Lessons from South Korea’s food banks

Fritzie Rodriguez
South Korea's community-based food banks prove to be a successful strategy in addressing hunger

ALL FOR ONE. Food banks prove to be a game changer in addressing hunger within communities. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – How do we end a perennial problem like hunger?

The 4th Quarter 2013 Social Weather Stations (SWS) nationwide survey on self-rated food poverty, conducted in December, shows that 41% (an estimated 8.8 million households) of respondents claim to be poor in terms of food. This is slightly higher than the 3rd quarter results (37%).                                         

These numbers are alarming, especially with only one year left until the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – such as reducing hunger and poverty – are supposedly met.

With the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), thousands of survivors are working towards recovery; however, hunger continues to taunt devastated families.

This challenge prompts us to revisit one of the most successful food banks in Asia, specifically the one in South Korea.

Lessons from South Korea

South Korea embodies the classic rags-to-riches success story. From a war and poverty ravaged country, it has emerged as one of the richest and most innovative countries in the world. Its transformation has shocked and inspired the world.

Filipina community organizer and sociologist Maria Fides F. Bagasao stayed in South Korea for 4 years as coordinator of Leaders and Organizers of Community Organization in Asia (LOCOA).

According to her, South Korea’s food banks are a community-based initiative, with government entering the picture only later on. The initiative took off because Koreans made sure they did their best in helping the less fortunate.

Bagasao explained the influence of the Korean “Pali-pali culture,” an expression which translates to “hurry up.”

“They work fast. They’re focused. ’Yung staff ko, I just instructed her on what to do, ’di pa ko nakakaupo, tapos na,” she quipped. (I just instruct my Korean staff what to do and before I could even sit down, the task was already done.)

First, the most vulnerable groups in poor Korean communities are identified, and the volunteers make sure that these people benefit from the food banks.

The food banks have tie-ups with restaurants, groceries, convenience stores, and other private business owners who can help in donating supplies.

They also establish agreements with land owners, allowing them to convert unused lands into vegetable gardens.

These community-based food banks run a daily operation. Aside from ensuring that supply is met, the system also makes sure that the distributed food is clean and nutritious.

“Food security is also about the quality of food, preparation, and the sufficiency of nutrition,” Bagasao emphasized.

Korea’s food bank centers

In the present set-up, every month, beneficiaries may also get 5 items each (food, clothes) from Food Bank centers.

Their atmosphere is similar to a real store, making beneficiaries feel as though they’re really shopping. This aims to prevent stigmatization among beneficiaries – especially among the elderly. It’s a good place to socialize and interact with others.

Apart from providing food, Bagasao said that skills-training programs are also offered to beneficiaries as part of a Self-Reliance Support Program to lessen, if not avoid, dependency among beneficiaries.

The program instills long-term self-sufficiency, especially for those who are still capable of participating in some form of livelihood. 

For many years, these community-based food banks were running on nothing but donated time, efforts, manpower, food, and cash from volunteers, community organizers, and the private sector. Later on, amid the Asian Financial Crisis, the South Korean government began supporting, funding, and participating in the food bank system.

The beneficiaries include orphans, persons with disabilities (PWDs), the aged, homeless, unemployed, and victims of natural disasters.

Today, there are over 400 food banks across South Korea supported by its welfare expenditure budget.

Bagasao said the Philippines should learn from South Korea and should adopt a similar community-based model which can work locally.

“The country’s social protection policies and initiatives to allocate more economic resources for these reforms will have to be protected by the public, organized social movements, civil society, and like-minded political leaders,” Bagasao added.

DSWD mandate

The Philippines has RA 9803 or “The Act to Encourage the Donation of Food for Charitable Purposes” which was enacted in 2009. It seeks to alleviate national poverty and reduce food wastage. It also encourages food donation for charitable purposes.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) serves as the main coordinating agency, in partnership with the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), Department of Health (DOH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Nutrition Council (NNC). The department has other partner government agencies as well. 

As lead agency, DSWD should take the lead in the preparation of an allocation plan at the national and regional levels, and at the provincial, city, municipal levels through its regional offices.

It also facilitates the collection, storage, and issuance of a certificate of acceptance to food donors of perishable food donations at the national and regional levels. In addition, it also facilitates the process within DSWD centers, charitable organizations, and other intended beneficiaries through the Local Social Welfare and Development Offices (LSWDOs).

From institution-based to community-based

DSWD Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Juliano-Soliman said that the concept of food banks in the Philippines remains an institution-based model. People-driven, community-based food banks have not yet evolved.

“We need to revisit the food bank as a family and community-based strategy in order to ensure impact on addressing family hunger and the immediate needs of the poor and vulnerable,” Soliman said.

DSWD’s vision is to have community-managed food banks with strengthened partnerships with community-based people’s organizations, families, private donors, and volunteers.

Food manufacturers, retailers, and food growers will also be tapped to donate surplus foods. This arrangement can hopefully promote corporate social responsibility among Filipino companies.

Beneficiaries will also engage in training programs for the management of food banks, livelihood programs, cooperative stores, and community gardens. The end goal is to develop a sense of independence and self-reliance among beneficiaries especially by the time they graduate from the program.

Through this, the Philippines too, may provide food to the hungry through an organized system similar to the one used in South Korea.

Many other vulnerable sectors may benefit from the proposed program, such as poor solo parents, undocumented overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), victims of natural disasters, and other vulnerable groups from urban poor communities.

Much remains to be done to adopt a community-based model of food banks for the poor and vulnerable.

In the meantime, DSWD encourages volunteers and donors to support the efforts to develop and propagate community food banks for the less fortunate.

“Donors and individual sponsors are continuously moved by compassion. They readily give food and resources to those in need. It’s time that food banks as a concrete community-based strategy be pursued, together with the people,” Soliman said. – Rappler.com