Filipino poor scavenge for recycled food to survive

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - They call it “pagpag,” meaning dusted off or recycled, and it usually refers to food.

Garbage scavengers in the impoverished Manila area of Tondo are not looking just for re-usable goods among the rubbish but, increasingly, for food to feed their families.

“A lot of scavengers sell recycled food that they segregate from other waste. It’s common practice around here,” said Tondo resident Amy Ignacio, who has been collecting trash from a fast-food restaurant for the past six years.

Feeling it was wasteful to throw away leftover chicken with some meat remaining, she re-cooks it to make pagpag to feed her children.

“With the kind of life we live, this helps a lot. When you buy a bag worth a few pesos, you can already feed one whole family,” Ignacio said.

Ignacio said none of her three children have become sick from eating recycled food.

When she collects enough, she shares the re-cooked leftovers with her neighbors.

Thousands of families like Ignacio’s live in Tondo, among the mounds of garbage bags that they transport from nearby dumpsites.

Most earn less than 200 pesos ($5) a day and subsist on segregating and selling recyclable waste such as plastics and styrofoam.

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With food inflation eating up the income of families living in Tondo, some days they can only buy a few kilos of rice.

As more and more turn to pagpag, some authorities are concerned about the health threats eating leftovers may pose.

The National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) warns that eating recycled food severely compromises children’s nutrition, and food-related diseases may appear later.

But for those living hand-to-mouth, the threats can seem far-distant.

Three out of ten Filipinos in a population of 88.57 million people live below a government-defined poverty line of 6,274 pesos ($149) a month per family of five.

“I eat this sometimes, when my mother does some scavenging. It tastes good,” said seven-year-old Mariz Lozada of pagpag.

Ryan Telegrepo, Ignacio’s neighbor, said poor people cannot be choosy enough to reject recycled food.

He is not worried about feeding leftovers to his seven-month-old baby.

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“Before we would only (at) a pinch, eat some leftovers. Now, it’s our main meal. Recycled food. That’s why you see many people selling it in small bags,” he said.

Though the practice is widespread in the Tondo area, the chairman of a scavengers’ cooperative prohibits his members from eating and selling recycled food.

“You don’t know where this food is from. It’s as if you devalue the person by selling him food that has already been eaten. It’s inhuman,” said Danny Tanael, chairman of Eco-Aid cooperative.

The NAPC also warns against eating leftovers and recommends needy families apply for cash transfers to buy food.

“There are other sources of livelihood through which poor families can earn,” said Dolores de Quiros-Castillo, assistant secretary for the anti-poverty commission.

“At the end of the day, this kind of food taken from garbage bags is not good for the health.”

Editing by Gillian Murdoch