By Yvette Tan

The Veggie Drop-Off  (VDO) has been linking farmers to consumers even  before enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) over Luzon began.

“The Veggie Drop-Off is the brainchild of Sandy Beltran. It pretty much started as a one off, happenstance situation. Some farmers in Benguet province were asking for assistance and a friendly trader offered to bring their produce to Manila at cost,” says a volunteer who requested anonymity. “Having no outlet for their wares, they asked for help from various sectors until it reached Sandy. She mobilized volunteers, a venue, social media creation, and many more things to make the first Veggie Drop-Off happen.”

What started as a one day affair in Old Manila Eco Market, Luneta became a regular thing, with succeeding drop-offs happening in the Quezon City Memorial Center; The Sunday Market at Katipunan container van mall, The Pop Up; and others.

The market not only benefited consumers, who had access to produce straight from the farms, but the partner farmers as well.

“[The farmers] actually started to feel real value for their work. From there, well, it just took off,” the interviewee, who was one of the first to approach Beltran as a volunteer, says. “…the goal of the Drop-Off became one close to all our hearts. It’s core value is to help uplift and educate the Filipino farmer [and] give them a fair chance to properly earn and create avenues for them to sell their produce.”

Fair profit for farmers

One of the VDO’s objectives is to make prices fair to both farmers and consumers. Many people don’t know the time and effort it takes to grow produce or livestock, not to mention the extra effort needed to transport and market them.

“We did receive complaints on why it wasn’t palengke (market) price but there is a reason for that. The old market system is stacked against the farmer, with everyone else along the supply chain benefiting from it,” the interviewee explains.

“What should be a fairly straightforward transaction became a long line of middlemen all adding cost but not much real value. Farmers can get as little as P5 for a head of cabbage while in the supermarket it can go for P80 a kg. Broccoli could be P15-25/kg and go for P400-700 in the supermarket. So by linking farmers almost directly to end output systems, they earn much more.”

They add: “Middlemen should add value to the chain by proper handling, transportation, packaging, food safety and market dissemination. That’s rarely the case as one just passes the goods to the other without really adding worth to the produce. And a lot of it spoils along the way. This helps explain why the farmer only gets 5-10% of the total price you pay at the supermarket. The chain is bloated.”

Fresh vegetables in a time of quarantine

Despite the ECQ making travel difficult, VDO continues to link farmers to consumers, this time through the internet. And true to their spirit of community, they’re doing it with the help of logistical partners such as local produce website Zagana.com and Paranaque restaurant Try Vegan.

“Now we’re taking on mobile markets and controlled drop offs with some city LGUs as well. The need for food is great and we all know that the lack of it could lead to more unrest with an already uneasy population,” the interviewee says.

“It’s still actually a work in progress. As public gatherings were prohibited, VDO had to turn to other means to help farmers sell. “Enter the digital platform system and sub-distributorship program. VDO linked up with Zagana.com and Try Vegan in Paranaque to pilot the program. Again, with VDO’s presence it created good sales for all involved.”

ECQ measures

There are strict measures in place to make sure that everyone involved is safe. Even then, it’s a work in progress that depends on many factors such as how communities respond, what modes of transportation are available, not to mention new discoveries about the virus.

“This one is tough. A lot of it still hinges on current practices as this is what most farmers and logistics are used to and can afford,” the interviewee says. “In the time of quarantine, we make sure that they all have basic PPEs (face masks, gloves, temp checks) but we are also working on educating the supply chain on food hygiene and safety.”

Food hygiene is of utmost importance. “One of our consultants is UMA (Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura) and they established standards for these concerns. Their post harvest processing facility ensures quality checks of all produce with washing, disinfection, proper crating, transport and final destination checks,” the interviewee shares.

UMA, among other consultants, have been a big help in standardizing food storage, processing, transport, and safety practices that can be of use even beyond the ECQ. “Through them we gain the experience of how to show farmers and agricultural logistics that there is a better way to work in agriculture. We are also exploring completing the cold chain which raises the safety standards immensely. We are also completing our own processing and fulfillment facility in Manila with full food hygiene and safety checks. We’ll be implementing food standards and proper packaging for end line transportation, assuring consumers that they are getting their produce without contamination or spoilage,” the interviewee says.

“Unfortunately these are not common practices now but we hope that with time and farmers earning more for their work, they can afford to practice globally accepted food safety and hygiene guidelines as well. It has to begin with the start of the chain, after all,” they add.

The importance of knowing how food gets from the farm to your fork

Current circumstances are forcing everyone to examine where their food comes from and how exactly it gets from the field to one’s table. The public is finally having the necessary conversation about the challenges farmers face, and how little the rewards often are for their efforts.

“Buyers should know what the process of getting food to their table entails. For too long, we’ve taken for granted that it’s always available in grocery shelves or just delivered with a press of a button. There is a lot of real, hard work that goes into it,” the interviewee says.

“We’ve gotten to the point of throwaway consumerism prior to this crisis. Consumers had way too many demands on the supply system and it contributed to a lot of wastage and overpricing. if it didn’t look good, wasn’t ‘organic,’ wasn’t to a certain specification… then it wasn’t deemed good enough for consumption. In actuality, a lot of produce just looks ugly but is perfectly edible.”

With measures enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 slowing, or even shutting down many services people have taken for granted, it’s a good time to examine the systems that afford most people these conveniences and adjust our perceptions and attitudes towards them if needed.

“We’ve taken the basics for granted for far too long. Most of us of a certain class walk around just assuming that the garbage will be picked up, the water will flow out of the taps, there will always be food and gas wherever we get them. This disruption is a wake up call. Be mindful of the necessities. It can disappear at any time and life as we all know it will change, if it hasn’t already,” the interviewee says.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be so picky and just be grateful that there is food. All of it was produced with the same amount of blood, sweat and tears.”

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