This brief presentation of initial findings from the research project about Emerging Agencies in Times of COVID-19 characterizes the agents and the networks behind various initiatives to respond to the challenges brought about by the pandemic. Its main objectives are to humanize these initiatives by identifying the immediate motivations of its agents and tracing their sectoral/institutional affiliations, and to examine the type of partnerships as well as the organizational structures and work procedures, which have been established in support of these initiatives. By doing so, we gain a better understanding of the needs that are addressed by these initiatives towards rethinking the ways through which crisis response and/or social welfare delivery is conducted by governments and aid agencies.
Veggies for Good
By Josephine Dionisio and Kidd Alonzo Juwan Palanca
Beyond Food Relief:
Providing Livelihood and Building an Alternative Food Marketing System
Food insecurity and hunger, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable sectors, were the immediate and widespread effect of the ill-planned government-imposed lockdown in the Philippines.
Non-state initiatives in response to this serious and prolonged lack of access to food—a most basic necessity—came in different forms. A quick review of these different initiatives highlights common characteristics, such as their innovativeness in mobilizing resources and social networks, their presumably unintended effect of organizing the marginalized and the dislocated into communities of service, and their use of ICT and social media platforms.
Veggies for Good is an example of a spontaneous response to food insecurity in times of COVID-19. It is a family-initiated spontaneous humanitarian response that has developed a system to bring the agricultural produce, including that of the Dumagat, an IP community, to quarantined residential households in gated communities by mobilizing impoverished women and displaced workingmen and by using social media platforms.
After a year, Veggies for Good has developed into a social enterprise whose day-to-day operations are handled by urban poor mothers. It provides an alternative livelihood for urban poor families who are adversely affected by the prolonged quarantine in many areas in Luzon and Metro Manila. It also connects vegetable farmers directly to consumer markets in Metro Manila.
Access to affordable and nutritious food supplies proved most needful as the pandemic and prolonged quarantine have cut off conventional food marketing systems.
“…nauubusan na ng mga pagkain sa mga lugar….hinaharang… ‘yung mga… food delivery…” Interview with Nanay Dorina Monsanto, May 4, 2021
“…food was running out in most places…they were blocking food deliveries [at checkpoints]…” Interview with Nanay Dorina Monsanto, May 4, 2021
It started as a food stall in a basketball court, where residents in a neighborhood in a city in Metro Manila could buy food essentials without having to go to the grocery store or traditional markets.
(Photo of Veggies for Good stall at neighborhood court, from Veggies for Good Facebook page)
To expand their reach and to make the initiative more sustainable, they ventured into the online selling of vegetables. This also gave jobs to delivery riders whose livelihood has been displaced by quarantine restrictions.
Eventually other food items—seafoods, fruits, rice—were added to their list of goods; the additions felt necessary after the business set up shop in different communities across the city, and consumers requested variety in the items sold. In condominiums, for example, residents preferred already cooked food, specifically grilled food items that otherwise could not be cooked in condominium units. To answer this demand, the enterprise decided to offer grilled seafood and meat.
(Sample photos of food items sold by Veggies for Good, from Veggies for Good Facebook page)
Improvements to the business model of Veggies for Good were thus the result of adaptation to the growing demands of its customers.
“Veggies for Good is a social enterprise that believes in fair prices for farmers, sustainable work for nanays and tatays, decent pay for riders, and fresh fruits and veggies delivered to you at affordable prices.” From Veggies for Good PH Facebook Page.
Scope of operations
Clearly, this initiative has become an alternative marketing system that has connected producers to consumers and has undercut the role of big traders in the distribution of food. By virtue of its accessibility and proximity to urban consumers, both online and in physical spaces, Veggies for Good is able to deliver on its promise of providing only the freshest produce to the market. It also provides a new opportunity and source of livelihood for urban poor mothers whose everyday lives have been upturned by the pandemic.
