The recent pandemic may have given some people time to slow down and assess their lives, but for one community of like-minded volunteers, it has prompted them to spring into action to feed overwhelmed hospital workers at the front line of combatting COVID-19.
“When the ECQ was announced, we immediately went into our default donation drive mode,” relates Rosario Juan, one of the core group members of Frontline Feeders PH as she recalled how this feeding program began. One of her friends celebrating a birthday thought of serving pancit in a hospital. “This was on March 12 (which was also the day when President Duterte announced initial plans for the nationwide lockdown). On March 13, another friend of mine from Makati Medical Hospital broached the idea of feeding the frontliners.”
Not the usual donation drive
Juan’s initial notion was that there would be enough food in the hospitals for health care workers. But that apparently wasn’t the case, and she soon found herself coordinating the intricate movements of the different parties that make up Frontline Feeders PH today.
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This intrepid coffee entrepreneur behind Commune Café is no stranger to relief work, having used social media to help raise awareness for past disasters in the country. But COVID-19 has proven disruptive to supply systems and logistics, as she discovered in the early days of their operation.
“Initially, we went into default donation drive mode. Frontliners had no access to food supplies beyond 8 pm and there were no delivery systems in place,” recalls Juan as they suddenly had to serve 7 hospitals overnight. By the second week, they were serving 40 hospitals with dwindling funds and access to supplies also becoming more difficult.
Given these challenges, the 20 core group members reached out to industry connections and friends to help out. Binalot offered its delivery truck for food and supply runs, and pitched in affordable meals they could serve daily, while other restaurants that were opening up also helped out as the weeks rolled by.
“Building a team was not a conscious effort,” Juan admits, as she casually mentions that she had not even met some of their team members except through Zoom meetings, although they were familiar with each other. FB Messenger was suddenly transformed into a project messenger app as they coped with the daily transitions in their operations. “It was nice to see how it was a natural selection process, getting to meet and ‘see’ each other virtually.”
Juan commented in one of her Facebook posts: “It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t by design, but when people ask me who Frontline Feeders Philippines are, I tell them, a whole bunch of crazy women and a few good men. There are many things women were conditioned to be... mahinhin, non-aggressive, not very assertive, non-threatening. But there are so many more situations we are able to thrive in that not many people can stand. We excel in multi-tasking, we thrive in change (you know how they say women always change their minds? That’s why we adapt so easily), we like fixing what seems chaotic (system/non-system nga daw), we organize, we network, we connect. And we serve on a very personal level, in a very heartfelt manner. We have a hard time saying no (but we learn how). And maybe sometimes we don’t say no because we really, really mean yes. Yes we will help, yes we will dive into the mess and try to make sense of it. Because we can’t just watch idly as things go awry.”
This somewhat new normal situation included managing 10 chat groups without going crazy, she notes wryly. “If you are linear or very systems-oriented, you can’t cope with this. It is a very agile business that changes every few days. Agility is the most important trait and every day, everyone is on the same page and able to adapt every day. We have to remove complacency from our mindset as the only constant nowadays is change.”
Managing challenges while on lockdown
A few days into the lockdown, the group reached out to restaurants that were unloading food, but they also had to find out which ones had employees in place. “Logistics was difficult and we were sometimes running 6 to 7 kitchens at a time in Makati. There were also home cooks who wanted to help but could not buy too much ingredients,” she continues. “It was all about extending our budgets, planning what to do with raw materials, dealing with kitchen closures, and delivering goods to different kitchens.”
The group had to become more creative in coming up with dishes using donated ingredients, whatever they may be, for example: tons of fresh vegetables transported weekly by Pilipinas Shell Foundation from Benguet and Batangas; 20,000 takoyaki balls from Nishiki KEN Food Products; 3 truckloads of showmein noodles and fortune cookies from Panda Express; 15,000 eggs, 50,000 quail eggs and 5,000 balut eggs; frozen goods from Gerry’s and Chowking; Kopiko bottles; as well as daily deliveries of 60,000 assorted breads with various fillings from Century Pacific. Other companies that have also donated include CDO, Swift, Shakey’s, Le Minerale, Del Monte, NutriAsia, Solane, Marca Leon, the Jollibee Group, East West Seedling, and Entrepreneurs Organization.
Juan proudly calls herself a dispatsadora, as she coordinates the vegetable shipments and distributes them to kitchens in the north such as Gourmet Gypsy, community kitchens, and other organizations serving underserved communities, with eventual warehousing in Commune, which doubles as their commissary.
Food industry connections have also been an integral part of the operation, with the kitchens of Chef Ed Bugia of Mimi & Bros, Hola Bombon, ECHOstore coming together to support on different days of the week. It has also become a way to help restaurants whose businesses have been affected by ECQ. The partnership has proven to be mutually beneficial for everyone involved in more ways than one.
Almost two months into the ECQ and Frontline Feeders PH, Juan has already settled into a routine of checking chat groups, scheduling food and truck routes for pickups and deliveries, planning logistics for the roving kitchen, and checking pantry and warehouse supplies. After-work hours involves updating on donations before settling in for the next day.
Frontline Feeders PH is undoubtedly the longest running feeding operation to date, and shows no signs of slowing down, although Juan admits that there are plans to gently wean their hospital “babies,” as they shift focus to COVID referral centers. “We are in the process of calling our hospitals and kitchens, checking requirements of each hospital and the capacity of kitchens to provide meals.” This is critical as restaurants will also be slowly returning to operational status with the onset of the slightly more relaxed general community quarantine or GCQ. “We will connect them so they can liaise with each other directly. We will still accept donations, but resource allocation will prioritize COVID-referral centers.”
Kindness and caring come in many forms, as we have seen over these past few weeks. Juan has witnessed this in the many ways that people have reached out, from small cash donations and sharing posts, to increased awareness of their activities. “A lot of people want to help but don’t know how. Or they may want to only work with groups or people they know,” she remarks. “You can simply share how to help. People may think that they are not doing much, but more than the act of feeding is the boost to the morale of our frontliners.” Giving them that needed lift can make a world of difference for frontliners and the patients they care for.
Photos courtesy of Rosario Juan and Frontline Feeders PH