Three major typhoons consecutively ravaged the Philippines recently, significantly affecting parts of Luzon. Provinces on and near the path of the typhoons were not safe, especially since one of these typhoons was considered the strongest typhoon yet in 2020.
Even during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and of the typhoon season, people have been tirelessly raising money, collecting donations, and initiating donation drives for those affected. One of them is Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK).
ARMK is a non-government organization (NGO) that is based in Los Baños town, Laguna, and was established in 2013 during the onslaught of supertyphoon Yolanda by photojournalist, Alex Baluyut and Los Baños-based cultural worker, Precious Leaño. ARMK, whose creed is “We can and we will feed the hungry”, is a volunteer-based organization where they cook hot meals for the victims of natural and man-made disasters
ARMK started its maiden mission seven years ago on November 15, 2013, after super typhoon Yolanda, internationally known as Haiyan, ravaged the country on the 8th of November. Super Typhoon Yolanda was considered as the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in recorded history, beating hurricane Katrina that hit the United States in August 2005.
In an interview with FEBC Radio, an international Christian radio network, Alex Baluyut mentioned that the idea came to him when he was having a workshop with the Philippine Center for Photojournalism (PCP) in Los Baños as the typhoon was nearing landfall.
“Nung nag-landfall na siya sa [sic] bisaya, nagtakbuhan na yung mga kasama ko, nagtakbuhan na sa Manila, ako naman yung naiwan doon sa workshop area kasi ako rin yung nagluto ‘ron eh. Para makatipid kami doon sa workshop, ako na rin yung nagluto. So, nakita ko ngayon lahat yung equipment doon sa workshop area, dun sa kusina. Eh Kung dalhin ko sa Manila to tapos magluto ako don sa Villamor [Airbase]?”
The Villamor Airbase became a tent city for evacuees from Tacloban and this is where ARMK stayed for 22 days and served food 24/7 with donations and volunteers to help them feed the displaced victims and other volunteers & soldiers. After their stint in Manila, they proceeded to Leyte and Samar where they stayed even after Christmas.
Baluyut also mentioned that even before, as he covered events and natural disasters as a photojournalist, he felt that he could do more than just take a photo of the place and its people and leave. This idea of providing humanitarian food aid has been lingering for a long time. ARMK has conducted 60 or more missions seven years after Yolanda and their most recent missions were in Tiwi town, Albay from November 8 to 15 and Cagayan which were one of the provinces gravely affected by three consecutive typhoons; Quinta, Rolly, and Ulysses. Referring to the Albay mission, Alex said that it was a success considering they served more than 7,000 meals.
ARMK is currently in Cagayan with their Cagayan Relief Caravan which is a collaborative project with an NGO called Project Pearls, Gourmet Gypsy Art Cafe, and the University of Cagayan Valley.
People Behind ARMK
Precious Leaño and Alex Baluyut are no strangers to social and cultural work. Precious, a cultural worker and communications consultant, has a background in the arts as an exhibition curator and organized art workshops for the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in the 1990s. She is part of the Artists Incorporated, a cultural organization based in Los Baños, where she is occasionally called on to be an educator during conferences such as the Malikhaing Guro ng Pilipinas.
Alex Baluyut, a photojournalist and educator, has been in the industry for three decades covering events such as the Marcos era and the EDSA uprising. He is the grandson of Rosario Dimayuga-Luz, a respected Filipino interior designer. He is also the nephew of Arturo R. Luz, the Philippines’ seventh National Artist for Visual Arts. He was part of the Associated Press until he left to pursue his longing for documenting the people’s struggles in Mindanao and later worked as a freelance photojournalist in Manila. As an educator, he co-founded the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines, a non-profit organization established to educate and professionalize aspiring photographers. He also became a faculty member and mentor at the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Photojournalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Their careers and experience in their fields were not just something to brag about but also proved essential when it came down to organizing relief and humanitarian missions all over the country.
“PJ (Photojournalism) taught me the logistical mind to move in the straightest and most safe method which I use greatly in our movements. PJ taught me to trust my deepest instincts in making decisions which sometimes means life and death in war-torn situations and lastly, PJ made me exposed to the realities of the real world and how to function in many environments,” according to Alex.
The main reason why Alex’s partner, Precious, agreed with the idea of a humanitarian food aid was that she already had the experience of organizing people and events as a cultural worker. Their first mission also consisted of local artists, mostly friends of Precious, who volunteered to help with their operations.