Emergence: Contingency of Solidarities
The Veggies for Good initiative was borne out of a chance encounter between peasant rights lawyer Aison Garcia and enterprising urban poor mother Dorina Monsanto. Aison was coordinating the program for the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines’ shuttle bus service for medical frontliners when he chanced upon Dorina walking along a highway while carrying a heavy load of goods. Seeing how Dorina struggled in the heat with the goods, Aison and his team decided to offer her a free ride, even as she was not a medical frontliner.
“Si Dorina, hindi siya frontliner, pero pinasakay namin siya kasi ang dami niyang bitbit. May kangkong, at saka mga firewood, d’yan sa may Santolan. So mainit masyado, and naawa kami. Sige, marami pa namang space, sakay ka na lang.” Interview with Aison Garcia, May 3, 2021
“Dorina’s not a frontliner, but seeing how she struggled with her goods on the highway we let her board the free shuttle service. She was carrying a bulk of vegetables and firewood, somewhere around Santolan. It was a really hot day, and we felt sorry for her. There’s still a lot of space; we can let you ride the bus.” Interview with Aison Garcia, May 3, 2021
(Photo from Aison and Ditsi’s presentation, May 3, 2021)
Aison asked Dorina where she was going and why she was carrying such a heavy gamut of items. Dorina told Aison about her life as a mother of five, including a still bottle-fed youngest child. Her husband lost job opportunities as a construction worker because of the lockdown. Dorina had to walk three hours each way everyday so that she could tend to a small plot near the Marikina River, where she harvests vegetables (including water spinach) that she would sell in nearby flea markets, gather firewood, and buy food with her meager income of the day: 100 pesos or roughly £ 1.48. Everyday she negotiates with authorities at checkpoints so that she may be allowed to pass through. She explains her situation to them, bringing up her youngest who still has to drink milk and who suffers from asthma.
She could not rely on the local government for ayuda or government aid because she was still unable to show proof that she is a registered voter from their barangay, or her proof of residence. Every time she approached barangay officials in Antipolo, she would be told to go to Marikina instead where they lived originally. Typhoon Haiyan forced them to relocate to Pagrai in Cogeo because their house in Marikina was swept away and destroyed by the rampaging flood waters.
Aison and his partner Ditsi Carolino found Dorina’s story very compelling. Aison posted Dorina’s story on FB and friends expressed their desire to help. After gathering donations, he and Ditsi visited Dorina at her residence in Cogeo, in the outskirts of the city. They visited their house, bringing food aid and a small amount of cash which they assumed would last them a month. There they met Dorina’s big extended family, who were all in need. Dorina said that she has to share whatever they have with relatives, so the food aid and cash as it turned out were good for only a week.
(Photo of Dorina’s family residence in Pagrai, Cogeo, Antipolo)
Aison realized that this is the reality which marginalized urban poor disaster victims have to contend with in this pandemic—they are jobless and hungry because of the lockdown. No aid from the government can reach them because they are considered non-residents in the place where they now live. They are among those who are excluded from the system of official government aid.
Aison maintained contact with Dorina after their fateful encounter. Dorina says that she is used to people offering help or aid who never really follow through on their promises whether these be private individuals or local politicians or government officials and government units. She was surprised when Aison and Ditsi came to their house bearing support. She was even more surprised when they offered her a job of repacking vegetables. At the beginning, she thought that it was only for three days. But eventually this became a steady livelihood not only for her but even for her close relatives.
Emergent agents and their backstories
Veggies for Good was initiated by a middle-class, professional couple. Even before this initiative, both have already been involved in social development work. Aison Garcia is a lawyer whose clients are marginalized communities, including indigenous communities such as the Dumagat group in Aurora, providing legal aid in their fight against land-grabbing, for instance. He has been lawyering for dispossessed and marginalized farmers even before his present work in the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines. His wife, Ditsi Carolino, is a renowned documentary filmmaker whose films tackle issues on social justice, including films on extrajudicial killings and about farmers fighting for their land.
