Alex Paluyot and Precious Liano were still feeding families displaced by Super Typhoon Noro in late September. When news came out that another powerful storm, Nalghi, was on a collision course for the Philippines.
The husband and wife founders of Art Relief Mobile Kitchen, a volunteer group that provides hot meals in the aftermath of disasters, quickly figured out the impending disaster, examining maps and satellite images to predict its devastating trajectory.
Over the next three days, starting on October 26, Nalgi struck Luzon, the country’s largest island group, causing landslides and severe flooding that left 150 dead, dozens missing, and nearly 4 million people homeless.
In the aftermath, Art Relief Mobile Kitchen volunteers gathered pots and pans, locally sourced meats and vegetables to cook stacking servings of pork stew, steamed rice and other regional favorites for the thousands of weary victims.
said Baluyot, 66, whose group has set itself apart by serving hot, fully prepared popular dishes rather than handing out canned foods and dried cereal.
This is no small detail in a country that has suffered as many natural disasters as the Philippines. The nation of 110 million people sits along a conveyor belt of raging ocean storms and lies precariously atop the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a violent pathway of seismic activity responsible for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
An average of 20 tropical cyclones annually enter a large swath of the Pacific Northwest that includes the Philippines. Five of the world’s 11 strongest tropical cyclones in history made landfall in the country.
in a country where A quarter of the population lives below the poverty lineThe government has long struggled to provide adequate emergency relief. Great reliance was placed on the army and police, as well as large non-profit humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross. Over the past decade, proactive preparedness in the form of early warning systems and preventative evacuations has increasingly come to the fore. But the country’s entrenched patronage policies made this transition difficult.
Natural disasters provide legislators with opportunities to burnish their image and to take bribes. It is not uncommon for politicians’ portraits to be plastered on evacuation centers and relief items. Several government leaders have been accused of stealing relief funds. Even the country’s mobile disaster warning system has been criticized this year for Turn on mobile alerts To promote the candidacy of incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Paluyot and Liano wanted to increase the credibility of the disaster response. The idea of the mobile kitchen arose in 2013, not because of a natural disaster but because of an armed conflict. Fighting broke out in the southern city of Zamboanga between the army and separatists affiliated with the Moro National Liberation Front.
Thousands have been displaced, and the Paliots, a photojournalist regularly exposed to the tragedies of war and disaster, are deeply affected by their plight. As a native of Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines, he was concerned about what they were eating and vowed to help feed people the next time disaster struck.
Weeks later, one of the strongest typhoons on record made landfall in the Philippines. What later became known as the Great Typhoon Haiyan flattened large swaths of the archipelagic country, killing 6,000 people and displacing 4.1 million.
“We have to do it now,” Paluyot recalls telling Liano.
The couple only had about $90 at the time. They collected it with donations to buy rice and made lugu, porridge that served as cheap comfort food.
The two set up their mobile kitchen with a handful of volunteers under a lamppost inside A military air base in Manila serves as a staging area for the survivors. All was well until the first person walked over to Leano with squinted eyes and said, “Lugaw again?”
This encounter changed the couple’s process forever.
“I felt so stupid,” said Liano, 56, a stage actress. “Why didn’t I think of that? Here are the people who have been eating porridge since their houses were destroyed by the storm, and here we are serving them a bowl of porridge again.”
The couple asked philanthropists, church groups and farmers to help provide fresh meat and vegetables — anything but lugo, tinned sardines, tinned meatloaf or dried pasta handed out by government employees. They also put out a call for volunteers, recruiting activists and artists alike, which is how they came up with the group’s name.
Their goal, Liano said, was to ensure people had a plate of warm food such as turmeric rice or binagongan papoi (pork in shrimp paste) to comfort them in times of trouble.
The Badlan family has not eaten a proper meal for nearly a month after their village in the Dinagat Islands province in the central Philippines was badly damaged by Typhoon Ray last December.
When Art Relief Mobile Kitchen arrived in a white truck containing a pot of freshly cooked pork, a tamarind-flavored soup, the response was decidedly tepid until Benji Badlan, 13, came home with a jug. He left his family in disbelief.
“Is that really sinigang?” said Annabelle Badlan, the 32-year-old mother of the family, with tears welling in her eyes.
“We have meat for dinner,” the other children exclaimed.
Paluyot and Liano said it is not feasible to deliver dried food such as rice or beans to families in the early stages of a disaster because homes or kitchens are usually in a state of disarray. They felt that any reminder of their inability to cook only added to their feelings of helplessness.
The couple’s empathy and sensitivity also extends to the dishes they choose to cook.
In the Muslim-majority city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the group enlisted the help of local chefs and prepared halal food for people whose homes were destroyed by fighting between the army and Islamic State militants.
In the northern city of Cavite, volunteers cooked for local folk Baboy Binagwungang for evacuees from a massive residential fire. In Santa Clara, a city in southern Luzon, pork was omitted from meals because many of the people evacuating from a fire there were Seventh-day Adventists.
Volunteers try to buy ingredients from local farmers and vendors to stimulate the economy. They also ask local chefs to help.
The proximity of some of the country’s most devastating events is not without danger. Beloyot barely escaped a bomb blast in Marawi. The volunteers had the misfortune to watch people buried by landslides.
The impact of the COVID pandemic on group donations. But in 2021, news of Baluyut and Leano’s work to help victims of Hurricane Ray arrives at World Central Kitchen, the disaster relief program run by celebrity chef Jose Andrés. Andres’ program has agreed to partner with Art Relief Mobile Kitchen to feed the victims.
Baluyut and Leano’s group has since expanded to include chapters in Tacloban, Davao, Surigao del Sur, Iligan, Zamboanga and the couple’s base in Los Baños, about 30 miles south of Manila. They estimate that they have served several hundred thousand meals.
“There are ARMK kitchens all over the country that can respond to disasters,” said Leano, whose ultimate goal is to inspire the government to set up community kitchens in every village state, known as barangays, so that her organization becomes redundant.
“Community kitchens are a natural for us,” Paluyot said. “Every barangay had specialty chefs who were called upon during auspicious occasions like holidays and weddings. It’s just a matter of harnessing this cultural tradition.”