By Hanah Tabios
“I have, as a photojournalist, covered many scary situations, but now as a community cook, I am overwhelmed by fear of this unseen enemy,” said veteran photojournalist and documentarian Alex Baluyut.
From war, political unrest, and devastating natural calamities, there has been no stopping him from working on the frontlines of any crisis situation.
In fact, his name has already been inscribed in the photography community as one of the influential pillars of Philippine photo documentary, who covered the plight of the marginalized in the countryside from the ‘80s until the ‘90s.
His age notwithstanding, the Laguna-based photographer is still at it—this time, as head of mission in his own crisis kitchen.
“Serve the People”
On March 14, President Duterte put Metro Manila under a state of public health emergency, announcing the lockdown of the metropolis.
While many rushed to get home or to leave Metro Manila, around 700 students were trapped inside the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).
Without enough supplies and finances, the students, based on their interviews, worried about their situation, as well.
Alex responded promptly and without reservations, even if that would mean putting his own life in danger against an invisible enemy.
On his personal Facebook account, he quickly called for donors, asking for donations in kind and cash aid for his Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK), which was founded after the Yolanda tragedy in 2013. It has been through many tragic episodes, feeding the displaced families in Iligan City, Lanao del Sur, for instance, after the Marawi siege and offering free hot meals to evacuees from the recent Taal volcano eruption in Batangas.
“Para sa akin, lahat ng missions are intense on different levels. Walang madali. Lahat may mga problems that you have to solve (For me, all missions are intense on different levels. Nothing’s easy. There are always problems that you have to solve.),” Alex said.
Since the announcement of the lockdown, things have escalated quickly, with COVID-19 cases in the Philippines rising to the hundreds, prompting the government to place the entire Luzon island under an enhanced community quarantine.
On Saturday, March 21, Alex was able to feed the estimated 500 students stranded inside the largest UP campus.
He first cooked the stir-fried vegetable dish chopsuey. The following day, on March 22, his team prepared hundreds of ulam (viands), such as the Filipino chicken soup tinola and ginataang kalabasa (squash in coconut milk).
“We also managed to make 197 ham sandwiches for both in-campus dormers and students living outside of UP Los Banos campus,” said Alex.
On March 23, the fourth day of his community kitchen quarantine, his crew dished out 593 pork sinigang meals for the students, on top of their meal preparations for the municipal front line workers of Barangay Batong Malaki, his place of residence.
The following day, they served students with delicious chicken pochero and pork steak.
Run by dedicated volunteers, the crisis kitchen also operates in different parts of the country. His co-founder, Precious Leano, is also leading a mission drive in Batangas, where they are serving hot meals for the frontline workers at Batangas Medical Center.
For the record, the province of Batangas has yet to fully recover from the recent Taal volcano eruption, where thousands have been displaced due to heavy ash fall.
But for Alex, this is what public service means—a mission accomplished without expecting anything in return.
“As head of mission, I always ensure the safety of all volunteers. The fear, you have to place that on hold because you have to respond and my training as well as experience in photojournalism helps,” he told the Manila Bulletin.
Online group for crisis response
Unlike other UP campuses, UPLB is isolated from city life, making it even more mandatory to mobilize crisis response drives.
After the announcement from the national government, an alumnus created “ELBI Lockdown Diaries,” a Facebook page dedicated to serving those who have been trapped. It’s also a platform to post concerns about the situation.
The centralized platform for announcements, in fact, has generated donations from other alumni like sacks of rice, more packed meals, and other essential supplies.
“OPLAN KAWINGAN is an effort to provide food assistance to students staying in off-campus housing facilities. This is made possible through partnership with Every Nation Campus (ENC), Serve the People Brigade Task Force Community Unit Response (STPB TF CURE), Chelsea’s, UPLB COVID-19 Response Team, and other private volunteers. We are also assisted by our independent contractors in reaching out and delivering food to our students,” one announcement said.
Even offices housed inside the campus responded to the needs of the students.
Last week, the head of the Dairy Training and Research Institute (DTRI), which produces the famous Batangas carabao milk, announced that they would be distributing 400mL of milk per student, with pandesal and white cheese.
In return, the students trapped inside their dorms created hundreds of improvised face shields and masks for the frontline workers.