PHOTOS COURTESY OF
Gising Gising PH
Thinking back to March 2020, Dr. Tj Malvar remembers being afraid. Though the term ‘Enhanced Community Quarantine’ was still unfamiliar, he knew the implications: his neighbors in Barangay Calawis, Antipolo were going to go hungry.
So, he took action. After calling for donations on social media, Tj opened PusoKitchen, a donation-based soup kitchen to help feed his local community. For four months, the people of Barangay Calawis were given packs of rice, vegetables, eggs, and cooking oil—along with soap, alcohol, and face masks to help protect them from Covid-19. At its height, PusoKitchen was sending 1,800 relief packs to Barangay Calawis and nearby Dumagat communities each week.
As a doctor, his community’s health has always been Tj’s top priority; he wanted to make sure they were not only fed, but fed well. So together with friends Celina Borromeo and Tonyo Silva, he set up Gising Gising, a social enterprise combating food insecurity by working with local farmers and creating sustainable health programs for the community.
Just over a year since they began, we spoke to Tj about Gising Gising’s progress, and how achieving food security also means looking out for others.
Your family has been active in Barangay Calawis for over 30 years now, operating Mt. Purro Nature Reserve. How did your relationship with the community start?
TJ: I spent a lot of my summers and free time growing up [here], but I immersed myself in the community more when I became a doctor. I [was] a village doctor, rendering free medical services [while] managing Mt. Purro Nature Reserve. I was the general manager there for two years [before becoming] executive director of our MPNR Foundation. That entailed a lot of close work with the community.
I decided to run for Barangay Kagawad in 2018, because I felt that there was a need to be involved [in] handling areas related to health. I currently handle the barangay health center and our barangay health workers.
Was the community instrumental in you becoming a doctor?
TJ: It was something I wanted to do since I was young, [but] as early as high school, I would get messages from people around here telling me how much they were looking forward to me becoming a doctor. Even when I was still a [medical student], I was already attending to patients every so often just because the community was so isolated.
For those unfamiliar with Rizal geography, how hard is it to get to Barangay Calawis from, let's say, Marcos Highway?
TJ: Before, it was really difficult; the roads weren’t paved so it was very inaccessible. Kapag malakas ang ulan, ’di ka makatawid ng ilog kasi malakas yung current, yung tubig. That was the case until around 2013.
It’s inaccessible [especially] if you don’t have money for transportation, or if you don’t have your own means of transportation. Oftentimes that’s the barrier [for] people in our community who need to get medical check-ups—transportation is more expensive than the actual consultation. 'Yun yung naging challenge.
Are the PusoKitchen and Gising Gising volunteers from the barangay, as well?
TJ: For PusoKitchen, a lot of our volunteers were our staff at Mt. Purro Nature Reserve because we [had no choice], we were closed. But the beautiful thing about PusoKitchen is that the whole community really got involved... the elementary [and] high school teachers, barangay officials, volunteers, mga nanay, even members of the youth sector got involved in the mission to fight hunger amid Covid-19.
We’re really serious about food security, it’s what keeps Gising Gising going.
You opened PusoKitchen two days after the national lockdown started last year. How were you able to get it up and running so quickly?
TJ: When President Duterte announced there was going to be a community quarantine, I knew that people in our community would go hungry.
PusoKitchen is a play on the word soup—puso—PusoKitchen. Our initial plan was to supply hot meals for the community—kitchen talaga—but we transitioned to food packs because it made sense cost-wise and for the beneficiaries. I posted [a call] on Facebook, and it led to a lot of people wanting to pitch in. Even my family got involved.
There was an overwhelming [amount] of support and I think that’s true not only for Calawis or PusoKitchen, but for all the other efforts during the pandemic. The [spirit] of Bayanihan was very much alive, but Bayanihan alone can’t save us. We need sustainable solutions.
You also launched Gising Gising a month into starting PusoKitchen. Amid the stress and logistics of running a soup kitchen, why did you get into selling vegetables?
TJ: Even before the pandemic struck, my co-founders and I were already thinking of ways to address livelihood gaps. We realized poverty was one of the root causes of poor health, and we had a lot of ideas but nothing concrete. When the pandemic happened [and we started] PusoKitchen, we were able to connect with farming communities and the Department of Agriculture. I learned a lot about the vegetable trade, and that led to Gising Gising.
