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Q&A: Rise Against Hunger Philippines Responds to a Never Seen Before Crisis

Rise Against Hunger Philippines’ mission is to end hunger by providing food and life-saving aid to the most vulnerable and by creating a global commitment to mobilize the necessary resources. The organization, which was established following an emergency relief response to Typhoon Yolanda, is no stranger to crisis. It provides hunger relief to Filipinos affected by natural disasters and conflict, and develops programs that provide meals to school children, pregnant and lactating women and their families, and indigenous tribes. We interviewed Jomar Mariano Fleras, Executive Director of Rise Against Hunger Philippines, about their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the organization is addressing the rising demand for food on World Hunger Day. Q1: Jomar, how many years have you been at Rise Against Hunger Philippines (RAHP)? I have been with Rise Against Hunger Philippines for five years. I was tasked by the US office to set up operations here in the Philippines. Q2: Have you ever seen anything like what you’re seeing now? The Philippines has always been in the list of top five countries that are hit by natural disasters and calamities. We are used to responding to typhoons, earthquakes, floods, fire and landslides. But I have never seen a disaster similar to COVID-19. With other disasters, we can respond effectively and swiftly since these disasters are short-lived and localized. But with COVID-19, we do not know when it will end. Everything and every place have been paralyzed by the virus. Q3:  How has Rise Against Hunger Philippines and the work of your staff been affected by COVID-19? All our meal packaging events for the year have been cancelled and there are very few volunteers that we can mobilize. Our school feeding programs have also stopped due to the cessation of classes. However, we are busier now because of our food banking operation. We rescue and distribute food every day, sometimes up to three times a day. Q4: How are the people you serve being affected by COVID-19? What is the current situation like in Philippines? As of May 16, 2020, there were 12,305 recorded cases of COVID-19 infections, with 817 deaths. But nobody believes that these figures are near the actual level of infections. Testing has been low and slow. What we do know is that COVID-19 has become a perfect storm for the millions of poor in the country. COVID-19 has exacerbated the hunger situation and we hear of people saying that they will first die of hunger before COVID. The government has rolled out the Social Amelioration Program for the poorest 18 million Filipino households. The program is a cash assistance program worth approximately US$100 to $160, or one to two weeks’ worth of minimum wage. However, this assistance is barely enough to meet the demand of many households. The private sector and church organizations help by distributing relief goods, but the lockdown since March 13 has caused loss of income that we have never seen before. Many people perceive that children are not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In reality, children – mostly those who come from low-income families and living in hard-to-reach areas – face the long-term and irreversible impact of stunting, the worst form of malnutrition due to prolonged hunger and under-nutrition. Q5: You mentioned in a recent survey that you’re seeing 91-100% increase in requests for emergency food assistance as a result of COVID-19. How is your organization meeting that demand? We have very limited resources to collect and distribute food. To meet the demand, we were able to engage private food rescuers and a delivery service called Lalamove. Q6: Have you seen any challenges as a result of changes to the food supply chain? If so, how is your food bank responding to this challenge? Donations of basic goods such as sardines and canned goods have been scarce. What we see being donated to us are non-essential items, such as personal care products and food items that are not being bought. Q7: How have you adapted to meet the unique needs posed by COVID-19?  How are you managing no contact food distribution? Because of the rules on social distancing, we have very limited direct access to beneficiaries. Thus, we had to work with local government organizations to do house-to-house distributions. Q8: What has been your proudest moment from the food bank since the pandemic started? In two months’ time, we have generated over half a million dollars’ worth of cash and in-kind donations. We have reached over 20,000 families and 31 hospitals. Private groups have organized donation platforms for us, such as an online concert and online auction. We have increased the number of food manufacturers that regularly donates to us. We have been able to distribute food in parts of the country we previously could not reach. Q9: What are you most worried about? What keeps you up at night? What keeps me up at night are the numerous requests for food assistance from both communities and individual families. We feel so inadequate to meet their needs. I am also worried that the well might go dry and we will not be able to give people food. Q10: Have you had any interactions that have stood out to you while serving clients during COVID-19? We have one food bank that doubles as a community center in the slum area of Tondo, Manila. In that center, we are able to directly distribute weekly to over 500 assisted families. Our weekly distribution has been their lifeline. They are very profuse in thanking us. They tell us that without our food bank they would be dead by now. They have received very little government assistance and their community has been on extreme lockdown so they cannot go out and work or look for food. Q11: What do you want the world to know about hunger relief in the Philippines amid COVID-19? During “normal” times, 70 percent of Filipino households are already food insecure. Eighty-five children die of hunger every day in the Philippines. We expect this figure will dramatically increase because of COVID-19. The COVID-19 crisis will worsen this situation. What we need is a coordinated public-private sector response that will not only focus on halting the spread of the epidemic, but also address the hunger situation. To find out ways you can help Rise Against Hunger Philippines and other food banks, please visit our COVID-19 response webpage.