Aside from Aison’s chance encounter with Nanay Dorina, Veggies For Good was also borne out of expressed needs of those who are already in Aison’s network of trust. Aison and Ditsi were approached by indigenous peoples (IPs) — the Dumagat in Rizal, with whom he has had previous dealings in line with his work as lawyer for poor farmers. They have vegetables produced in their small plots. They cannot sell them in the lowlands because the lockdown policy has closed all markets.
The couple Aison and Ditsi initiated Veggies for Good but its day-to-day operations are run by a team of urban poor mothers. Nanay Agnes Manuel is 37 years old. She works as a domestic helper for the couple Aison and Ditsi. Nanay Agnes’ family was adversely affected by the pandemic. Her husband, considered to be the main breadwinner in their household, is a daily wage worker whose number of working days were drastically cut in half due to the economic downturn. Agnes had to look for additional sources of income for their household.
Nanay Dorina Monsanto is 34 years old. Her family has established residence in Cogeo, a nearby municipality in the eastern border of Marikina City. Like most urban poor families in the Philippines, she has to work in order to contribute to the family income, as her husband’s income as a construction worker has proven insufficient. Mothers of these households have to ensure that their younger children would have milk, that their school-age children would have enough allowance for transportation. Dorina is an ambulant vegetable vendor, who used to live under a bridge, where they cultivate vegetable plots. She also collects recyclables which she could sell at recycling centers. To her, this was not a job per se, but mere resourcefulness on her part to make ends meet. She is used to hard work, but the pandemic made her hard work even harder because of limitations imposed on mobility. Due to the lack of public transportation, she had to walk great distances to get to communities where could sell the goods that she collected herself, such as vegetables or firewood.
Nanay Gloria Monsanto is 38 years old and a sister of Dorina. She used to work as a caregiver to a senior citizen, but her ward passed away during the pandemic so she had to look for another job, especially since her husband could no longer ply his jeepney route given the lockdown. She got into Veggies for Good, and her principal task at first was to repack goods for distribution. She also used to plant and sell vegetables, helping her sister Dorina.
(Photo of Veggies for Good workers in action at a village market, from Veggies for Good Facebook page)
From intrinsic to extrinsic motivation
As a documentary filmmaker, Ditsi felt that she could do a lot more than just watching the news about how the lockdown was adversely affecting the most vulnerable sectors. She asked herself, Why don’t I go out and try to look for a story?
For Aison, his initial response was to give aid (rice and canned goods) to those sectors who are beyond the reach of official government aid, like street dwellers. The homeless cannot claim government aid because they do not have a home address, but he knew that they needed help just as badly.
Even when Veggies for Good began to grow as a social enterprise, Ditsi says that it is not the profit margins that keep them motivated. What keeps them going is the knowledge that they are able to provide support and livelihood to urban poor families and to displaced workers and drivers. This gives them a feeling of fulfillment and becomes their psychic reward. Even when the ECQ was reinstated in March 2021 given the surge in COVID-19 infections, their team no longer feared that their families would go hungry or that they badly needed government aid. They felt they already knew how to survive in the face of a crisis.
From extrinsic to intrinsic motivation
For the urban poor mothers like Nanay Agnes, the motivation at the beginning was to alleviate their own hardship. Eventually, as they became more exposed to the hardship of others, they began to feel rewarded in the knowledge that they are also helping others like them.
