Hunger as a national issue

Zoilo ‘Bingo’ Dejaresco IIITHE gut issue of poverty becomes most real to Filipinos when they go hungry. The statistics today, whether it tells of 15 million or 27 million hungry Filipinos, is less material than the fact that the much-touted “economic miracle” that is the Philippines is not inclusive. Gross domestic product (GDP) numbers do not lie, true, but statistics cannot feed the hungry millions.

It is, therefore, prophetic that at least one senator of the Republic, 2013 Senate topnotcher Grace Poe, coined the trending catchphrase “High GDP but also high GNP [Gutom na Pilipino]” in a privilege speech just this week.

The former Movie Television Review and Classification Board czar said succinctly: “Fighting corruption is crucial; infrastructure is vital; Bangsamoro is necessary, but let’s not forget the most important capital, our people, especially the children.”

The issue brings us back to the 1960s and 1970s, when every public elementary-school child was fed for free with the famous “Nutribun,” oatmeal and powdered milk. Today government agencies set aside a mere P30 per child for the program, much less than the food budget for convicts at the National Bilibid Prison.

Poe says that the P2.7-million annual budget for food for children  under the proposed 2015 General Appropriations Act (GAA) can afford is “nutrient-deficient”. Malnutrition leads to stunted growth, making children less able to hit their full human potential.

But why are some 25 million Filipinos so dirt-poor that many of them cannot afford three square meals a day?

The answer lies in both the supply and demand side. Our agricultural sector is so underdeveloped it contributes the least to local output or GDP, compared to service and manufacturing. The factors of production and agriculture-related infrastructure are feeble, causing food prices to rise. Just ask any housewife how she goes crazy trying to budget the family’s food budget daily. That’s the supply side.

There may be production self-sufficiency in rice, corn, livestock and vegetables (supply side), but can the average Juan de la Cruz afford them? The fact is, on the demand side, there is just so much unemployment at 14 percent and an even bigger underemployment problem. One must remember that food is the single biggest component of the typical consumer basket.

On the supply side, poverty has a long history of national neglect not just by this administration. In the 2014 GAA, the Department of Agriculture (DA) had a budget of only P68 billion and lower than that received by the departments Education (P319 billion); Public Works and Highways (P300 billion); Social Welfare (P108 billion); and the Health (P106 billion).

A lack of policy emphasis on the food issue staring 100 million Filipinos every day is far worse than the hopeless case of traffic jams in urban areas around the country.

Some P57 billion of the P108-billion budget of the Social Welfare department was allotted for the Conditional Cash- Transfer (CCT) Program and difficult to criticize because it directly benefits the poor. But the program is only a stop-gap, incomplete Band-Aid remedy that will temporarily stop the bleeding. The recipient is required to send the kids to school and the mother to the local municipal clinic for a medical check up if they were to keep their status as CCT recipients.

But the schoolchildren still have to pay for transport and eat in campus. Lacking food for the day, kids would rather stay home with the hungry parents. Talk of official neglect.

From 2002 to 2009 the DA was given a budget of only P3 billion to P4 billion annually. By 2010 this increased to P39 billion. This further increased in 2011 (P44 billion); 2012 (P52 billion); 2013 (P64 billion); and 2014 (P68 billion). But if you look at the National Expenditures Program (NEP) under the proposed 2015 national budget currently under deliberation in Congress, the number dropped to P48 billion unless amendments are made.

Only a little more than half of the entire 3 million hectares needed for irrigation is in place. And, even then, if one scrutinizes the 2014 budget of the DA, only P6 billion of the P2.6 trillion GAA was allotted to build and rehabilitate large- and small-scale irrigation facilities, a miniscule P150-million for farm-to-market roads and P3 billion for the little-known agricultural equipment dispersal program.

How many of our local government units and legislators took pains to make these equipment available to rural areas, to upgrade agricultural produce? How many of them are seriously encouraging their constituents to avail themselves of the P4.8-billion budget the Fisheries and Aquatic Resource bureau  (BFAR) for education, training and research, as well as for coastal and inland aquaculture?

In the 2014 BFAR budget, there was a P1.8-billion allocation for the dispersal of fish seeds, seaweeds and fishing gear for free to interested folks. But was its ready availability advertised much less utilized by our government officials?

The truth is that the combined the DA and the Department of Agrarian Reform is of the costliest agencies to administer if one analyzes the GAA. In the 2009 national budget, for instance, the combined government resources used to support these two entities, plus the subsidies granted to agriculture-related government-owned and -controlled companies (GOCCs) and the aggregate debt guaranteed by the sovereign amounted to P209 billion.

For all that financial support and the succession of secretaries at the DA, we are still producing woefully expensive food. What gives, Mr. President?

The hunger issue is not a game (apologies to Katniss/Jennifer Lawrence) and its presence relates directly to the well- being of Filipinos and their desire to live long. Let’s get serious with it.


Bingo Dejaresco, a former banker, is a financial consultant, media practitioner and political strategist. His views are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Finex’s post him at


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