KUSINA NG PAG-IBIG: COOKING, FEEDING, LOVING ALL THE WAY
By Ana de Villa – Singson
“Where There is a Need, We Feed!” That’s the slogan-cum-mission statement of KUSINA NG PAG-IBIG, a feeding program begun by 4 very good friends from Assumption High School Batch 1968. Feeding as many as 3,000 heads per week, it’s hard to believe that the large-scale operations are tightly-run by only 4 very good and dear friends.
“It started after the Taal eruption in January 2020. I saw people who were adequately provided for, they were farmers with livelihood, but they were dumped into refugee centers. There were no cooking facilities and they were going hungry. I started going there 3 times a week,” said Coroy Diaz. So began a feeding program started by Coroy, who roped in longtime bosom buddies Tessa Mortensen, Chona Mercado, Len Fernandez.
The feeding program that started with a few hundred packed meals grew to thousands. Chona recalls “ In the beginning, we were pulling from our own pockets. [But for] how long could we do this? We needed regular donors. We were burning out. Even if you want to, your staff (who help cook the meals) will burn out. We had to rescale and do something for the long term basis.”
So the Assumption network kicked in. Coroy sent letters to their classmates. And her letters were as irrepressible as the big-hearted founding members of the group. “ While sitting pretty in your homes, the people are going hungry.” With this call to action, generous hearts of people were moved and donations came pouring in. They are particularly grateful to “Uncle William” for the chicken, eggs, vegetables and a benefactor foundation for tinned fish that they receive regularly. It is noteworthy that these benefactors prefer to remain unrecognized, giving generously without any expectation whatsoever. What a confluence of largesse of spirit and good intent!
The pandemic that put Manila in hard lockdown was an obstacle they had to overcome. Said Coroy: “It was getting crazy. This pandemic was making me insane. Of course I was afraid! “ That Coroy, Chona and Len contracted COVID prior to being immunized was a large challenge that they didn’t allow to get in the way of their food – providing advocacy. Rallying from their battles with Covid (Coroy was even hooked to an intubator in the ICU), they were dismayed to discover that “in the hospitals, PGH, St Lukes, etc, all cafeteria operations stopped.” Unbelievably, with hospital kitchens closed, the valiant nurses who spent sleepless nights fighting off the onslaught and terror of the pandemic, were surviving on instant noodles. So Kusina ng Pag-Ibig fed them too, providing sustenance to the battle-weary frontliners. And once the cafeterias of hospitals reopened, they focused their efforts on people on the streets.
They distributed packed meals in Tondo, feeding up to 3 thousand in one week. They regaled me with stories of just how desperately hungry the people were. Not waiting for spoons or forks, the grateful beneficiaries would rip open the food packs and eat ravenously with their own hands. They regularly distribute 400 packed meals to children in Malibay. They ventured further out to Del Pan, a bridge beside which squatters live in hovels by the cantilevered waterway. Wherever they find poverty-stricken hungry congregations of squatters, they would go there to feed: Grace Park in Pasay, under the Magallanes Bridge, along Quirino Avenue where a “long city of about 5 thousand squatters live.”
And when the Kusina ng Pag-Ibig group comes with food, the people shout “ Biyaya! Biyaya! It is so heartwarming and also so heartbreaking to see how poverty-stricken they are.” When I asked them how they determined where the needy are, Coroy’s quick response was: “We just walk. They are easy to find!” Such bravery, such courage, such open-handedness of generous souls!
The operations are not easy. They cook up the meals in their 4 homes and their staff are heavily involved, with some of them waking up as early as 3 in the morning to cook vegetables which cannot be pre-cooked, unlike chicken, meat and rice. When I asked them how their staff committed to the “factory-line” type of operations ( each of the 4 households would prepare at least 150 packed meals per day!), Tessa recounted the story of her helper, Cherry, who lost a son. “Each time Cherry cooks, it’s a prayer for her son’s soul in purgatory. When she is pagod, she offers it for her son.” As for Chona, her cook, who finished only Grade 4 level of studies, sagely said “ Mam, buti na lang, natutuwa ako nagpapakain kami, kaysa sa kami ang humihingi ng pagkain.”
There were many learnings along the way. During summer, they learned that food has to be separately packed before being boxed since mixing them up accelerates spoilage. They learned to avoid tomatoes, onions, catsup as these are guaranteed “spoilers.” Vinegar and salt are their go-to preservatives, with soy sauce and garlic as a favorite flavorings. They learned to navigate traffic and account for travel time to avoid spoilage which remains to be one of their greatest challenges.
They learned how to administer too. Len, laughingly said “ I am the designated accountant and I flunked Math in school. Bahala na! It’s a work of love, I don’t even do Excel… longhand plus and minus only.” Tessa consolidates expenses from Chona and Coroy who do the buying. They have learned to be creative in storing the approximately 165 kilos of vegetables and 1520 eggs that they prepare regularly. Tessa said that her condominium now looks like a sari-store, while Len creatively hides cabans of rice behind her sofa, hoping to hide them from her husband! They have progressed much too. Last Christmas, on top of the feeding program, they created special timbas, pails filled with food, personal care products, slippers and toys. Aptly called Timba ng Biyaya, they gifted 475 timbas in 2020. This year, they are packing 1300 timbas…and counting!
They laugh and joke and it is easy to see that what sustains their initiative are not just their collective commitment to feed the hungry, not just the donations pouring in, but also the deep and loving bond of friendship that they share. When Coroy said that she is doing this to earn brownie points in heaven, Tessa quipped that Coroy needs 50 years to atone for her sins. And Coroy bantered that Tessa has many sins to account for too, though perhaps not as many as hers! They laugh, they laugh a lot…and the laughter and true friendship that started more that 5 decades ago in high school, is as much a reason for the longevity of their project, now closing in on its 2nd year anniversary.
How long can this be sustained? Waking up regularly at 3 or 5 in the morning to cook, pack and distribute? It’s no easy task! What these 4 friends are doing is the work of an army of volunteers. Said Chona “ Our donors are pretty steady. But our energy…we suffer too when there are changes in domestic staff.” But they are quick to jump back into the daily grind. “I don’t think we can stop,” says Tessa. “As long as the pandemic is on, we will try. Pagod na pagod na kami,” said Len. But where there is a need, these 4 friends will continue to feed. And to seal the deal, “Jesus is our CEO. We receive everything we need,” says Coroy.
Giving without expectation of recognition nor reward, I ask them nonetheless, how this benefits them. Len finds fulfillment “nakakataba ng puso when you know you are helping children who do not have anything. I have gratefulness for being able to give back.” For Tessa, this is “ food for my soul. I am able to give back.” For Chona, “I find my life seeking more simplicity because I see others living with so little and wanting only such basic things. Everything I thought that was important and necessary are not necessary anymore.” And for Coroy, “the reward is waking up grateful everyday that you help people that can never say thank you to you.”
KUSINA NG PAG-IBIG. 4 ladies feeding thousands of hungry people every week. 4 ladies who could not stomach sitting prettily in their homes when outside many in the streets are hungry. 4 women who through their passionate zeal and sustained actions show us how much good even a few good souls can do.
Coroy, Tessa, Chona, Len, we salute you! May many more be inspired by you! And may the love you give with every single food pack you serve come back a thousandfold!