“… hindi ko na po problema ‘yung sahod …. kasi alam ko pong mayroon pa akong naitatabi. […] Nakikita ko po …., na marami kaming natutulungan. Hindi lang po ‘yung mga nanay na nagtatrabaho sa amin. Minsan po, nag-dodonate po kami sa mga LGU.” Interview with Nanay Agnes, May 4, 2021
(“… I no longer worry about how much I earn … because I know I’ll always have some money to spare. I see that we get to help many people—not only the nanays who work with us. Sometimes we also donate to the LGU [local government units].” Interview with Nanay Agnes, May 4, 2021)
“Hangga’t ‘di ako bumabagsak, ‘wag kang babagsak. Ano ‘to, kumbaga, Para sa pantry ‘to. Ambag na nating tulong, kumbaga. ‘Yun din po ang iniisip ko: na ‘pag natapos namin ‘to, maraming tao ang makikinabang, maraming tao ang matutulungan. Kahit na puyat, pagod, okay lang. Normal naman po ‘yun sa isang trabaho.” Interview with Nanay Dorina, 4 May 2021
(“As long as I haven’t given up yet, you better not give up either. This is for the pantries. This is our own contribution. That’s what I always think about: when we do our work, many other people will benefit, we can help so many others. Even if we’re sleepless, tired, it’s fine. It comes with any job anyway.” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021)
Their motivation also comes from their self-confidence. The skills they have—selling vegetables—match the requirements of the enterprise. Nanay Dorina is proud of her diskarte, or the ability to troubleshoot using streetsmarts, persistence, creativity, and innovativeness.
“…. Ako po ‘yung madiskarte, kaysa sa asawa ko. Ako po ‘yung kumuha ng… quarantine pass. Ako lang po ‘yung nakakalabas. …. walang sasakyan… nilalakad ko po siya. Siguro mga isang buwan na po mahigit ko nilalakad ‘yun…. Madaling araw, alas-kwatro y media nagsisimula na ako maglakad. Tapos darating ako nang mga 8 or 7 sa Santolan. Mamimitas po ako ng kangkong…” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021
(“… I’m more resourceful than my husband. I took initiative and claimed my own quarantine pass. I was the only one going out… There were no cars, so I walked the whole distance [to sell my goods]. I was walking every day for one month… I would start walking really early in the morning. Then I get to Santolan at about 8 or 7AM. I harvest water spinach from a plot of land nearby.” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021)
Motivation also comes from a strong sense of duty to provide for her family. Despite the hardships that she has to endure, she keeps on and does not quit because she knows that her family depends on her.
“… ‘yung time na gusto ko na sumuko pero hindi puwede kasi umaasa sa’kin ‘yung mga anak ko. Marami ring umaasa sa akin…” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021
(“… there was a time I wanted to give up, but I couldn’t, because my children depend on me. So many of my relatives depend on me…” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021)
She would find strength from her family and through her faith in God.
“‘Pag naisip ko sila, kailangan matibay loob ko. Hanggang sa, sabi ko Lord, ‘yung parang nagdadasal na ‘ko, sana po mas makayanan ko pa ‘to, kasi mukhang magtatagal pa po, gano’n.” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021
(“When I think of them, I have to maintain a strong resolve. I prayed to the Lord that I would be able to withstand this, because it seems this would last quite awhile.” Interview with Nanay Dorina, May 4, 2021)
They also feel motivated by expressions of gratitude from their clientele.
“Pero para sa akin, gusto kong ituloy, kasi siyempre, mas masarap ‘yung marami kang natutulungan na mga tao… Nandoon din ‘yung mga may nagsasabi sa aming tao na, Napakalaking pasalamat namin kasi nandiya-diyan kayo. Hindi n’yo kami iniiwanan.” Interview with Nanay Gloria, May 4, 2021
(“But for me, I want it to continue, because of course, it feels good to be helping other people… A lot of people, our customers, also tell us, Thank you so much for staying. You haven’t left us yet.” Interview with Nanay Gloria, May 4, 2021)
Stories of Solidarity and Collaboration
Bonding, Bridging, Linkaging: Social Networks as Social Capital
In his conversations with Dorina and with the Dumagats, Aison understood their specific and urgent needs during the lockdown. Aison decided to do something about their situation and devised a plan—buy the produce from the Dumagats, transport it to the lowlands using the OVP vehicle so that it could easily pass through checkpoints. They talked to the Homeowners Association of the village so that they could use the covered court which has been left idle and unused because of the lockdown’s prohibition of any type of public sports activity. The officers approved the request and Aison was able to set up a mini flea market for selling the IP’s vegetable produce. They were not able to sell everything because of the sheer volume of the produce.
