In Los Baños kitchen, a spark for emergency food aid movement

ARMK is a volunteer movement that provides homestyle meals to those displaced by disasters and conflicts all over the Philippines. 

Alex Baluyut and Precious Leano, the duo behind ARMK. (Photo by Dek Fernandez / Laguna Now)

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna – Tucked inside a compound at the University of the Philippines here, the house of couple Alex Baluyut and Precious Leano has hosted lunches, dinners and get-togethers for friends. The couple call it “the Garden Cottage” because the compound is, in fact, a garden. It’s where they have been pursuing their passion for home cooking. It’s also where a movement started.

It was 2013, when typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) devastated large parts of the country, particularly Tacloban, and took the lives of 10,000 people. Earlier that week, Alex, a renowned photojournalist and documentary photographer, and Precious, a former art curator for Crucible Gallery in SM Megamall, volunteered to cook for the delegates of a photojournalism workshop. While news of Yolanda survivors arriving at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City started streaming in, the couple decided to make better use of their cooking skills. They gathered Chris Quintana, Al Benavente and other photographer friends who remained at the workshop, inventoried the small number of kitchenware that Alex had bought for the event, and went to work.

What was originally a feeding session that Alex and company had envisioned just for a few days became a 24/7 routine for the next 22 days. Friends, many of them artists like the couple, flocked to the base to volunteer — an estimated 2,000 helped provide food for the survivors of the typhoon.

The couple posted on Facebook for help in logistics like access to the base, drivers, food ingredients, and volunteers. “We packed our entire kitchen, borrowed a big pot, and an additional stove from our friends in Los Baños and bought ingredients for the first lugaw (porridge) meal we were going to cook,” Precious said.

Alex Baluyut (seated, left) and Precious Leano (seated, second from left) with some of ARMK’s volunteers. (Photo from ARMK’s Facebook Page)

The feeding session inside the base became the catalyst for Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK), a new type of volunteerism that aims to immediately provide for the food needs of those affected — a rapid disaster response for the hungry.  “We feed the hungry in times of distress, this is our creed,” Alex said in a recent Facebook post about their nonprofit humanitarian organization.

Alex outlined what ARMK does: “Just like the fire departments, people do not think of them until fire hits their homes. Our service is emergency food aid because when calamities or disasters happen, rescue/water and food are the first response.”

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He added: “ARMK is constantly evolving, just like firefighting techniques and equipment evolved through the years. We are constantly trying to improve our cooking (techniques) and our equipment (depending on our funding). We are always trying to shorten our response time to the ground zero situation. We track every storm and monitor every manmade or natural calamity and also gauge the dangers that may threaten our volunteers.”

An ARMK feeding session in Tondo (aobe) and Baclaran (below). (Photos from ARMK’s Facebook Page)
(Photo from ARMK’s Facebook Page)

Since its inauguration on November 15, 2013, ARMK has fed the hungry affected by calamities and conflict from all over the country — from Hernani town, Samar, to Marihatag town, Surigao del Sur, to Addition Hills in Mandaluyong. In 2016, ARMK came to aid of victims of the extreme drought in Arakan Valley in Mindanao. In 2017, the group deployed to the battle-stricken city of Marawi where volunteers served 3,000 meals for those displaced by the conflict as well as local government personnel, military personnel, and journalists.

In September 2018, ARMK went to Ucab, Itogon, Benguet, after typhoon Ompong devastated the Cordilleras and served hot meals to more than 1,000 adults and children with the help of cooks and chefs from Baguio and local volunteers.  The group welcomed 2019 with a relief mission in Tiwi, Albay, which was affected by typhoon Usman.

Alex Baluyut, one of the pioneers of documentary photography in the Philippines, established ARMK with his wife Precious Leano, who used to be a curator at the Crucible Gallery. (Photo by Dek Fernandez / Laguna Now)

ARMK has launched 41 emergency missions around the Philippines and now has chapters all over the country (its headquarters is in Los Baños) and will open more soon. Through these local chapters, “we move our mobile kitchens into disaster/calamity areas… to feed the hungry evacuees. Our volunteer cooks make homestyle comfort meals which are culturally adapted to the regions (that) we serve. We have served vegetarian meals, steaming hot soups filled with goodness and fiery halal curries to our Muslim siblings,” Alex said.

Alex and Precious and their volunteers are very meticulous in the preparation for each mission. “Before we go to the site, we do our research,” Precious said in an interview with Laguna Now. “We must know what the available goods in the local market are. Are the people there largely Catholic or Muslim? What is the situation in the area? We must know down to the last detail so that we will be prepared and we know how to maneuver in case something comes up.”

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Ever since ARMK started, the couple has received a lot of support from friends and even small companies that provided them with the ingredients and condiments they need. “Before, we just started with the kitchenware that Alex bought. Nowadays, people would give us industrial cookers, even condiments… I wasn’t asking, didn’t give them a letter to ask for (donation) but they just gave us,” Precious said.

Cultural worker Precious Leano seeks to empower communities with ARMK. (Photo by Dek Fernandez / Laguna Now)

The challenge and stress of preparing meals for several people isn’t new for the couple. “We have the confidence and skill to cook for a lot of people. Every year since 2012, we organize an art event called WiSiK (Wika, Sining, at K) and in 2013, Alex suggested we do a potluck lunch for those who will attend – a free food for WiSiK goers. So when Yolanda came, we were ready,” Precious explained.

Community work and immersing with the less privileged are also not a new thing for Alex and Precious. Alex, who is considered one of the pioneers in Philippine photojournalism, documented conflict and disaster for his work and has been to places where a lot of displacements occur. “I am curious about people’s stories,” he told Laguna Now. His interest in photography developed when he was younger back when he and his brothers owned a Nikkormat camera. But his love for the craft truly developed when he worked as a sports editor for the school paper during his stay at the Pampanga Agricultural College.

Meanwhile, Precious stayed in the art scene as a cultural worker even after becoming an art curator. She then worked as a public relations officer in various companies and, later, as a media consultant for the government. She and Alex have two children, Rickee and Dylan.

Artists such as Alex and Precious find gratification in the things that they do professionally. But food aid through ARMK has significantly changed their outlook in life. To them, ARMK is not just about a hot bowl of soup in the hands of a cold and homeless Filipino battered by disaster or conflict. ARMK is not just about feeding – “It (is) a means of empowering the communities,” Alex said.  (Leobel Colona / Laguna Now)