PHILIPPINES – Faced with the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, public elementary schools implementing the Integrated School Nutrition Model (ISNM) stepped up to partner with local governments in providing hard up communities with nutritious food. Government-imposed lockdowns have taken a toll on many families and experts are despondent the pandemic will affect food security and aggravate malnutrition especially among the urban poor. The crisis underscored the importance of home gardening as a strategy for families to secure nutritious food during and after quarantine. Thankfully, there are public schools across the country that have fertile gardens capable of supplying communities with needed food crops.

ISNM moving beyond school borders

ISNM is a model that highlights an enhanced linkage between the School-Based Feeding Program (SBFP), Gulayan sa Paaralan (school gardening) Program (GPP), and Nutrition Education Program of the Department of Education (DepEd).

In 2016, the International Institute of Rural reconstruction (IIRR) and the Food and Nutrition Research Institute – Department of Science and technology (FNRI-DOST), in partnership with DepEd, piloted ISNM in 58 public elementary schools in Region 4A. They were dubbed “Lighthouse Schools” and featured sustained and diversified school gardens using bio-intensive gardening practices, a feeding program that utilizes crops from the school garden and iron-fortified rice, and nutrition education for students and parents to foster healthy eating habits at home and in school. Starting from 58, there are now 272 lighthouse schools implementing ISNM all over the country.

When COVID-19 hit the country in early March, a number of lighthouse schools in the Philippines were able to assist local government units in helping families and frontliners in their communities. The schools shared fresh vegetables, fruits, and seeds generated from the school gardens. Teachers engaged with children, parents, and other community members in fighting COVID-19.

One of the lighthouse schools that initiated COVID-19 efforts is the Tinabunan Elementary School in Imus, Cavite. The school was able to support families in seven villages in the municipalities of Kawit, Imus, Dasmariñas, and Bacoor. 26 kilos of fruits and vegetables (saba, sili, kamote tops, pechay, malunggay fruits and leaves, paayap, bataw, alugbati, talinum, kadyos, and patani) were shared to these communities, including 28 pieces of fresh duck eggs, 250 grams of tilapia fish, and 223 packs of diverse seeds (okra, alugbati, patola, linga, paayap, bataw, tapilan, patani, samsamping, sigarilyas, saluyot, kundol, kulitis, violet corn, roselle, and jackbean). These were all harvested from Tinabunan Elementary School’s gardens.

Community members share their gratitude

One of the people helped by Tinabunan Elementary School was Alexander Centillo, a pedicab driver who lost his…           source of income after the lockdown prohibited him and other public transport drivers from shuttling passengers. He was forced to stay at home with his wife and three children without any earning any income.

“Our situation is so hard because we are just reliant on relief goods. We don’t have enough money to buy for our needs,” Alexander shared. When Mary Ann Galas, a teacher from Tinabunan Elementary School, started giving out diversity seed packs in their community, Alexander was one of the people who received one.

“I grew up in a farm so I’m familiar with the seeds I received,” he said. “As the breadwinner, I had to find a way to plant these seeds even though we are surrounded by concrete roads.” As he scouted for a place, he saw a vacant lot behind their subdivision and that was where he planted the seeds. He made bed plots and trellises for the climbing vegetables. When Mary Ann Galas visited him, she saw his small garden and vegetables that have started germinating.

“I’m very excited. I’m close to harvesting…  continued on page 3 Lighthouse schools shine… what I worked so hard for,” Alexander said. In case the lockdown extends, he is not worried anymore where to get food for his family. He noticed his neighbors have also become inspired to start their own gardens and have asked seeds from Mary Ann Galas. He plans to continue gardening even when the lockdown measures are lifted.

Another person helped by Tinabunan Elementary School is Joseph Wilson Galas, the husband of teacher, Mary Ann Galas. His videoke rental business took a hit after social gatherings were prohibited by the government. Even though his wife continues to receive a salary during the lockdown, he decided to plant the seeds being given out by the school. Since they have a very small space at home and they do not have soil, he made a container garden out of broken pails he bought from a junkshop and empty bottle of softdrinks.

“The small garden we had was a very big help for us,” Joseph shared. “The relief goods are mostly canned sardines and noodles. It’s hard to eat that all the time because they don’t have enough nutrients. What we do is we cook food out of the vegetables we grew in our garden.” They cooked classic Filipino dishes like chicken sinigang with talinum and alugbati and coconut milk with pork and Chaya. They also made malunggay burger and talinum balls out of the sardines they received in the relief goods.

“Before, my two children do not eat vegetables. But after tasting the dishes we cooked, they now like to eat vegetables,” Joseph said. “The garden is a big help to our family because we are able to save money and we’re sure they don’t have chemical pesticides.”

The partnership between Tinabunan Elementary school, communities, and local village officials proved that school gardens can go beyond school borders. In times of crisis, school gardens can support students and communities with nutritious food. The skills and knowledge learned by school teachers from IIRR on food production and seed saving proved practical and helpful during the lockdown. They were able to inspire and influence community members to be self-sufficient during a crisis. (Shiela Anunciado, IIRR Philippines)