Ditsi shared what was going on with her former classmate. She said that although she’s used to seeing the poverty of the urban poor, it was the first time that she saw how helpless they are because they are almost completely unable to make any kind of livelihood in quarantine. Before, they could at least pick through garbage dump sites or through trash bins of rich neighborhoods to look for items that could be sold to junk shops or recycling centers. But under the lockdown, they could not do even this. They were disallowed to go out of their poor villages or disallowed to enter other villages.
Eventually they named their enterprise Veggies for Good. At the beginning, sales in the covered court as a physical store were not as brisk as they needed them to be—until they established an online presence and sales improved.
For reliable sources of fresh produce, the founders of Veggies for Good have sought out and maintained partnerships with farmer groups outside of Manila, most notable of whom are the Dumagat from the mountains of the Sierra Madre. In recent years, the Dumagat have been displaced from their ancestral lands by big infrastructure projects such as the Kaliwa Dam. Non-governmental organizations in the development sector work closely with them in their campaign for self-determination and sustainable livelihood. In fact, it was these organizations that first approached Aison to help them find a market for the produce of the Dumagat, which are mostly root crops sold to them in bulk. Aison agreed to help and drove tons of vegetables from the mountains to sell in the city. To help sort and sell these, Aison contacted Dorina and a few of her relatives.
Veggies for Good also has contact with farmer groups from nearby provinces such as Nueva Ecija for lowland crops, and from the Cordillera mountains for highland crops. The suppliers are expected to provide only the freshest produce.
Aison knew the NGO workers who were helping the Dumagat with their struggle for land and against the government’s dam project that would evict them from their ancestral lands. Several organizations with different but converging interests worked together—an NGO for farmers, a charitable organization, and a mountaineering group.
(Photo of Veggies for Good stall at a village market)
Partnership arrangements and emerging organizational structure
Veggies for Good has maintained partnerships with many of the suppliers it had begun and grown with. As an enterprise, it is committed to supporting farmers by paying them fair prices for their harvest—even and especially when the farmers themselves, faced with crises such as natural calamities, are forced to raise selling prices. Towards the end of 2020, Typhoon Ulysses ravaged many farmlands across Luzon, destroying crops and unsettling supply chains. Keeping true to their principle of supporting the farmers and the nanays, Veggies for Good kept close contact with the farmers and nanays. They were ready to purchase the crops and products of the Dumagat as soon as they recovered.
From time to time, the enterprise would come to face problems regarding the quality of products they would receive from some farmer groups. Since Veggies for Good must sustain itself as an enterprise and keep the trust of its clientele in their products and services, they had to impose stricter quality controls for their suppliers, even those groups that needed their help the most. They stopped buying from those who were not making an active effort to check for the freshness or quality of their goods before selling them.
The priority was to ensure livelihood for the mothers. If the produce they were selling online were not good enough for the customers, they would lose sales and eventually it would be the mothers who would lose out. So in a way they were setting an example, especially for the producers and suppliers, that doing good business is a form of doing good to others.
Eventually, their network of suppliers expanded. From the eastern part of Luzon (Rizal and the Sierra Madre mountains, where the Dumagats were), they also linked up with suppliers from Central Luzon (Nueva Ecija). Their products included not only root crops and vegetables but also rice and fruits. Eventually they were also buying upland vegetables from Baguio in the Northern part of the island of Luzon. They also included fresh seafood into their list of products.
