Free Lunch



One-year-old Shane resolutely holds out a plastic bowl as the giant pots of rice and chicken soup are opened. She knows the drill: once the lids are removed and the servers take their position with ladles in hand, it’s lunchtime.

Shane is one of the 200 kids in a Payatas community who gets a free meal through a charity-sponsored feeding program. On Tuesdays through Saturdays, her grandmother takes her to the program site, a covered area outside a rundown warehouse.

Payatas, a large estate located in the most populous city in the Philippines, houses a 22-hectare dumpsite. It is also home to about 500,000 people, a large number of whom make their living scavenging on the mountain of garbage.

Payatas had its day of infamy 10 years ago when trash, piled as high as 70 feet (about the height of a seven-story building), collapsed on a slum area at the foot of the dumpsite and killed nearly 300 people.

Project Matthew, a local charity supported by a private donor, began its program in the area in 2007. When it started, about half of the children who attended were underweight and malnourished, Lina Mendiola says.

Lina handles the feeding operations of the organization. After nearly four years, malnutrition cases have dropped among kids who attend regularly, she says.

A majority of the children, however, are still on the thin side. For most of them, the food they get is not just for themselves. They bring it back to their homes where it will be shared by the whole family.

Project Matthew’s program in an area usually lasts five to seven years, Lina says. Apart from the feeding activity, the organization also provides scholarships to elementary and high school students. It currently supports 16 scholars in the community.

The children’s mothers, however, are yearning for a livelihood project, she says. Dole-outs don’t last forever and scavenging can hardly support the needs of a family.

She hopes to make this a reality but she’s still figuring out how it can be done. Project Matthew only supports feeding and scholarship programs. Livelihood initiatives are not its expertise.

In a few years, Project Matthew might have to leave Payatas and start a feeding program in another poor community. Will Shane and her family have enough to eat by then without the benefit of a free meal? For now, they have one cup of rice and a piece of chicken to tide them over.

Photo: The children watch a short program prepared by the organizers before lunch starts. Photo by Aissa De Guia

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