MANILA - It's the paradox of our times: A great number of Filipinos, including 15 million children, remain hungry or malnourished while the Philippine economy continues to soar, Sen. Grace Poe lamented on Monday, as she called for concrete action to address this scourge.
Poe said the government and every Filipino should do their part to help end hunger.
"We shouldn't allow the applause of rating agencies drown out the grumbling of empty stomachs," she said in a privilege speech.
"We should let the issue of hunger gnaw at bureaucracy's thick walls or the officialdom's thick hides the way an ulcer lacerates the gut," she said.
Poe called for an increase in the budget next year for children's feeding programs, which could be done by doing away with "frivolous" budgetary items.
She also called for sincere efforts to invest in and improve agricultural programs by giving these sufficient funding.
The neophyte senator encouraged civic action to help end hunger, including small deeds that, taken together, could go a long way.
For instance, politicians could donate the tarpaulins they use as "greeting cards" to farmers who could use these as drying mats for their crops.
Poe, in her speech, took note of a recent Social Weather Stations survey that found that 43 per cent, or some 9.3 million families, considered themselves "food-poor."
Based on the 8th National Nutrition Survey, 7.36 million children below the age of 5 are malnourished.
But the Food and Agriculture Organisation provided a higher estimate of 15 million malnourished children, bigger than Metro Manila's population, Poe said.
"Hunger in this supposed time of economic growth is the paradox of our times," she said.
Suffering amid excesses
Amid abundance and excesses, many Filipinos continue to want and suffer, she said.
"This is a country where skinny street kids share one bowl of instant noodles under the foot of neon ads selling liposuction for the obese. This is a country where there is a fried or roasted chicken stand in every corner but the bestseller in the slums do not come in buckets but out of garbage cans-the pagpag double-fried chicken," she said.
Pagpag is known as garbage food, often leftover chicken, which the poor get from garbage bins of fast-food outlets and then washed and refried for them to eat or sell.
If government data would be used as basis, the senator said few Filipinos should grow hungry.
For instance, the Philippines has a 100-per cent self-sufficiency rate in crops like coconuts, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugar, cabbage and eggplant; in fish such as tilapia, milkfish, round scad and tuna; and in poultry like chicken and duck eggs.
The country is also nearly self-sufficient in rice and corn, she noted.
But despite this abundance, many do not have the money to buy sufficient food.
"Today, a minimum wage worker in Cebu City must work 5 1/2 hours to buy a kilo of beef. If a plantation worker in Negros wants to treat his family to tinolang manok, he will have to work a half day to buy 1 kilo of chicken," she said.
Even vegetables are beyond the reach of many workers.
Sleep to ease hunger
As a result, many Filipinos have turned to sleep to assuage their hunger or to use soy sauce, bagoong (shrimp paste), tomato, salt and coffee to flavor their meager meals, Poe said.
Poe stressed the importance of giving children sufficient food. "But as in any social problem, hunger, like war, punishes the children most."
Without sufficient nutrition, children's motor development slows down and their cognitive skills become stunted. Those who weigh less score low in tests and learn less than their classmates, the senator said.
Children who frequently miss meals are also likely to miss classes, she added.
It's the country's future that is being jeopardized, she said.
"And this has a long-term negative impact on the development of our human capital. We cannot build the foundation of our future on emaciated bodies who are no longer in school. No nation on Earth can," she said.
Poe said the P2.6-trillion (S$74 billion) national budget for 2015 was "child-nutrient deficient."
She said the P4.6 billion under the Department of Education (DepEd) and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), allocated for serving occasional meals to severely wasted children and a supplementary feeding programme for children in daycare, was grossly insufficient.
The budget per meal under the DSWD programme is P13.60 while that under the DepEd is P16 per child.
This is below the P50 per meal allocated for inmates of the national penitentiary, Poe pointed out.
"Surely, we can raise the meal budget for our kids to national penitentiary standards," she said.
Scrap frivolous programs
"Let us then create budget space for programs that will fill the empty stomachs of our young. I will not enumerate them, but the proposed budget is littered with frivolous programs we can do without."
She sought the passage of her school-feeding programme bill.
Poe said it was time to be sincere in improving agriculture, especially since the Philippine population continues to grow, with 200 babies born every hour.
She noted that only 55 per cent of potentially irrigable areas, or 1.67 of 3 million, are serviced by irrigation.
But for 2015, the "measly" target is to bring irrigation to just 26,155 hectares for the first time.
"At this pace, it will take us half a century to develop our full irrigation potential," she said.
She said the P88.8 billion for agriculture for 2015 must be used properly. "We should ensure that most of the funds will go to farmers, in time, in full, for the right project, at the right place, and the right price."
Eye in the sky
There must be a Google-Earth programme with farm projects geo-tagged per location, per project, per cost, she said.
"It is not enough that we can observe bidding. We need an eye in the sky. In this regard, I will push for a provision in the national budget that the status of all projects related to food and feeding can be accessed through the click of a mouse," she said.
Poe said fighting hunger need not always involve grand programs.
For instance, stopping crooked cops from mulcting from buko (coconut) vendors or trucks that deliver meat will help bring down the cost of food.
Removing regulatory roadblocks, which make it cheaper to import corn from Minnesota than from Mindanao, will also make a big difference.
The government could buy fertilizers in bulk and use its purchasing muscle to lower prices, or could start a lease-to-own programme for farm implements.
It could also promote urban gardening, Poe added.
The government should likewise respect the food growers' right to land.
Small deeds could also go a long way, she said.
Food bank, school kitchens
Residents of affluent villages could start a food bank for the poor, while restaurant owners could donate leftovers to soup or school kitchens.
Politicians could also resist the urge to self-promote using outsized tarpaulins and donate these to farmers to be used as drying mats. The same challenge goes to owners of giant billboards, she said.
"Trust me, an upright commercial advertising tarp will do more by lying horizontal," she added.
For those planning reunions, instead of soliciting lechon, they could use the money for a pig dispersal programme.
Owners of corporations could also turn their corporate social responsibility programs into hunger-mitigation projects, Poe said.