Alex Baluyut and Precious Leano were still feeding families displaced by Super Typhoon Noru in late September when news arrived that another powerful storm, Nalgae, was on a collision course towards the Philippines.
The husband-and-wife founders of Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, a volunteer group that provides hot meals in the aftermath of disasters, quickly tackled the impending disaster, checking maps and satellite images to predict its destructive path.
For the next three days, starting October 26, Nalgae slammed into Luzon, the country’s largest island group, causing landslides and severe flooding that left 150 dead, dozens missing and nearly 4 million people without housing.
In its wake, Art Relief Mobile Kitchen volunteers gathered pots, pans and locally sourced meat and vegetables to serve up bountiful servings of pork stew, steamed rice and other regional favorites to thousands of weary victims.
“When you’re in a state of calamity and faced with the pressure of rebuilding a roof over your family’s heads, the last thing you want to think about is how and when to cook,” said Baluyut, 66. years, whose group distinguishes itself by serving hot, fully prepared popular dishes rather than distributing canned foods and dried cereals.
This is not a detail in a country hit by as many natural disasters as the Philippines. The nation of 110 million sits along a treadmill of violent ocean storms and rests precariously above the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, a searing path of seismic activity responsible for earthquakes. earth and volcanic eruptions.
An average of 20 tropical cyclones per year enter the vast swath of the Pacific Northwest that encompasses the Philippines. Five of the 11 strongest tropical cyclones in world history have made landfall in the country.
In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the government has long struggled to provide adequate emergency aid. There has been heavy reliance on the army and police, as well as large non-profit humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross. Over the past decade, proactive preparedness in the form of early warning systems and preventive evacuations has become increasingly important. But the country’s entrenched patronage politics has made this transition difficult.
Natural disasters provide lawmakers with the opportunity to boost their image and pocket bribes. It is not uncommon for evacuation centers and relief goods to be plastered with images of politicians. Several government leaders have been accused of stealing relief funds. Even the country’s mobile disaster warning system has been criticized this year for trigger mobile phone alerts to promote the candidacy of current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Baluyut and Leano wanted to bring increased credibility to disaster response. The idea of the mobile kitchen was born in 2013, not by a natural calamity but by an armed conflict. Fighting had broken out in the southern town of Zamboanga between the military and separatists belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front.
Thousands of people were displaced and Baluyut, a photojournalist regularly exposed to the miseries of war and disaster, was deeply moved by their plight. As a native of Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines, he worried about what they were going to eat and he pledged to help feed people the next time disaster struck.
A few weeks later, one of the most powerful cyclones on record made landfall in the Philippines. What would later be known as Super Typhoon Haiyan leveled long stretches of the archipelago, killing 6,000 people and displacing 4.1 million.
“We have to do it now,” Baluyut recalled telling Leano.
The couple only had about $90 between them at the time. They pooled it with donations to buy rice and made lugaw, a porridge that serves as inexpensive comfort food.
The couple set up their mobile kitchen with a handful of volunteers under a lamppost on the inside a military air base in Manila serving as a staging area for survivors. Everything was going to go as planned until the first person approached Leano with dazed eyes and said, “Lugaw again?”
This meeting changed the functioning of the couple for good.
“I felt so stupid,” said Leano, 56, a stage actress. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Here are people who have been eating porridge since the storm destroyed their homes and we are giving them a bowl of porridge again.
The couple appealed to philanthropists, church groups and farmers to help provide fresh meat and vegetables – anything but canned lugaw or sardines, canned meatloaf or dried noodles handed out by officials. They also launched a call for volunteers, recruiting both activists and artists, which is how they came up with the name of the group.
Their goal, Leano said, was to ensure people had access to a plate of hot food like turmeric rice or binagoongan baboy (pork in shrimp paste) to comfort them in times of distress.
The Badlaan family had not eaten a proper meal for nearly a month after their village in the central Philippines province of the Dinagat Islands was badly damaged by Typhoon Rai last December.
When Art Relief Mobile Kitchen arrived in a white truck containing a pot of freshly cooked pork sinigang, a hearty tamarind soup, the response was decidedly lukewarm until 13-year-old Benjie Badlaan came home with a pitcher. This left his family in disbelief.
“Is it really a sinigang? Annabel Badlaan, the 32-year-old family matriarch, said as tears welled up in her eyes.
“We have meat for dinner,” cheered the other children.
Baluyut and Leano said there is no point dropping off dried food like rice or beans to families at the onset of a disaster because homes or kitchens are usually messy. Any reminder of their inability to cook only amplifies their sense of helplessness, they reasoned.
The couple’s empathy and sensitivity also extends to the dishes they choose to cook.
In the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the group has used local cooks and prepared halal food for people whose homes have been destroyed by fighting between the army and militants. The Islamic State.
In the northern town of Cavite, volunteers cooked locally popular baboy binagoongang for evacuees from a massive residential fire. In Santa Clara, a town in southern Luzon, pork was omitted from meals because many fire evacuees were Seventh-day Adventists.
Volunteers try to buy ingredients from local farmers and vendors to boost the economy. They are also asking local cooks to lend a hand.
Proximity to some of the country’s most devastating events is not without danger. Baluyut narrowly escaped a bomb blast in Marawi. Volunteers had the misfortune to see people buried by landslides.
The COVID pandemic has weighed on the group’s donations. But in 2021, Baluyut and Leano’s work to help victims of Typhoon Rai reached World Central Kitchen, the disaster relief program run by celebrity chef Jose Andres. Andres’ program has agreed to partner with Art Relief Mobile Kitchen to feed the victims.
Baluyut and Leano’s group has since 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 estimate to have served several hundred thousand meals.
“There are ARMK kitchens all over the country that can respond to disasters,” said Leano, whose ultimate goal is to urge the government to establish community kitchens in every village jurisdiction, called barangays, so that his organization is licensed.
“Community kitchens are natural for us,” Baluyut said. “Each barangay had specialist cooks who were called on happy occasions like parties and weddings. It is simply a question of exploiting this cultural tradition.