Good Food Community: Working Towards a Better Food System
Manila/ Terra/ Environment

Good Food Comunity: Working with Filipino Farmers for a Fairer Food System


About seventeen years ago, in 2007, farmers of the Higaonon indigenous group in Sumilao, Bukidnon, marched from Mindanao to Manila for 60 days in a bid to reclaim 144 hectares of ancestral land that was meant to be apportioned to them through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). At the time, the land had already been sold by the Quisumbing clan to San Miguel Foods Inc. (SMFI), which had turned portions of the area into a hog farm.

"Walk for Land, Walk for Justice," as it was called, spanned 1,700 kilometers and earned nationwide support from the public, local government units, and the church. It was a historic and victorious non-violent campaign for the farmers, compelling then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) to sign an executive order nullifying a 1995 Malacañang decision that converted the contested ancestral land for agro-industrial use. This allowed the farmers, finally, to reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs.

Good Food Community
Good Food Community

Charlene Tan, founder of the Good Food Community, remembers the Sumilao walk vividly – and it's an event that has stuck with her ever since.

The bright-eyed Tan, a graduate of Civil Engineering from the University of the Philippines (UP), Diliman, was working for an NGO then, at a time when people around her were also getting into “sustainable development."

"Witnessing the Sumilao march through pictures and stories over a decade ago moved me so much so that I wanted us all to pay attention and do something about this grave injustice," she told The Beat Asia.

Tan and her prayer community pooled their resources and skills to establish the not-for-profit social enterprise Good Food Community, where they work together with smallholder Filipino farmers from partner farming communities to provide organic, seasonal produce through community-shared agriculture (CSA).

Tan shared she fell in love with the solidarity economy model of CSA (also known as community-supported agriculture in other countries), which underscores the crucial relationship between farmer and “eater.”

Under Good Food Community, eaters or consumers commit to support and purchase the farmers' harvest through a subscription. These sets of produce are then delivered to households on a one-time or weekly basis. On one hand, smallholder farmers are able to earn a better living through regular purchases and fair, fixed prices agreed upon by dialogue, which protect them from the uncertainties of the market and from having to engage in "bagsak presyo" setups. On the other, eaters throughout the metro are nourished by the farmers' organic, biodiverse, and ethically-grown produce – and learn along the way to eat according to the seasons.

Yet the concept of CSA doesn't just limit itself to the economics of the work. According to Tan, the "why" behind their philosophy to work towards a better food system for all also needs to be surfaced.

"We believe a lot of our crises today are rooted in the systemic violence of capitalism, which privatizes food production, puts the market ahead of human needs, and alienates us from the ecological base upon which we all depend," she said. "Who does this food system work for? Certainly not our farmers, and it doesn’t seem like it’s working for eaters, either."

She likened the alternative people-based system of CSA to the Filipino communal concept of "bayanihan" but for food – one that also aims to erase the alienation between farmer and eater to allow for a more meaningful relationship to emerge: partnership.

"The cultural infrastructure of our lives is ill-equipped to receive the gift of what the farmers offer. All this on top of a huge disconnection psychologically, physically, culturally to what farmers go through,” she added. "Farmers and us, no doubt, needed a practice and culture of self-organization. It’s clear that they need each other in so many ways but have been accustomed by industry to be alienated from each other, to trade individually."

Good Food Community Partner Farmers
Website/Good Food Community

Challenges of Being Counter-Culture

Tan admitted that what Good Food Community offers is "very counter-culture." Aside from the challenges in communicating to a wider market the ethos behind CSA, their system also doesn't really match the usual "market-pandering forms" nor follow the modes of charity.

It has also been a struggle to stay afloat. Good Food Community doesn't raise the prices of its produce and CSA “farmshare” subscriptions too high so these could remain accessible.

The revenue side of things, she said, is a difficult sell. Meanwhile, every expense is "a labor of love and community." Working with diverse farmers, promoting and marketing, managing transactions, paying the farmers, packing perishable vegetables, and transporting produce – all of these take a village to carry out, and rely on the goodwill and hardiness of various actors and partners.

"There’s the idea of patient capital, though. And in our case, we believe in patiently building social capital. If we want to transform our food system, we need to pay attention to process as much as results, we need to grow at [a] people-based pace. There has been immense profit, to be honest, it’s just not accumulated by the few and it’s just not financial."

Milestones and Beyond

When Good Food Community was just starting out, Tan shared that one of the immediate challenges she saw that affected smallholder farmers was the lack of state infrastructure to support them to grow organic produce. These ranged from where farmers can get seeds and lack of capital to purchase farm implements to the absence of a marketplace for eaters to support their harvest, and the problem of transporting their wares, among others.

Striking a balance between advocating for smallholder farmers and engaging with the public to support CSA has not been easy, as well.

"I’ve gone out of balance multiple times,” she said. “I think the financial situation and relationship design is a good balancing tool.”

Smallholder farmers have more to gain if Good Food Community can sell their produce more and represent them faithfully, as per Tan. Meanwhile, eaters will also benefit if they are consistently delivered fresh and quality produce.

"Over time, theoretically, the balance is found when both farmers and consumers see themselves as part of this larger revolution that will benefit us all."

Amid these challenges, however, much has also been gained, from small wins to big ones. For one, having Good Food Community's main office in Cubao means they are able to consolidate the produce from various smallholder farmers more comfortably. The installment of a walk-in chiller just before the pandemic lockdowns also allowed them to keep the produce fresh during cooler or more humid conditions and deliver to more households.

During a time when Good Food Community ran out of subscribers, Tan turned to her friend Mabi David for help, which led to the creation of Good Food Sundays, a weekly Sunday market of local goods held at Mandala Park in Mandaluyong. David eventually joined the team as its advocacy lead.

Good Food Community has also been supporting urban poor communities in Quezon City through its "solidarity shares,” allowing eaters to support urban gardens, a community kitchen, and a resiliency fund for farmers. Today, Good Food Community has partnered with restaurants and chefs who want to directly work with farmers, which helps sustain their revenue when subscriptions are thin.

Good Food Community and Good Food Sundays kicked off 2024 with a slew of events, from talks on women and well-being, to positive workplaces, as well as food and community. There are also painting and poetry workshops, solidarity yoga, reading sessions, weekend busking, and more.

This year, Tan and the Good Food Community team have big goals and hopes for their partner farming communities and members.

"We would like our farmers to be able to situate themselves in a larger organic farming community and movement, to feel nourished by and to contribute to," she said. "We’d like our community members in the city to feel hopeful and empowered as agents of change in our food system. We’d like to build regular self-organizing spaces where community members can practice collective care."

Follow Good Food Community on Facebook and Instagram to learn more about their work and upcoming events. Subscribe to a CSA Farmshare here!

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