By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

Faced with food issues and unemployment caused by COVID-19, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines began making connections.

The Episcopal Church in the Philippines, a member of the Anglican Communion, was founded in 1901 and comprises seven dioceses with more than 125,000 members.

COVID-19 continues to ravage the country. “Yesterday we had 14,000 cases,” said Floyd P. Lalwet, provincial secretary. “It is very difficult.”

As Reuters reported: “The Philippines health ministry reported a record 18,332 COVID-19 infections on Monday, August 23, and for the first time acknowledged community transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus in its capital region. The Philippines has recorded a total of 1.86 million COVID-19 cases.”

Lalwet described two initiatives to combat COVID-caused starvation throughout the Philippines.

The first issue to tackle was skyrocketing unemployment. COVID-19 halted the tourist trade, forcing thousands of jitney drivers out of work in Manilla. Farmers in the mountains had no way to transport their food to the cities and to markets. Lalwet said the Philippines has food but lacked a way to deliver fresh goods.

For its part, the church’s call to action connected these two disparate groups for the benefit of the populace.

“When the pandemic started, we were going out to buy groceries, and we were shocked that the jitney drivers set up a begging station,” Lalwet said. “They were stopping all who went by and appealing for assistance. We learned that they were jitney drivers and they lost their income. They were starving. That was happening right before our gate at the cathedral.”

At the same time, “We were working with farmers. No one was buying their product. We had a problem distributing vegetables.”

Lalwet said the church stepped in. “We invited them in, and asked to talk about it. And we had an answer to their problem. They folded up their begging tent. They started to do the deliveries of the vegetables. It just fits.”

In addition to food delivery, the church identified needed tasks at the cathedral complex in Quezon City, which meant more work for unemployed jitney drivers. “We had other jobs in the compound, like carpenters’ repairs,” Lalwet said. “It is very difficult to get carpenters now.”

The church also established a voucher system for easy access to payments. “We set up a labor voucher,” Lalwet said. “They needed money urgently. We gave them a voucher for them to redeem when they work. It made everything easy.”

Calling the drivers “our regular partners,” Lalwet said the arrangement continues even as they slowly return to work. “When the jitney drivers went back to their usual job, their wives came to work. Now 260 families partner with us.”

Another connection came in the form of a United Thank Offering grant to help in the storage, regulation, and fair pricing of produce.

In Spring 2021, UTO awarded a $24,986 COVID-19 Impact Grant to the diocese of North Central Philippines for building a food center.

That request was in line with UTO’s guidelines. “During the two rounds of COVID-19 grants, many of them went to feeding ministries,” said the Rev. Heather Melton, the Episcopal Church’s UTO coordinator.

The issue in the Philippines, Lalwet said, was the farmers would “harvest the product, bring it market, and just as they enter the city, the price drops down.”

Through the UTO grant, a central coordinated food center will assist 500 farmers, allowing for better control of trade and avoiding price gouging. The center will help an online ordering system drastically cut food waste.

When completed, the center will be a true trading post. “Our famers can go to the center, wait out the price, and the center will provide a place to address any problems,” Lalwet said.

Slowly the situation is getting better. In the Philippines, the biggest purchasers of produce are restaurants, Lalwet said. “With them closed because of COVID, no one was buying. During the pandemic we were selling directly to households. Now that restaurants have opened in a limited way, they are buying more vegetables.”

Lalwet was reflective on the connections that were established. “People always say that we are helping them. The reality is that they are helping us. It’s really a partnership.

“God really works in mysterious ways.”