Project GRACE, the acronym for Garden Ready Always for Consumption of Everyone, is the answer of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Caloocan City to the “pandemic of hunger.”
Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” C. Vasquez Jr., OMI, the main proponent of the project, said that food must always be available in every Filipino household. Project GRACE must revive the Filipino Bahay Kubo culture, where the small nipa hut has a variety of vegetables planted in its own yard, making food always available to the family.
Fr. Ponpon was transferred to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Parish in June 2019 from his previous assignment in North Cotabato where he worked in an organic farm, attended training sessions, and practiced organic agriculture. He passionately champions growing food organically, practicing production systems that are adaptable to local conditions instead of using inputs that may be harmful to the environment and the consumers.
When pandemic restriction closed churches, Fr. Ponpon saw to it that his flock still had access to church services. He went out to the community to visit and bless the parishioners in their residences. Together with his fellow priests and church workers, they distributed food packs and basic needs to aid those affected by the lockdown. But they can only do so much, since the masses are not allowed out and church services are not availed of by the community, church resources were severely being depleted. Upon reflection, the OMI fathers and brothers thought of a better way to help the community. They thought that, “Instead of giving them fish to eat, the people must be taught how to fish.”
Fr. Ponpon considers it God’s providence that he was transferred to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Parish before the pandemic lockdowns. God must have given him the mission to share his knowledge and skills in organic farming to the community to help alleviate hunger and poverty. It is also not a coincidence that Fr. Rey Emmanuel Amancio, an Oblate Missionary who was on his way to his China assignment, was locked down with them in the parish, together with Fr. Joseph Nadua an OMI Deacon, also on his way to his Bicol assignment.
Fr. Nadua, who graduated Cum-Laude in BS Agriculture before he entered the seminary, is a source of precious input to Project GRACE. The team worked together with other church workers to transform the church compound into a model urban farm. Every available space in the parish compound was rendered productive. Fr. Joseph Nadua made use of his knowledge in Hydroponics and Aquaponics to make their gardens more productive in short periods of time. They also sought the help of the local government and the Department of Agriculture for the needed community training sessions and agricultural inputs like vegetable seeds.
The parishioners, seeing the productive endeavor, duplicated the container gardens in their homes. The parish was energized as the vision of food availability is being realized. Fr. Ponpon envisions the day when the parishioners will be able to barter their harvests and food will be sufficient within the community.
But Fr. Ponpon was still on the look out for a project to complete food availability and sustainability; after all a protein source is needed to complete the nutritional requirements of the populace. Fr. Ponpon already had some animals in his urban garden. He had birds, chicken, and even sheep. He also had some rabbits as pets, caring for them so that they could provide his garden with organic fertilizer.
Fr. Ponpon observed that rabbits multiply fast, prompting him to further study rabbit production for food. Reviewing articles from his Agriculture Magazine subscription, he came across the Rabbit Farming series written by this writer and her husband Art Veneracion.
Curiosity stirred, he further researched online and found the 8-part series YouTube with Art Veneracion as resource person. This convinced him that rabbits are perfect to be integrated into the urban garden. He visited rabbitries to source for rabbit meat breeders stocks, and one of the farms he visited was Aven Nature’s Farm in Baliuag, Bulacan, owned by the Veneracion family. The interaction with Art and this writer further convinced Fr. Ponpon that rabbit as livestock was the perfect addition to complete Project GRACE. Rabbits can be a source of good nutrition and livelihood, and may be raised with ease even in urban communities.
Fr. Ponpon, together with his team including the parish secretariat, immediately went to work and the Rabbit Dispersal Project was conceptualized. Beneficiaries to the project will be chosen among interested, qualified parishioners who will attend the free seminar on Rabbit Production; to make sure that they are equipped to care for the rabbits. Dispersal packages include: 1 rabbit cage, 1 two-month old rabbit doe, 1 drinker, 1 nest box, 2 kilos rabbit pellets and instructional materials on raising rabbits, together with an agreement that outlines the responsibilities of the beneficiaries, plus a Certificate of Participation. The kits will be funded by sponsors from Caloocan. Among the very supportive sponsors and donors were Rep. Along Malapitan, Mayor Oscar Malapitan, and Vice Mayor Macario Asistion III, who got the Caloocan’s Veterinary Office to support and assist the project.
The event organizer in Fr. Ponpon immediately got to work and the Program to launch the project was planned and scheduled. The Rabbit Raising Seminar and Launching of the Rabbit Dispersal Project will immediately be held at the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Parish Compound, Grace Park, Caloocan City on the date when the resource person and the invited guests are available.
The Rabbit Raising Seminar had Art Veneracion, owner of Aven Nature’s Farm and President of the Association of Rabbit Meat Producers Inc. (ARaMP) as speaker and resource person. It was held in the morning, while the dispersal of the rabbit project packages was held in the afternoon with the presence of the donors and sponsors.
Department of Agriculture Secretary Dar, who is a resident of Caloocan, was invited by Mayor Malapitan and he agreed to grace the event. He even invited the Bureau of Animal Industry OIC Director Reildrin Morales to attend the event with him. Part of the program is the ceremonial tasting of rabbit lechons by the guests to highlight the palatability of rabbit meat.
Rabbeatchon was tapped to provide the rabbit lechon for the event. The Muller family, owner of Rabbeatchon, also brought other rabbit dishes with them; rabbit barbeque, rabbit shawarma and rabbit chicharon were big hits with the guests.
In his speech, Sec. Dar declared that the Department of Agriculture “will provide strong support for the massive production of rabbits.” He added that the “DA will support the advocacy of the Association of Rabbit Meat Producers Inc., led by Artemio Veneracion Jr., for the development of the local rabbit industry.” BAI Dir. Morales further said that “BAI will facilitate the establishment of necessary guidelines and provide assistance for the industry, which is still considered to be at the infancy stage.”
The Rabbit Dispersal Project will be closely monitored to ensure its success. Regular monthly meetings will be held to discuss and solve any problem that the beneficiaries may encounter. These meetings will also be occasions to hold novenas to St. Melangell, patron saint rabbits and hares to provide guidance for the success of the project.
The rabbits complete Project GRACE, a garden with readily available food for the parishioners of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace Parish.
Photos by Angie M. Veneracion