Pandemic exposes flaws in food supply

Pandemic exposes flaws in food supply

Self-reliance and a generous attitude are key to surviving outbreak-induced slump

Volunteers arrange fish packed in plastic bags to be distributed by Taejai.com, along with local produce, to elderly people struggling through the Covid-19 crisis. (Photo by Taejai.com)
Volunteers arrange fish packed in plastic bags to be distributed by Taejai.com, along with local produce, to elderly people struggling through the Covid-19 crisis. (Photo by Taejai.com)

While anti-Covid-19 measures have been relaxed in Thailand, it is undeniable that many in the country still have to face the grim reality of an unprecedented economic slump brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. One way of preventing the massive layoffs from turning into a disaster is by building networks to bolster food security.

Maew (surname not given), a traditional Thai massage practitioner, is among the growing number of Thais who have lost their jobs as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on the economy. With her workplace closed and little savings to her name, she is struggling to make ends meet.

Each day at 10am, Ms Maew walks from her home in a small alley near Wat Kalayani in Bangkok's Thon Buri district to pick up food at a nearby food bank. Today, she found some milk, bananas, fresh eggs and congee laid on a small table.

Ms Maew and many others made needy by the pandemic -- including taxi drivers, road cleaners and some elderly citizens -- have been routinely coming to food banks to collect meal boxes and other basic supplies which they need to get by.

"What we give out doesn't amount to much, but it can help out dozens who are in need," said Anantachoke Saksawad, the founder of "Food Bank Pun Im" -- which he describes as a "co-sharing space" for food security.

"Some days, up to 50 people come. They head home afterwards with their stomachs full and their spirits lifted -- exactly what they need to live through these tough times."

In his view, many Bangkok residents are vulnerable in terms of food security. Most urban residents don't have enough space to grow their own food, so they have to purchase it elsewhere. While the arrangement works under normal circumstances, when a crisis -- such as the Covid-19 pandemic, or floods -- strikes and incomes dry up, many people end up hungry as they can't afford food.

Mr Anantachoke added that a sustainable approach to ensuring food security must involve the creation of a network which brings consumers, suppliers, agricultural groups and academic experts together with the government.

"The pandemic is truly a wake-up call. We need to be more resilient and create our own networks to strengthen food security throughout the supply chain, both in the urban and rural settings," he said.

Supplies at Mr Anantachoke's food bank were originally donated by members of Food Bank Thailand, a non-profit organisation set up in 2016 to promote the importance of food security and disaster-preparedness in times of crisis.

"Sharing food is within the Thai DNA, and food banks are mushrooming across the country right now," he said.

Since the opening of his flagship location at Wat Kalayani, Mr Anantachoke has seen his concept adopted and expanded across the country. To date, more than 11,500 meal boxes have been shared through 15 Food Bank Pun Im locations across the country.

In Chanthaburi, Aporn Saengchoey took up the concept to help out the migrant workers, monks and poor patients at Tambon Padong Health Promotion Hospital in Soi Dao district on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The doctor-cum-farmer said her network has ample supplies of local produce, such as bananas, coconuts, mushrooms, garlic, shallots and cardamom, so they decided to distribute the surplus to local communities in the area. These ingredients can be used to cook a nutritious, home-cooked meal, she said.

Unequal distribution

An increasing number of farmers are switching to single-crop planting, focusing on cash crops such as rubber. Few grow their own produce, as many opt to rely on the income from their cash crops to buy food.

Not only does this lie in stark contrast to Thailand's ambition to become "the world's kitchen", it also threatens its population's food security, said Biothai Foundation director Witoon Lianchamroon.

"Being the kitchen of the world doesn't mean everyone in the society will be guaranteed access to food," he said.

Mr Witoon said the Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how prone Thailand is to food insecurity, as demonstrated by how easily its centralised supply chain was knocked off balance by the virus outbreak.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has also warned that a protracted pandemic will further disrupt food supply chains and their complex, underlying web of interactions -- which means everyone from consumers, farmers, to middlemen and retailers will be affected.

As such, the UN body urged lawmakers to ensure the needy have access to nutritious food and food supply chains are not interrupted. These -- along with public consultation and inclusion in the general response -- will help ensure vulnerable individuals comply with stay-at-home orders, as their basic needs would be met by the state.

Mr Witoon said communities which practice integrated farming may be less affected by the crisis, as they can simply consume the food they grow at home when their incomes take a hit. However, many sellers have said they have trouble reaching consumers due to social distancing measures meant to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The Biothai director said dispatching mobile grocery vehicles is one possible solution to the problem, as it allows producers to approach consumers who are choosing to stay at home to minimise the risk of contracting the virus.

"There's shouldn't be so much fuss around buying and consuming fresh produces," he said.

Online shift

As the pandemic forces everyone to limit direct, face-to-face contact, news about various aid and initiatives is now being spread online.

For instance, Taejai.com -- a crowd-funding site aimed at supporting non-profit organisations, social enterprises and charitable individuals -- has announced several campaigns to distribute food aid to vulnerable individuals.

The website's managing director, Ada Chirapaisarnkul, said a group of individuals behind the company came up with the idea of giving out vouchers to poor residents in the Klong Toey area, which can be exchanged for a free meal at participating vendors within the community.

According to Ms Ada, the approach kills two birds with one stone as it helps feed those who are out of a job by working together with struggling food vendors in the area, thus helping them stay afloat through the current crisis.

In addition to the unemployed, the elderly are also on Taejai's radar. The site is working with its affiliates in Chiang Mai to distribute "survival packs" filled with food and fruits directly to senior citizens' homes. Unlike conventional relief bags filled with canned goods and instant noodles, Taejai's packs contain locally-sourced produces which the recipients are familiar with, and more importantly, are suited to their dietary needs.

While other crowdfunding sites have launched similar initiatives, Ms Ada said she doesn't see it as a competition.

"The Covid-19 crisis far outweighs any feeling or desire to compete. All the fund-raising and sharing will help everyone in need," she said.

Silver lining

The FAO is also encouraging people to share food and rally behind local food banks, community groups and/or charities which provide meals to vulnerable groups, as altruism can mitigate the often devastating effect of a crisis.

A new phenomenon known as "community pantries", or the "pantries of sharing", is fast sweeping across the country. More than 240 pantries are up and running across 51 provinces, said Suppakrit Kullachartwijit, the businessman who introduced the scheme to Thailand after seeing it first abroad.

The pantries, which are often placed on strategic locations, can be replenished by anyone willing to donate after items -- which may include drinking water, uncooked rice, instant noodles, canned sardines and face masks -- are taken out by those in need.

While the pantries are a show of goodwill, it is only a short-term solution to food security problems, observers say.

According to Mab Uaeng Agri-Nature Centre chairman Wiwat Salyakamthorn, also known as Ajarn Yak, self-reliance will be key to ensuring food security after the coronavirus pandemic.

The chairman, who served as Deputy Agriculture Minister under the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration between November 2017 and July 2019, said the pandemic will force society to change the way it approaches food production.

His foundation has opened a live stream which serves as a platform for producers in his network to barter for what they need. Fishermen in the South, for instance, can trade fish and seafood with rice farmers in the Northeast, according to Mr Wiwat.

"Being resilient, self-reliant and generous to others will get us through any crisis," he added.

This is the final part of a two-part series on food security.


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