Mothers’ work at Veggies for Good also grew from simply repacking vegetables; they also ventured into buying the goods themselves, which entailed choosing best value, or the best quality for lowest price. Work at their hub had to involve their entire households—husbands and teenage sons and daughters to help out and to also earn for themselves.
At the beginning there were also committed buyers who were choosing to buy from them as a form of support for the cause rather than simply satisfying their own need.
As demand for its goods and services grew over time, Veggies for Good had to learn to adapt. In the early months Ditsi and Aison did most of the management work, from contacting suppliers to taking and gathering orders. Changes to the organizational structure and the flow of its weekly operations came about naturally, or more properly out of necessity, especially in areas of work such as branding and social media marketing. Assistance would come from neighbors and other volunteers and interns who helped with cashiering, graphic design, and improving the overall system of operations. But its organizational structure remains essentially the same since its early days. Ditsi says they hire only those workers who are truly needed to keep the enterprise running.
Ditsi and Aison continue to head and direct operations. They make the major decisions for the business and also control finances. Nanay Agnes manages the nanays and other workers in doing the manual work of sorting, selling, and delivering goods. Both founders work closely with the nanays and riders in the weekly flow of operations.
Nonetheless, Nanay Gloria is acutely aware that there remains a distinct difference between the work that she does sorting and selling goods, and the work that the founders and other workers do in areas of cashiering, system improvement, and graphic design. More precisely, Nanay Gloria makes a distinction between the manual, physical work she executes with the other vendors and riders, and the mental labor that the founders and other workers and volunteers do. This demonstrates Gloria’s own understanding of the organizational structure. For her this basic distinction of labor in the organization, with everyone working according to their abilities, seems to be most effective and productive.
“Hindi na naman iniistorbo dapat sina Ma’am eh. Kasi pagod na ‘yung utak nila eh. Kami, pagod kami sa katawan; sila, pagod sa utak…” Interview with Nanay Gloria, May 4, 2021
“We don’t bother Ma’am [Ditsi and Sir Aison] when they’re working. Because their minds are tired. If it’s our bodies that are tired, then it’s brains that are tired.” May 4, 2021
Founder Ditsi maintains that Veggies for Good remains a flat organization. It is a group of people helping each other out. There are workers and volunteers for cashiering, for system improvement and for graphic design—with some being compensated in the form of goods. The founders have registered Veggies for Good as a private business, but they do not draw income or salaries for their services to the enterprise. Instead, their profits are reinvested into developing the business, such as when they buy a more reliable vehicle for deliveries. Profits are also kept as savings for the enterprise in preparation for whatever problems they may encounter in the future.
Ditsi and Aison intend to pull out gradually from Veggies for Good, and leave the responsibility of running the business to a more capable team of mothers and professionals. Such fullness of belief and trust in the workers as capable agents—and in all their suppliers, partners, and clientele—may prove to be foundational to their project of sustaining the enterprise far into the future.
Initiatives similar to Veggies for Good (list based on online sources – excluding Community Pantries)
- Komunal Market: https://www.facebook.com/komunal.market/ & https://komunalmarket.com/
- Komunal Market is an initiative to bring small food producers such as farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen closer to the table. They, who produce the most basic necessities with their bare hands, are neglected of direct access to the market and are, most of the time, exploited of their fair share and their hard labor.
- Komunal is a community that will strive to, at the very least, provide everyone with fair shares. From the direct producers working with farm tools and relying on rainwater for their crops. The fishermen working under extreme weather conditions to provide wild-caught seafood. And the local craftsmen working with pure authenticity.
- Farmer-Community Assistance Program
- The Farmer-Community Assistance Program (FCAP) is a social enterprise launched by a group of students from UP Diliman during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. The organization aims to supplement the livelihood of rice farmers in Libmanan, Camarines Sur. (https://www.facebook.com/FCAP.ph/)
- Oh My Gulay (https://www.facebook.com/OMGFarmToTable/)
- City Bagger (https://www.facebook.com/citybagger)