Alex Baluyut is not one to shy away from the desolate reality of Filipinos. As a former photojournalist, he’s used to seeing the aftermath of disasters up close. But when news of the Zamboanga Siege in September 2013 broke out, Baluyut watched as thousands of displaced families sought refuge in a cramped stadium and pondered: “Why don’t we have an organization that can actually give these people hot meals?”
“When Alex told me the concept, I wasn’t really paying attention to it. It [was just] an idea, right?” chimes in Precious Leaño-Baluyut, his wife. But two months later, when Super Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines, the couple was compelled to act. Baluyut called for assistance from his friends; he needed volunteers for the kitchen, a vehicle for transportation, kitchen equipment, and various cooking ingredients.
In a van ride to the air base, surrounded by fellow artists who volunteered to help, Baluyut and Leaño founded the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK). It was built around the concept of “[a] mobile kitchen [that] you could bring to ground zero and feed people who are hungry [and] caught up in manmade or natural disasters,” Baluyut explains. Since then, ARMK has built a network of community kitchens with volunteers eager to cook and care for communities, “We rarely miss a major calamity [or] disaster,” Baluyut attests.
For the couple, cooking for a thousand calamity victims came naturally. “We were happy to feed people here in [our] house,” Leaño shares. “Somehow, we ended up feeding so many more people.”
When it comes to mobile kitchens, food such as various kinds of soups or plain lugaw (rice porridge) are often served as they are satisfying and feed many. Although filling, repeated servings of lugaw can prove to be too much, as the couple recalls being told. This comment catalyzed the change Leaño and Baluyut would implement in the organization. ”Within a few days, we weren’t a soup kitchen anymore—we became whole meal providers,” Baluyut retells in Filipino. What now sets ARMK apart from other mobile kitchens is that they serve: whole, home-cooked meals that satisfy the hungry.
For victims of disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, many are left with nothing to their names. Providing comfort with their warm meals, the organization makes it a point to value the palates and culinary customs of every region they provide relief kitchens to. “Culturally, we make sure na alam namin ‘yung kagustuhan nung probinsiya, o kung ano ‘yung pinakamalapit sa kanilang puso na pagluluto,” says Baluyut. The organization also invites cooks from the community to spearhead the preparation of meals native to the area, truly embodying a kitchen that belongs to the people. And, as the saying goes, there is no taste like home.
(Culturally, we make sure that we know the likes of the province, or whatever food is nearest to their hearts.)
But the work of ARMK continuously thrives upon one fact: everyone loves to cook together. “People are chopping, nagkwekwentuhan, nagma-Marites sila. Malakas ‘yung bonding,” Baluyut expresses. The labor of love for feeding people is what holds up the organization, and it hardly goes unnoticed by its benefactors. “Nabubuhayan sila ng loob,” he expresses.
(They’re sharing stories and gossip. They’re forming a strong bond. It lifts their spirits.)
“Every mission is different,” says Leaño as she reflects on all her memorable experiences as a cook for ARMK. Every disaster the organization attends to presupposes a different kind of experience, making disaster relief operations unpredictable. Baluyut furthers, “Kapag nasa area ka, maraming pwedeng mangyari. Even if we have 101 protocols, mayroon pa ring [puwedeng mangyaring] hindi mo inaasahan.”
(While you’re in the area, there are a lot of possibilities that might happen. There will always be something unexpected.)
Among all their life-changing experiences, Baluyut relives an occasion in Kidapawan after an earthquake struck the place; the entire local community volunteered to help their organization during their mission. He believes that this trait is embedded in our culture, which manifests evidently through our Filipino values, “Doon mo makikita ‘yung bayanihan talaga.”
(That’s when you really see bayanihan.)
For Leaño, she proudly relays that one of the disaster victims of Typhoon Yolanda, who had been a high school student at the time, is now one of their hardworking volunteers. She shares, “[Now] he’s a fireman, and he’s studying to be a lawyer.”
But above all these, it’s the evident happiness and gratitude on people’s faces that make all of their efforts worth it, “Those moments when you see a really beautiful smile from an evacuee who hasn’t tasted good food in a long time. ‘Yung pag-thank you niya sa’yo parang sobrang ramdam na ramdam mo ‘yung ngiti niya. Iba ‘yun eh,” Leaño vividly recalls. Baluyut echoes the sentiment, recollecting his own touching experience during the last day of a mission in Tuguegarao, “Lumapit ‘yung isang elder sa akin [at] hinawakan ako sa braso. Sabi niya, ‘Ang dami mong nasagip na buhay’.”
(The way they say their thank yous, it’s as if you can really feel their smiles. It’s different. One of the elders approached me and held my arm. They said, ‘You saved the lives of many’.)
Food for thought
Despite the impact they’ve made, non-government organizations and individuals that have established relief kitchens and community pantries have been labeled as band-aid solutions regarding the prominent hunger crises in the Philippines. As co-owners of such, Baluyut and Leaño point out, “I think I’d rather have a band-aid than not have a band-aid at the time that [I] need it most.” Although they acknowledge their organization’s limits, Baluyut and Leaño believe their movement to be the opposite of a band-aid solution. They posit, “This is [now] long-term because we’ve already established community kitchens in disaster-prone areas around the country.”
Now operating for over nine years, ARMK hopes to influence more people and create more community kitchens to keep the initiative alive. “The ideal is that we do not exist anymore because community kitchens [will] come up to take our place,” Leaño points.
While the Philippines is no stranger to occurrences that bring about darkness, disaster, and hunger to the country, home and hope is never lost for its affected communities. Following ARMK’s creed of feeding the hungry in times of distress, the organization not only fills the communities’ stomachs, but gives them a sense of comfort with every bite—asking nothing in return but joyous smiles.