Food: Emotional, Political, and Powerful

Nonfiction by | April 14, 2019

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in

In 2006, my mother decided to open a small carinderia (local eatery) outside our home. It was a typical carinderia: of tight spaces; overwhelming nook and crannies; aromatic and powerful smoke from burning charcoal and wood; buzzing of customers eager to have their orders taken; and an orchestra of scents and sounds. Not only did Mama offer affordable meals but she contributed to the dietary diversity of over 100 households in our community. She whipped up amazing and tasty meals which she became famous for such as law-uy, a soothing vegetable soup with lemongrass and bits and pieces of fried fish and monggos, a filling mung bean soup with green, leafy vegetables.

My mother has always been a brave single parent in my eyes – resilient amidst poverty and strong in the face of a vicious cycle of pain. But my mother as an important actor in the food systems never came up. I have been a part of numerous global fora and have sunk my teeth on many advocacies, but it was in a recent forum which opened my heart and brain to many narratives within food systems.

I participated in the EAT Asia-Pacific Food Forum, a gathering of more than 500 food systems stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region. The forum aimed at unpacking the challenges facing the Asia-Pacific food system as part of the overarching goal to transform the world’s food system. The forum was held in Jakarta thru the leadership of the EAT Foundation and the Indonesian Ministry of Health. It was an honor to be part of the forum representing the Philippine Coalition of Advocates for Nutrition Security or PhilCAN. The EAT Asia Pacific Forum served as a platform to discuss global food concerns, overwhelming as these may be, the format was personal, encouraging, and inspiring. Within two days, I tried to learn as much as I can, jotting down notes, taking images of the poignant slides, and personally linking the insights with my own reflection and experiences. I am sharing some of the connections here.

“linking global problems to local solutions”

While global problems are of course universal such as the need to ensure that food can be sustainably available, affordable, and nutritious within the limits of the planet, on the other hand, options, choices, decisions, and solutions are local. In 2016, as advocacy coordinator of a humanitarian NGO, I led a crucial meeting with tribal leaders on a project which involved internally displaced persons from their tribe. I have taken part in global initiatives to help address protracted displacement complemented by comprehensive reports and robust recommendations but a visit to the evacuation center confirmed how solutions are local. It was the first evacuation center populated not only by temporary shelter but community gardens and kitchens with a daily supply of green, leafy vegetables and bright orange squash. The community garden and kitchen was a conscious and purposive decision of the tribal leaders. Indeed, as stated in the EAT forum, knowledge is global but the use of knowledge is always local.

“food as cure not challenge”

With the rise on noncommunicable diseases, food can be lambasted as a burden conveying the wrong message to households and children. The EAT Forum echoes the slogan “food can fix it.” Indeed, food can be a cure, not a challenge. As a cure, global leaders from all sectors must be able to shape policies, programs, messages, and products which enable households to choose food as a cure. In 2006, my first job was with a local NGO led by an executive director who practiced what he preached: he was part of a consumers’ group which campaigned for healthy choices, hence, softdrinks were prohibited in our office and muscovado sugar was available for coffee breaks. This example continues to have a profound impact upon me. Decision-makers and influencers, at all tiers (e.g. global, national, local, village, household) have a huge role in conveying that food can be a cure and not a challenge.

“food is not only a human need but it can be a political issue”

The Asian region has twice as many people displaced by natural disasters compared to other regions. Most of these natural disasters are connected to climate change and holds political implications. Dr. Jason Clay of WWF noted, “How much does it cost to fix a problem before it happens versus trying to fix it after it happens?” In 2016, North Cotabato Province in the Philippines was affected by El Niño which resulted to over 10,000 affected farmers. For three days, thousands of farmers formed a blockade demanding for the release of 15,000 sacks of rice. The demonstration resulted to three deaths on the side of the protesters and over 116 injured farmers and police officers. Farmer leaders who did join the blockade have mentioned that they were not prepared and capacitated to respond to El Niño. In many communities in southern Philippines with pockets of radicalization, these are the same areas noted for poverty and hunger. Preparedness within food system is crucial and lifesaving.

“the rise of silo-breakers”

In ways more than one, EAT Forum emphasized the importance of collaboration. That food and nutrition security advocates become silo-breakers is a vital message. In the face of a burgeoning population and a looming food insecurity, we need to learn, educate, advocate, campaign, act, and solve collaboratively. One thing I learned from the forum as a Country Learning Adviser on disasters and emergencies preparedness, is the importance of engaging food systems practitioners in my work. This is considering that a bulk of humanitarian concerns are related to food and nutrition insecurity. In more than three occasions, I have heard internally displaced persons complain about the quality of food packs laden with high sodium canned goods. It is also important to look into food systems within evacuation centers. Indeed, silo-breaking requires willingness and commitment to collaborate with sectors outside our own, moving beyond our comfort zones, stimulating trust thru building evidence and co-celebrating results.

“Every time we eat and drink, we vote for the world we want.”

These were the words from Emmanuelle Wargon, Vice President, Global Corporate Affairs and Sustainability. I am an advocate of humanitarian issues in the Philippines. After attending the EAT forum, I made a conscious decision towards nutritional self-care and influencing my household and the communities to “vote for the world we want” in our eating and drinking choices. True enough, food is not only personal, it is political. Food is not a challenge but it is a cure.

My take: Food is emotional and powerful

Food is emotional. For me, one of the most unforgettable scenes in an animated film is from Ratatouille. That when the acerbic food critic breaks down in tears as memories of his mother came flooding in when he ate a piece of the dish is raw and honest.

As a daughter and a mother, I believe many of my food choices have been emotional. Some of these choices are setting up my son for noncommunicable diseases in the future. Some of my food decisions for myself may cause me not growing old healthy and strong to see my grandchildren.
As an advocate, I now believe that food can fix it. The right food can fix it. Whilst food is about emotions, I choose the wiser emotions, not temporary fixes — I choose health and longevity.

And as a part of civil society and the human race, I choose sustainability. Indeed, there is so much to do for food and nutrition security – within our homes, households, communities, workplaces, countries, and the world.

Food is powerful. It nourishes us. Nurtures our families. Strengthens us as we build beautiful memories. May we do our part to make it our lifelong advocacy to build a resilient food system and sustainable diets, no matter where we are, who we are, no matter the depth of our spheres of influence and the breadth of our power – for our children and our children’s children. For my son, Kaleb.

Dyan Aimee Mabunga-Rodriguez has a degree in Communication Arts and a master’s degree in Public Management. She was awarded as Most Outstanding Alumnus by the University of the Philippines Mindanao in 2014. She is presently the Country Manager for the Plastic Bank in the Philippines.

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