Gising Gising was a way to make PusoKitchen more sustainable. Through our “one box sold, one box shared” model, we provide full time employment for a handful of people [while] supporting local farmers. If we’re [able] to scale up, then we can provide more opportunities for employment and support, especially for farmers in Calawis.
Food security is clearly a cause close to your heart. In what ways does Gising Gising work to achieve this?
TJ: There are four dimensions to food security: one is linking food growers to the market; helping them sell their goods. Number two is accessibility, [for which] we’re working with the local vegetable vendors. We want to supply fresh vegetables as close to the source as possible, [while] providing incentives for the community to buy vegetables instead of processed foods. Accessibility [also means] we want to bring down the cost of [food] while improving quality.
Number three is stability. Mahirap ito, pero it also goes hand in hand with working with the vegetables—if the price of vegetables suddenly skyrockets, we can be there to kind of control how high the prices increase kasi nga we source close to the source. Nalilimit yung number of middlemen.
Lastly, there’s utilization—this is the component of insecurity that I wasn’t very aware of. When you talk about food insecurity, it can’t just be about hunger, it’s also about nutrition.
Bayanihan alone can’t save us. We need sustainable solutions.
The definition of food security [is] how all people at all times should have access to healthy and culturally acceptable food; hindi lang basta pagkain. Kunyari may community ka, at ang kinakain nila all the time is Lucky Me, that is a food insecure community. Even if they are not hungry, they’re food insecure, because their food [is not] healthy.
We have two main programs that assist with utilization. One is called Gising Gising Moms: groups of mothers are taught how to buy, prepare, and feed their families [with] healthy food, and they meet one or two times a month to exchange practice. We provide them with merienda and coffee, [and] start the conversation on how to feed our families better. Right now, that’s the challenge: everyone knows that eating vegetables is healthy, but how do we include more in our diet?
Number two is through our community centers. This will essentially be a one-stop shop for primary healthcare concerns; mental health, nutritional counseling, and medical services. It’s really going to be a holistic approach because when you talk about food security, you [also] have to address the holistic health of the individual.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like there are no baby steps here. It feels like a lot of big movements at a time to achieve the four points of food security with all these plans.
TJ: Yeah, it’s actually really difficult to solve food insecurity because it’s a convoluted problem with a lot of different issues. Essentially what we’re trying to do is come up with simple, creative, implementable solutions, then [seeing] what works. When we do, we’ll scale it up. I guess you can still call it baby steps, but very intentional baby steps. We’re really serious about food security, it’s what keeps Gising Gising going.
Gising Gising was a way to make PusoKitchen more sustainable.
On the flipside, PusoKitchen has grown quite a lot over the past year—from providing about 300 food packs to 1,800. Did you expect that it would balloon this big?
TJ: Not really. It [has] exceeded my expectations. The overwhelming support from different sectors was something our community really felt.
If you think about it, the support PusoKitchen was giving was very minimal—I mean, a few kilos of rice and vegetables a week, that’s not enough to sustain a family. But it sent the message that there are people [who care] and that we’re in this together. For me, that’s really the message that we wanted to send. That feeling of solidarity. And that’s a gift, I think.
What are some of the biggest challenges Gising Gising currently faces?
TJ: Through our “one box sold, one box shared” model, we’ve donated about 15,000 kilos of vegetables. In a way, Gising Gising was successful because of that, but as a business we didn’t make money. We were able to provide jobs by supporting farmers, we were able to feed communities [outside of Calawis], but we didn't do so well financially. This year, there’s the challenge to become financially sustainable.
We also recognize that we have to add value to the lives of our supporters. We don’t want to be a charity; [we want] to invest heavily into food security programs, and we’re committed to the satisfaction of our customers.
Gising Gising is [also] trying to live beyond [the pandemic]; our mission of fighting food insecurity will continue long after. There was food insecurity before the pandemic, and there will still be food insecurity long after the pandemic. Gising Gising will still be there to fight it.
One year into Gising Gising’s fight against food insecurity, do you have any thoughts as to how it should carry on?
TJ: By definition, food security [means] that all people at all times should have access to healthy food. Hindi pwedeng focused ka lang sa sarili mong household; it requires you to think about how others are faring. There’s a challenge to continuously support our local farmers and be conscientious consumers. The idea that food security is more than just fighting hunger, for me, was a big realization. We all have to do our part to achieve food security.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.