The East West Seed Foundation (EWSF), which turned 10 in 2022, is the corporate social responsibility arm of East West Seed. “East West Seed works for better seeds, for better yield for farmers. We are working for food security and proper nutrition for every Filipino,” said East West Seed Foundation managing director Ma. Elena “Bing” van Tooren.
Started in 2012, EWSF conducts training on vegetable production to beneficiaries in partnership with schools and organizations. First called Oh My Gulay Tanim sa Kinabukasan (OMG PSK), the program was renamed Veggie Eskwela. The organization has two Facebook Pages, EWSF, that posts tips on vegetable production, and OMG, which provides nutrition facts and fun trivia to encourage vegetable consumption.
“Our theory of change is that the development of home school and community vegetable gardens leads to awareness, availability, accessibility and affordability of nutritious food, so that this in turn will lead to increased family consumption and nutrition,” van Tooren said.
In 2020, the pandemic hastened Veggie Eskwela’s plans to go online. As of 2021, EWSF has worked with “about 27,000 student beneficiaries, 2800 teachers in 242 partner barangays in 1323 partner schools… over half of [which]… happened in 2021 because of our online training model.”
The Foundation partners with civic organizations and government agencies who share their advocacy, including a Gulayan sa Paaralan project with the Department of Education (DepEd) that encourages the establishment of school gardens. “The nice thing about DepEd is they have 47,000 schools in 42,000 barangays. So every barangay has a school. Some have two. Imagine if they inspired their community to grow vegetables?” van Tooren said. “That is an automatic model garden if the school has a good garden. That’s why we’re going to the schools. We will support them as much as we can.”
Case Study: Baseco, Manila
Last April 2022 marked the culmination rites of a VeggieEscuela program in Baseco, Manila, in cooperation with the NGO Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) as a supplement to their weekly feeding program to 300 children.
The VeggieEscuela urban gardening program, which began in December the year before, focused on training volunteer parents how to plant vegetables in their own spaces, taking into consideration the very limited space in the densely populated urban area. They were also given lessons in nutrition and taught simple and delicious recipes that utilize the vegetables they’ve grown. Even while training was ongoing, PBSP representatives were already registering reports of children gaining weight because of the availability of vegetables at home.
Remaelyn Camus, 30, is a mother of five who was one of the parents who volunteered to participate in Baseco’s VeggieEscuela. A former food vendor, she found her source of income drying up because of the pandemic. She joined the program because she wanted to learn something useful while weathering the pandemic. She already had an interest in growing her own food, so she knew she wouldn’t be bored–she just wanted to learn how to grow vegetables in a limited space. “It’s a challenge to plant 9in such a small space) so all I have at home are small containers of (plants like) oregano (that we use) for the children’s cough,” she shared.
Even though Camus already had an interest in gardening, she revealed that she learned a lot. “All I knew is that you needed soil, a seed, water, and sunlight, but when I took the seminar, I learned that you needed fertilizer, you had to inspect for pests, and that you can’t water sensitive plants like tomatoes everyday, while there are other plants that need more watering.”
She also appreciates the effect growing their own food had on her family and her personal well being. “I feel the safety and the health of my family… especially now, during the pandemic, when vegetables are expensive even though they’re sometimes wilted, and you can’t complain. But if you grow it yourself, it’s a different feeling. You’re closer to nature and can bond with your family because your kids become curious about what you’re doing (and will want to help).”
Growing their own food has more than just encouraged Camus’ children’s interest in gardening. It inspired their creativity as well, as they have been decorating the planters. They also tell other people to stay away from their plants because they are excited to be able to harvest when the time comes.
Another tangible effect is the money they are able to save on groceries. “Okra’s prices rose to P10 for three to four pieces. But if you have an okra plant, you can sometimes harvest three to five pieces if you care for it well. If the price of tomatoes goes up, we’ll be able to save on that as well.”
Camus shares that the family is planning to move to Negros (she declined to specify where) as soon as quarantine levels ease. “I’m excited. In the province, we usually grow rice, corn, or sugarcane. I’m excited to try growing vegetables, so thank you to the sponsors who gave us seeds because I may not be able to use them here, but hopefully, they’ll grow well in the province.”
She encourages everyone to try growing their own food. “I used to think that it didn’t make sense if you were working because you can just buy [vegetables], but from my recent experience, having access to fresh vegetables you’ve planted yourself, even if it’s just kangkong—the taste, the quality, even the way it looks is different. It’s not like what you get in the market…. and you’re sure that there won’t be a negative effect on your family’s health because you grew it yourself.”
Access to nutritious food for everyone
EWSF’s goal is simple: “I want everyone to eat,” van Tooren said. “I want everyone to be eating vegetables because vegetables are the healthiest and most nutritious food that you can eat.”
This is especially important for mothers and children. Citing the Food and Nutrition Research Institute’s (FNRI) findings that one out of five Filipino children are underweight or stunted, she said, “It is a very sad story for the future of the Philippines because the child cannot reach their potential.”
She shared that during the pandemic, many participants who maintained their Gulayan sa Paaralan gardens shared their harvests with families with malnourished children. “They are encouraging parents of these malnourished children to grow vegetables,” she said.
While van Tooren hopes that more people will consider growing their own food, she acknowledges that it can be a challenge, especially at first. Still, the benefits can be worth it, especially in savings and nutrition. “It’s not that easy but you can still do it once you gain experience in it. That’s the other thing. I don’t like to say this but growing vegetables is not easy. We want everyone to try.”
This article appeared in Agriculture Magazine’s December 2022 issue.