Right to Access the Right Food On International Human Rights Day



Dec. 10, tomorrow, is International Human Rights Day. Not many Bicolanos even know there is such a day or that it is an international day of celebration. Not many know also that human rights are not only about the right to free speech and the right to know. There are other rights as equally important, namely, the right to shelter, education, work, health and liberty covering political, economic, social and cultural rights to cite the long list enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted in 1948. One may ask what is the state of human rights in the Philippines today? A friend offered one word to describe it: “Scary!” With constant threats to life from all fronts – economic, political, social, health, environment -- how can a poor farmer, laborer, ordinary people feel safe at all?


One right that I believe poses a big challenge today during the Pandemic is food -- the human right to adequate food and freedom from hunger. Hungry. Gutom. That alone is scary. For example, how do we feed the mouths of millions of families quarantined inside their homes in lockdown during the Pandemic? Or even if the Ayuda pack of delata, instant noodles and instant coffee arrives at the doorstep, how can it sustain the health of the family, if at all?


I would like to post two variations of this right: one is about the right to food, and the other is the right to nutritious food. Food inequality became more pronounced during the Pandemic. This year, the UN has called for governments worldwide to help reduce inequalities of access by putting at the core of their socio-economic agenda the problem of food security and nutrition marginalization of families. Non-profit organizations like TBM at the local level have long joined the call by launching Gulayan sa Bakuran at Tahanan (GBTS) in every barangay and spearheading community-led people’s farm when possible. Concerted food relief efforts by government and non-government sectors may have contributed to the reported decline of the number of hungry people from 21.1% during the first year of the Pandemic in 2020 to 13.6 % in June this year as shown in the recent SWS Survey showing “fewer families went hungry in September.”


The participation of all in the fight against hunger and poverty is urgent and should be taken seriously. In 2020 UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the Philippines recorded the greatest number of food insecure people in Southeast Asia in 2017 to 2019, with 59 million Filipinos suffering from moderate to severe lack of access to food. The main reasons for going hungry are lack of income and regular job, as well as natural calamities.


The global crises gave us an occasion to take a closer look at what we are getting and what we are not getting in the form of humanitarian assistance. As a health advocate, I am particularly concerned not only about the food but more so of the quality of food items that Filipino taxpayers pay for in the delivery of services for our less privileged population. The Pandemic gave me a personal glimpse at the kind of donated bag each family receives from the government Ayuda package, not just once but if they are lucky enough, in the next tranches. I think there is a need to visit the re-packaging of the so-called FNI (food and non-food items) to be included in each family food pack (FFP) for each household. In assessing the impact of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) and other Covid-19 responses, I suggest that planning of humanitarian assistance especially of FFPs be inclusive to cover all including the quality of delivered services and products. The right to food should be more about the right to access the right food which is nutritious and life-saving. What used to be a traditional relief pack of 3 kilos rice, 3 cans of sardines, a pack of noodles and instant coffee should be changed into a pack of healthy alternatives – dried beans, dried veggies, unpolished rice, dried fish that are non-perishable. The majority of the population suffers from pre-existing diseases and illnesses like diabetes, obesity high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, tuberculosis, and cancer.


Which brings me to the second variation of this right - about access to nutritious food - and right to a healthy diet. The same FAO report showed that two out of five Filipinos are considered food poor, which means they lack access to nutritious food! As an active advocate of healthy food, this situation is alarming, especially in the light of increasing incidents of deaths involving bad food and unhealthy lifestyle, not necessarily of Covid-19. I saw several friends, relatives, and their own family networks suffer the loss of their own, because of pre-existing comorbidities, who succumbed to the deadly virus.


The right to nutritious food is a struggle and an aspiration for all. It should start with the government. I refer to government officials who can initiate laws and policies, and practice healthy lifestyle and provide mandate for Filipino families to access affordable, nutritious foods like vegetables, fish and good meat. Nutritionally, plant-based foods have been scientifically proven to be the best that would protect one against malnutrition, as well as non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. When idle lands are used for productive healthy production with people growing and eating more nutritious foods, I see a lot of promise in successfully fighting Covid-19 and other diseases.


Am I dreaming?


In reality, many of us are digging our graves with foods slowly killing us. I ask my readers to look around your home today. Most of the items sold in the supermarkets, groceries and stores including food relief packs that humanitarian agencies give away to disaster survivors and the poor are not actually giving nutrients that the body needs. Some ingredients of our foods, especially those that make them taste extra-delicious like sugar, fat, salt and artificial chemical additives in processed foods can be highly destructive even when taken in small amounts.


We enjoy human rights because these are our inherent rights as human beings. They are not given or granted by the state. These are universal rights, including the right to nutritious food. The right to choose good food and bad food is also a universal right – that is the caveat.