost half of COVID-19 deaths as of June 8 had comorbidities, while 60 percent had hypertension, according to the Department of Health’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau.

Because of the pandemic, this problem has been exacerbated by issues in food security, especially during the enhanced community quarantine period, said the two health experts.

“Despite oversupply in the provinces of crops and seafood, travel restrictions prevented their influx into urban areas affected by the pandemic,” San Pedro said.

On a national scope, he said the Philippines was still not food secure due to rice importation and neglect of agriculture.

‘Ayuda’

As a result, San Pedro said, families with even less income due to no-work, no-pay policies due to the pandemic were unable to ensure healthy food on the table, much less three times a day.

A temporary solution provided by the government is to give the families “ayuda” in the form of processed and unhealthy food, said San Pedro, citing canned corned beef, sardines and instant noodles.

“We even have a joke here now, that the cure to COVID-19 is sardines, because people in Payatas mostly eat sardines for their meals,” said.

Because these food items are high in salt and fat, Raval said the NNC, as chair of the nutrition council for health emergencies, on April issued a memorandum advisory for local government units (LGUs) to have healthier food packs.

“That’s why you’ve seen LGUs providing vegetables, chicken and eggs, which also help the farmers because they don’t have any market for their produce,” Raval said.

In the long run, Raval said food security among Filipinos must be ensured by making food more accessible.

“On the part of NNC, we continue to promote proper nutrition through behavior change strategies. Changing also the mind-set of people so they can have better food choices, trying to avoid high salt and high sugar,” Raval said.

Good eating habits

She said an example of this is introducing good eating habits on the first 1,000 days of a child and teaching families proper diet.

Population-based interventions, like the proposed Trans Fat Free Philippines bill, can eliminate trans fat and reduce coronary heart diseases, she added.

“We’re going to push for regulating of the marketing of unhealthy foods to children so we can also address obesity,” said Raval, adding that it’s a problem affecting all social classes.

The Trans Fat Free Philippines bill, which was filed by Representatives Ronnie Ong and Alfred delos Santos in Congress on July 29, aims to regulate the manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of food products with high content of trans-fatty acids or TFA.

The bill has been referred to the House committee on health and is scheduled for its first hearing in October 2020.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), TFA is responsible for 500,000 yearly deaths from cardiovascular diseases globally.

Foods that have high TFA content include fried and processed food.

The WHO has committed to eliminate industrially produced TFAs by 2023 through its “Replace” campaign, which prescribes strategic actions to eliminate TFA:

• Review dietary sources of industrially produced trans fat and the landscape for required policy change.

• Promote the replacement of industrially produced trans fat with healthier fats and oils.

• Legislate or enact regulatory actions to eliminate industrially produced trans fat.

• Assess and monitor trans fat content in the food supply and changes in trans fat consumption in the population.

• Create awareness of the negative health impact of trans fat among policymakers, producers, suppliers and the public.

• Enforce compliance with policies and regulations.

* * *

Editor’s Note: This report was produced under the (Un)Covering Trans Fats Media Training and Fellowship Program of the Probe Media Foundation Inc. and ImagineLaw.



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