Pandemic finds ‘cure’ in food

Mitzi Gamboa Tongoy (The Philippine Star) - February 25, 2021 - 12:00am

Here we are, 11 months of pandemic and we are still smiling here in Bacolod City and the province of Negros Occidental. We’ve had rough rides in the past like the sugar crisis in the 80’s, but we’ve managed to pull through. Today, the fear we felt 11 months ago has turned to hope and courage. Coping isn’t easy. The new normal is, well, new. And if you’re an old dog, you know what they say about new tricks.

In an island where food is a tourist attraction, the same became our coping mechanism in this pandemic. Laid back no more, the Negrense rolled up her sleeves, got her hands and brain working, and started selling food.

Negros Occidental closed its doors to the rest of the country on March 16. It started with a general community quarantine, and on March 31, stricter measures were in place with enhanced community quarantine. We were afraid to go out, funds were dwindling and we started asking that million-dollar question: “How will I eat?”

Going around the city, most restaurants were closed but a few had signages offering take-out or delivery, which not a lot of people knew then. This was a good time to make a list of places where we could buy food. Since being online was the only major activity happening then, I started the Facebook group “Bacolod Q-sina Eats (formerly Bacolod Quarantine Eats) on March 28. There were other groups already existing before the pandemic: Love Local Food Bacolod promotes local food establishments and focuses on food tourism; Kaon Ta Pare showcases what one is currently eating to entice people to try it out for themselves; It’s More Namets Eating in Bacolod gives a rundown of what’s “namit” (delicious) in Bacolod. These are just a few of the many food groups here. Each one has its own audience and format, but “admins” (group owners) adjusted them when quarantine happened to accommodate selling of food.

People wanted to help when the lockdown started, that’s for sure. I knew a lot of people were worried about where to buy food (and medicine). But from private messages, I also discovered people who lived alone and could not leave the house at all to buy necessities. The invites and requests to join the group came from everywhere. It must be everybody’s way of trying to get some sense of normalcy in this pandemic. No food? Buy here. No money? Sell here. It’s a win-win situation.

People shared the group all the way to the US, Canada and the Middle East because OFWs wanted to buy food for their loved ones back home. Slowly, the community became a comfort zone.  Food wasn’t just for sustenance anymore. It was going to be the new source of income for a lot of now-jobless people. The perfect product to sell in a province where food is THE way of life.

In a short time, there were enough sellers of eggs, meats, desserts, keto diets, coffee, milk tea, snacks, etc. From neighboring farms came fresh milk, fruits and vegetables, shrimps, tilapia and bangus. From the fishermen came crabs and lobsters, and freshly caught fish. From Iloilo, came their famed siopaos. From Cebu, Carcar chicharon. From Manila, Shake Shack and Mendokoro. As you can see, there are no borders when it comes to feeding a Negrense.

The word oversupply was unheard of. When farmers were faced with problems in bringing their produce from farm to market, all it took was one post to sell it. From the mountains, one person hauled the produce to the city and delivered it door to door. If supply was greater than demand, we didn’t stop buying. We bought and gave it to neighbors, policemen, frontliners, border patrols, etc. just to help farmers sell their inventory.

Sellers became busy. There was a lot of competition but it wasn’t stiff. There’s room for everyone in this online world. They became more creative by changing their menus, diversifying and coming up with new dishes.

The community discovered new talents in home kitchens who would whip up lola’s old-fashioned recipes and then sell it. Families pulled together, assigning kitchen duties to each member. Some made schedules on what they would sell each day, so that they could take advance orders, and cook only what was needed, thereby minimizing extra inventory. Cakes were trimmed down in sizes because gatherings were not allowed anyway, so mini cakes became the new thing. Trucks loaded with fruits, vegetables, chicken, and fish were allowed to enter villages on certain days, so that homeowners could purchase from them.

With the bayanihan spirit rising, it was only proper that groups evolve into something more than just a selling platform. Sure, the aim is to inspire people to sell. But it wasn’t enough to just sell. You had to sell properly. Each platform had significant memberships, creating a community where members had one common denominator: food.

Sellers were given tips on how to post, what works and what doesn’t. It’s not only about getting a lot of orders, but it’s about selling quality products. It’s not just about earning money, but it’s about gaining repeat customers. It’s about being in a relationship, built not only on your product, but also on trust and honesty.

On the other side of the fence, buyers got tips on how to deal with the sellers. Those who were “technologically-compromised” were taught how to navigate online and place orders. Boomers were forced to learn mobile banking to pay purchases. Yes, everyone learns, everyone earns.

We’re a bit more relaxed here now, but strict requirements for travel to Bacolod are still in place. Scrolling the different platforms in social media is the new way to shop. I’d like to think that the virus has broken that social divide, not only in this group but in other platforms as well. Whatever so-called class we think we belong to doesn’t work here because the sellers and buyers come from all levels of society. No one’s got an edge over the other because hey, we’re all riding that same pandemic boat here.

Negros is proud to have discovered so many new and delicious food during the quarantine. I’m proud to say our sellers have moved up a notch when it comes to standards. In a small Facebook community like ours, we’ve all learned to follow rules and practice kindness. And that’s a good thing.

Someday, our doors will open again for everyone to see and taste what Negros Occidental is all about. We can’t wait to hear you say, “Ay, ka namit guid!”

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Mitzi Tongoy is a housewife living in Bacolod City. Previously a travel and features writer, she still continues to write for special projects.

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