Hunger like an all-season Lent

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Pisauikan on Unsplash

Lent is not just a religious season but also physical in many ways. After all, the religious basis of Lent was highlighted with graphic physical suffering. It may have been basically just one day, Good Friday as it is known today, but it was the culmination, the climax of betrayal, torture, and death.

Good Friday is just a week away. However, its aura has already been penetrating the domestic environment of poor Filipinos. Lent today is manifested by the hunger that has invaded the homes and tables of millions of Filipinos.

I will not, and cannot, give you real-time statistics of the hunger that is visiting poor communities today because I do not need to. The basis has been laid down a long time ago through several research studies pointing to the population of food-poor families. With an already established food-poor base, I only need to monitor food prices. When they go up, hunger is activated.

And up, up, and away is how the prices have been going. Ever since the Christmas season, the challenge of increasing food prices has started to become a nightmare among the food-poor. It had been a challenge from two years ago when inflation shot up, hitting its highest in the primary food sector. Funny, and only economists can try to explain to the hungry and food-poor why inflation has been reported to have gone down while food prices have gone up. Funny and tragic.

It is not difficult to monitor the movement of food prices. Then, if one cares enough for the poor, it is not difficult to monitor the painful impact of rising food prices on those who can afford them the least. It is not only the identified hungry who are suffering but also the whole food-poor sector, which includes the chronically food insecure. The estimates are consistent over the several years, pegged at 39% mild, 17% moderate, and 8% severe – or 64% of the Filipino population.

That is the national backdrop of Philippine society. Oh, yes, that report about hundreds of houses in a plush village in Makati being available for sale at 1 billion pesos or more is also accurate. But a few thousand wealthy families must be situated in the bigger picture, where tens of millions of Filipino families are not only poor but food insecure—and two million families are constantly hungry.

Suffice it to say that Lent is like a forever season for hungry and food-poor Filipinos because, to them, Lent is hunger. The more painful part is that there has been no Easter in their lives—nor will there be in the foreseeable future.

Unless more of us become practicing Christians or faithful Muslims. Unless more of us become Filipinos of the bayanihan culture with an active bayani spirit. All claims of a God-fearing nation are debunked by sustained hunger and food insecurity. Neither maka-Diyos (pro-God) nor maka-tao (pro-man) as all election slogans from barangay officials to the presidency proclaims.

But, by the numbers reflected by where the largest sectors are, the Philippines is a hungry, food-poor society—inside great abundance from creation and nature, side-by-side with millionaire and billionaire classes growing faster than the national growth rate.

“But, by the numbers reflected by where the largest sectors are, the Philippines is a hungry, food-poor society—inside great abundance from creation and nature, side-by-side with millionaire and billionaire classes growing faster than the national growth rate.”

The good news, however, is that while the poor are rich by numbers, the non-poor are very rich in everything else – including all the money that can eliminate hunger and food insecurity in the country. In other words, unlike many other societies where there is just not enough for everyone, the minority rich can feed the majority poor. The good news is that we can beat hunger by ourselves, just us Filipinos.

There are about 42,000 barangays in the country, a few thousand of which are historically vulnerable to hunger. The government knows them all, and the NGOs know most of them. If there is interest and empathy for them, regular calls to knowledgeable contacts in the affected barangays can give a good picture of where hunger is rising. Cellphones and sympathetic hearts can provide critical and timely information. There is not much need for national surveys and research work.

I have read about the 500-billion-peso budget for ayuda programs. Despite that, including the efficiency level with which government agencies can roll out their programs, mild, moderate, and severe hunger persists. There is little we can do about government performance, but there is everything we can do about everything else.

It is Lent, and hunger is like the Lent of the hungry and food-poor. It is like an all-season Lent for them, but it need not be. Because if half of the population is threatened by hunger and the lack of resources to be food secure, the other half is not. Just in the top 20% of the Philippine population is the capacity to address hunger, even the fear of hunger, that the government has been unable to do for decades.

Again, the understanding of the 20% of Filipinos, matched with sympathy and generosity, is the quick but effective solution to the plight of the hungry and food poor today. Either that or the government borrows more trillions to fund more ayuda programs—loans that all of us and the next generations will pay.

The genius of big business will need to focus on food and hunger. There is no other way except to keep hoping and expecting the government to do this and succeed against all odds. But if big business, the millionaire and billionaire classes, lead the charge, the resources and inspiration they will generate will be miraculous. Not only that, but they will also trigger societal reforms like nothing ever has.

When the decision-making class in Philippine society becomes initiators and role models, nothing is impossible. Otherwise, meaningful change cannot be sustained, and we will waddle along the same painful path.

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