Mobile kitchen serves hot meals to disaster victims

In the aftermath of Typhoon Odette in Surigao del Norte, ARMK served hot meals for distressed residents. (Inset) Artists and advocates Alex Baluyot and Precious Leano, co-founders of ARMK.

When the Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK) had its first aid mission to distribute cooked food in Yolanda-ravaged Tacloban City in December 2013, the contingent of 30 volunteers and eight tons of cooking equipment and food supplies filled an Air Force C-130 cargo plane.   

“We had to bring everything that we needed to cook — from stove, cauldron, frozen chicken to salt, onions, vinegar,” ARMK founder photo-journalist Alex Baluyut said. 

Eight years later, in December 2021, Baluyut and ARMK co-founder Precious Leaño landed in Surigao City with just their backpacks and new pots pre-weighed so as not to exceed the airline’s baggage allowance.  

Like the 1970’s Japanese anime fighters “Voltes V”,  Baluyut and Leaño were ready to “volt in” with ARMK volunteers on a humanitarian feeding mission in Surigao and Agusan, which suffered the brunt of super typhoon Odette.  

The ARMK team in Surigao del Sur had been cooking hot meals for residents of the low-lying Madrid town who were evacuated by local officials a day before Odette’s landfall on December 17.   

As soon as the roads were cleared of debris, Angely Chi and Kat Petines of ARMK Davao chapter began transporting cooking equipment and food supplies, which were running short in Surigao. In Iligan City, the ARMK community kitchen led by chef Marygrace Araneta, also went into full throttle, cooking meals for city residents displaced by floods. 

With Baluyut and Leaño “volting in,” two more ARMK community kitchens were set up in Surigao City and Butuan City. Residents in the affected areas volunteered to man the stoves.  “We used to bring volunteer cooks from Manila, but now people in the community come over. They see us, and they help,” Leaño said. 

At the start, people were shy and tentative. They could have been simply confused, according to Baluyut, who noted that the first three days of a crisis were often chaotic and confusing. A seeming calm would descend upon a place when hot meals were served.  

“It must be difficult to make decisions on an empty stomach,” Baluyut said. He observed that after a meal, people would start doing things seemingly with a clearer purpose, like looking for lost relatives, salvaging whatever was left of their belongings and even seeking medical help for an injury they had earlier ignored.  

“Hot food is energizing for people in distress,” Leaño noted. She had seen this in Tacloban, Batangas, Sulu, Maguindanao, Davao, Marawi, Batanes, Samar, Bohol and other places where they had food missions.   

It did not matter if the people were displaced because of a typhoon, fire, earthquake, flash floods, volcanic eruption or even war, as had happened in Marawi City. The feeling of helplessness was always there. A freshly cooked meal somehow brought back a sense of normalcy, a feeling that things were going to be fine. 

This is not to say that all food missions are the same. Each has its distinct characteristics, Baluyut said during ARMK’s anniversary celebration in November.  Culture and religion peculiar to a place are considered and reflected in the menu. Only halal food is served in Muslim areas, for instance, and the cooking equipment are left with a caretaker in the community.  

The main thing that is constant is the spirit of volunteerism and the generosity of donors here and abroad.  

Getting volunteers in Manila for the Yolanda mission in 2013 was easy, Baluyut recalled. “We just posted on Facebook, and they came.”  For the succeeding missions, it was another story. Baluyut had to rely on his church and media contacts for recommendations. The first option was always the parish church. Thus, the first ARMK meals were cooked at the church yard, with volunteers pitching tents nearby.  

Later, well-to-do families offered their backyards and even spare rooms for the volunteers to sleep in.  Barangay officials were informed for security and traffic coordination. Local businessmen, professionals and civic organizations also linked up with ARMK. Even some politicians offered help, but Baluyut had to steer away from “personalities.”   

“ARMK is non-government organization, a non-profit humanitarian emergency feeding program,” Baluyut explained.  It was an idea he developed as a photojournalist assigned in conflict areas. Watching the paramedics from  Medicins sans Frontieres (Medicine without Borders) treat war victims, regardless of which side they were fighting for, he wondered about the possibility of a similar organization, but offering freshly cooked meals.   

Then Yolanda (international name Haiyan) happened, abruptly ending a five-day live-in media workshop at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Laguna, where Baluyut was scheduled to deliver a lecture on photography.  

When news about the typhoon reached him, the photography lecturer who was also the chief cook at the media workshop,  decided to bring his tools and supplies to Villamor Air Base to cook for rescuers and relief workers waiting for a ride to Tacloban. The first meal, he remembered very well, was the Filipino favorite comfort food, lugaw (congee).  

“We started as an emergency response to Yolanda in November 2013. We did not expect we would be influencing people and changing mindsets along the way. This is no longer just a response, but a lifelong advocacy,” Baluyut explained.  

ARMK now has chapters in key cities that can be activated at short notice.  Each chapter has its own mobile kitchen that can produce hot meals for a maximum of 3,000 people at any one time.  The ARMK chapter nearest to a disaster area can be mobilized within hours, when weather and road condition permit.   

ARMK also has a network of donors that enables it to do its work. The list is long and getting longer. Baluyut has linked up with other humanitarian kitchens abroad that share his vision. Feeding missions for victims of   Typhoon Odette, for instance, were made possible with the help of the Jollibee Group Foundation, a regular and reliable donor, and the World Central Kitchen (WCK), a food relief program that began in 2010 after an earthquake devastated Haiti.  

“The kitchen is the place where people gather to cook, to eat and to talk. When a family loses its kitchen due to a calamity, it loses an important part of its life,” Baluyut said. The ARMK seeks to fill the void by serving hot meals straight from a kitchen, just like in the days before the calamity.   

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