Precious and three other artist friends already cooked for a cultural event in October, prior to their first mission, which was held inside UPLB called “Wika, Sining, at K” where they were able to feed a hundred attendees.
According to her, they decided to do it a little differently in 2013 by cooking for the attendees because they noticed that people would go out of the event, which was inside the university, to grab some food outside because it was a weekend where all the carinderias and food stalls closest to the campus were closed. This event not only was a success but it made her realize that this could be done again for humanitarian work.
“So nung tinanong ako ni Alex nung… November 15 ‘yon eh, ‘di ko makakalimutan yung araw na ‘yon, kung kaya namin na magluto sabi ko kaya natin dahil alam ko sa loob ko, sa isip ko na na nando’n yung mga artist na kaibigan na bukal sa loob nilang tumulong at tulungan kaming magluto sa gagawin namin.”
ARMK is an organization that engages with the community and utilizes its resources to maximize their capacity to serve and provide aid for the survivors. According to Alex, apart from their few committed volunteers, the community itself served as the base of their operations that provided on-ground volunteers from the local government units (LGUs), local NGOs, local churches, schools etc.
“Nun[g] umpisa, sa Villamor, ang dami talaga. Hundreds come and go. Some [are] friends and some [are] friends of friends. Tapos, as the years went on, unti-unti [r]in nawawala then I realized, it was not the amount of volunteers that would really stay with you [and] understand the vision. Also, I realized what was important din was the organizing capability of ARMK. I then started to utilize the volunteers from the communities itself,” Alex added.
Their vision according to Alex is “ To make people realize the importance of community, not just kitchens but a community [where] we care for each other, [where] the first thing you ask is kumain ka na ba? The cultural bond that food and the preparation of it makes us stronger as people.”
ARMK, as a non-partisan organization, partners with different groups and individuals and advocates for inclusivity & unity among individuals which fuels their missions because according to Precious and Alex, “Kahit sino papakainin namin, basta gutom.”
Culture, Art, and Social Awareness
It is evident that art and social awareness go hand in hand, seeing the founders being immersed in the arts as a cultural worker and photojournalist venturing into humanitarian work. There has always been a connection between culture, the arts, and anthropology.
Alex mentioned that as a photographer, he has covered many crucial events in the country such as disasters, wars, and repression during the Marcos regime, to name a few, but he felt that he could still do more than just take photographs and leave. His experience in his craft made him aware of the many social issues the country has seen throughout the years and he used what he knew to take action.
“Nakikita ko, as a journalist, of course it’s important that photos speak of the times, the truth, etc. pero parang nakukulangan ako. Pag-aalis ako let’s say pupunta akong isang disaster, kukuha ako ng litrato tapos aalis na ako, parang kawawa naman ‘tong mga ‘to. Wala na ba akong maibibigay?”
For ARMK, it’s not just a matter of serving food but it’s also understanding the community’s culture, beliefs, and their overall condition. According to Precious, it is important, as a cultural worker, to look at culture or our culture especially in a time of a disaster may it be a pandemic, typhoon, or war. In this case, food serves not only as relief but also as a symbol of cultural and social sensitivity.
“So malaking bagay sa amin na malaman kung ano ang masarap, ano ang comforting sa mga kakanin. So halimbawa kami ay nasa Sulu, hindi namin sila papakainin ng Sinigang, hindi nila kultura ang sinigang. Ang kultura nila ay chili-based o mataas ang chili content na dishes na may coconut milk and using the freshest ingredients. In Marawi, we cooked halal meals (a specific diet practiced by the Islamic religion), so importante yung kultura”
Lastly, Art Relief Mobile Kitchen started as a group of artists who volunteered for a cause, in which they got the name, but it is more than what they are composed of according to Precious.
“Anong saysay ng pagiging artista? Ang isang artista ay nag aalay ng kanyang gawain para makita ng iba. Yung truth mo ay inilalabas mo. So yung truth namin ni Alex nailalabas namin sa ginagawa namin. Yung truth na nakikita namin na ang mga tao ay magtutulong-tulong sa isang disaster nakikita namin yon at ‘yon ang pinakikita namin. ” [P]
Art Relief Mobile Kitchen
Contact Number: 0917 828 8690
Address: 10965 J. Velasco Street, UPLB 4031 Los Baños, Philippines
Photo from Art Relief Mobile Kitchen