National priority programs on poverty reduction and social protection
The urgent need to end stunting and involuntary hunger is finally getting the long-awaited national attention with the projects and initiatives from the public and the private sectors. Successive political administrations have tried to reduce the severity of malnutrition and child stunting in the Philippines, but the needle hardly moved and even worsened.
Addressing malnutrition and child stunting requires a whole-of-nation approach and that means interventions must not only tackle the palliatives – i.e. feeding programs – but should also consider the other factors that exacerbate the problem, such as food security, sanitation and hygiene, water, among others.
The key anti-hunger project of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) seeks to combat stunting and involuntary hunger among the food-poor families through its Food Stamp Program (FSP). This was highlighted in the presentation of Sec. Rex Gatchalian during the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) general membership meeting last Aug. 10 in Shangri-La The Fort.
FSP aims to deal with the lack of access to nutritious, delicious and affordable meals, food insecurity, over-production of agricultural products and bad eating habits of the Filipino people.
Sec. Gatchalian took the opportunity to seek the help of MAP in amplifying the needed behavioral change mechanism among the intended beneficiaries of FSP. The selected beneficiaries of this program are the “food-poor”, defined by the Philippine Statistics Authority as those at the bottom of the food strata or to put it simply, the families of five who do not make beyond P8,000 and therefore cannot actively participate in the workforce due to lack of nutritional inputs, with little hope to even improve their situation.
Aside from ending involuntary hunger among poor families, FSP also targets pregnant and lactating women who are in the poorer segment by providing them with right nutrition-specific intervention at the first 1,000 days.
Beneficiaries of this program are chosen through DSWD’s Listahanan that picked the lowest 1 million plus identified recipients. The pregnant and lactating women database of the country is not updated so the DSWD will work with the local government units (LGUs) to identify them through self-registration.
The DSWD aims to deviate from the standard voucher-based food programs by making FSP digital. Through its Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, a load of P3,000 worth of food credits can be used by the program beneficiaries to pay for food included in the nutrition basket. The EBT card becomes the currency to prevent its use for items that do not serve to alleviate hunger.
The EBT card can be used at accredited retailers (e.g., groceries and Kadiwa ng Pangulo, etc) and can be easily swiped on a point-of-sale terminal already configured and tested by the World Food Programme. The beneficiaries get to choose products from a desired menu based on the food basket developed by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute comprising 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 20 percent dietary fiber.
The private sector and development partners can provide invaluable support to the Digital Food Stamp Program by using their expertise on communication to effect positive social behavior change, promoting awareness and undertaking education so people will be taught how to eat right and monitor the change in their eating habits.
The program is also envisioned to protect the most vulnerable when inevitable circumstances strike, such as inflation and natural disasters that can result in them having no food to eat.
Sec. Gatchalian also pointed out the overproduction of agricultural products being consigned to waste on one hand, while many families are languishing in hunger on the other. The department plans to eradicate this concern by focusing on the farm-to-table concept where these overproduced goods will be consumed by families who are food-poor while simultaneously helping our poor farmers.
DSWD reformats its social welfare program by flipping the ‘dole out’ stereotype that persisted over the years. As Sec. Gatchalian emphasized, they want to make sure that every program that they have is targeted, conditional, measurable, uses a whole-of-society or whole-of-nation approach and digital.
Interventions will be given to those who need them the most and he urged the private sector to help and be a part of nation-building. This battle has to be fought hand-in-hand, even through small wins in the long game of poverty and hunger.
The program, which is fully-funded by a $3-million grant from Asian Development Bank, the French Development Agency and JICA, will run its pilot starting Oct. 2023. After six months, decisions will be made if the program should be scaled up until the baseline of 300,000 families can be augmented to reach its 1-million mark. The DSWD counts on the help of MAP in gauging the effectiveness of the program through the pilot.
FSP is an investment in human capital. Private sector companies are growing the economy but if our workforce is hungry and lacks the necessary energy, there may be impediments in generating more jobs for more productive people. The best way to maximize this investment is through education, nutrition and health care.
The program has a lifespan of four years with a planned program exit for the beneficiaries. They will be asked to participate in upskilling programs of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority or go to their nearest public employment office and look for a job so they can participate in the workforce and be part of nation-building.
Lastly, education plays a vital role in creating behavioral change in the program’s beneficiaries. MAP will conduct a macro intervention by utilizing various platforms, especially social media like TikTok, to disseminate information about malnutrition and child stunting.
We all aspire to join the ranks of developed economies but this will not happen while millions of Filipino families still go home, sleep and wake up hungry.
There is nothing simple about reversing the trend of this social ill and this will be a long battle but we need to all work together to make sure we win this hunger war.
As Sec. Gatchalian said, we have to end human suffering by ending hunger right now.