In the early evening of January 18, hundreds swarmed the lobby of Green Sun Hotel in Makati city to join United for Healthier Kids (U4HK) and Nestle Philippines as they kicked-off their campaign against the worsening state of malnutrition in the Philippines. Bringing together media practitioners, representatives from non-government organizations, university students, and advocates against child hunger, the forum was a collective effort meant to put into perspective the depressing reality of malnutrition and child hunger. Indeed, hunger and food were clear themes that ran through the course of the evening, which was formally initiated through dinner.
The attendees were escorted into the dining room, a wide, white space whose surrounding walls were covered with large, black and white images of children suffering from malnutrition. The menu consisted of three dishes that comprised the daily typical meals of a malnourished child: giniling na mais, saging na saba, and malabnaw na lugaw. The idea was to let the guests get a taste of what it was like to be undernourished for a day, to feel a sense of deprivation—after which they were instructed to turn to their phones and tweet the hashtag, #HangryAboutHunger.
The arrival of more guests was promptly followed by an invitation to a multisensory exhibit, which was set up in a foggy auditorium lit by spotlights of dark pink and blue. The guests were invited to pick up pairs of headphones in the listening podiums so they can listen to stories of malnourished children. One of the narratives began with: “Ako po si Dexter, walong taong gulang. Anim po kaming magkakapatid, pero tatlo lang ang nakakapag-aral… giniling na mais lang ang kinakain naming ng pamilya ko araw araw. Minsan pumapasok ako ng walang baon…”
Following the exhibit was a greeting by host Gretchen Ho, and the delivery of opening remarks by the chairman and CEO of Nestle Philippines, Jacques Reber. “We are here tonight to say stop to malnutrition. Enough is enough. We cannot ignore the million kids who are malnourished. When we arrived in the Philippines, my family, they were astonished with the situation in this country, they asked me, what are you going to do about malnutrition? We didn’t just go to the Philippines to sell Nescafe and Milo. We had to do something. Our mission, our vision, is not to just generate profit.”
Reber ended his speech by introducing the keynote speaker, Senator Grace Poe, who took to the stage, greeted the crowd, and began her piece by acknowledging the disturbing contrast between voluntary diets and the reality of starvation.
“Do you realize that if you’re among those, concerned kayo sa diet, kung concerned kayo sa pagpapapayat, kung ang problema niyo ay ang magpigil ng pag kain, you belong to the minority? While some of us may intentionally starve ourselves to get to our desired weight, millions of Filipinos are starving involuntarily,” says Sen. Poe. She asserts that food, literally, separates the haves from the have nots.
Perhaps equally shocked and believing, the crowd was silent upon hearing from the senator that according to a report by UNICEF in April 2013, the Philippines ranks as the 9th country with the highest incidence of stunting among children. The senator then vied for more investments in the health of the youth, which, as she strongly ascertained, is an action guaranteed to pay off in the long run. Ending her speech with an ostensibly indirect remark, Poe called for a shift of focus in government action:
“This [hunger] is a battle we must all wage against—vigorously and victoriously. Pwede bang extrajudicial feeding na lang? Gutom ang dapat patayin, at hindi ang nagugutom. ”
The final portion of the campaign was an open forum with the panellists Dr. Mario V. Capanzana, director of Food and Nutrition Research Institute; Dr. Adela Jamorabo-Ruiz, president of Nutritionist-Dietitians’ Association of the Philippines; Paolo Mercado, Nestle Philippines’ Director of Communication; and Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of Rappler. Answering questions from both the audience and social media, these experts shared their industry-specific perspectives on the issue at hand.
Capping off the night was a video message from Vice President Leni Robredo, who was both hopeful and resolute about the battles we ought to be fighting. “We believe that the first freedom that has to be won in our country is freedom from hunger.”