Rice, the grain that feeds half of the world’s population, is as old as civilization — since the first man raised his voice in song and incantation in times of plenty, famine, and pandemics. It is of little wonder then that “Filipinos eat rice with almost everything, and normally with more than just one cup, three times a day — it’s the staple that completes the meals on the table. Without rice, it’s not a meal at all.”

Relief goods

As the world was taken by surprise by the pandemic, governments, nongovernment organizations, private sector, and civil society organizations launched various efforts in different approaches to mitigate the impact of hunger in every household.

The most common intervention is the provision of packages of relief goods. A typical relief pack in communities consists of a few kilos of rice, canned goods or processed meats, instant Anthropologist noodles, sachets of instant coffee, and a pack of sugar. Colloquially known as “relief goods”, food packs are distributed to poor and low-income households in times of disaster. They serve as immediate aid, a stop-gap measure; but for the poor, they are a lifeline until “normalcy” – a return to familiar rhythms of certainty – is restored.

In 2020, for example, Mayor Emerson Pascual of Gapan City, Nueva Ecija said one 50-kg sack of rice and P1,000 cash will be delivered to every doorstep, including non-residents stuck in his locality due to the enhanced community quarantine, which has been extended. “Yun pong bigas, andiyan na kumpleto. Sinigurado po namin bawat bahay, bawat pintuan ay malalagyan ng bigas (The rice is already here and it is complete. We want to assure that every house, every doorstep will be spared rice),” Pascual said.

In Cabanatuan City, Mayor Myca Elizabeth Vergara told his father, Vice Mayor Julius Cesar Vergara, in a televised conversation that the city government has so far delivered in three waves 30kg of rice (10kg per wave) and a whole dressed chicken. These were augmented with 10kg of rice from third district Rep. Rosanna Vergara’s personally funded “Kalinga para sa Distrito” program that covers Cabanatuan City, Palayan City, and the towns of Bongabon, Gabaldon, Laur, Gen. Natividad, and Santa Rosa. The provincial government, on the other hand, distributed rice through the Nueva Ecija Provincial Food Council.

In the National Capital Region, as reported by Asian Development Bank more than 100,000 households have received critical food supplies through Bayan Bayanihan, their partnership program with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the private sector, in coordination with the Philippine Army.

When a soldier brought food packs to Rowena P. dela Cruz’ doorstep one Saturday afternoon in April 2020, tears streamed down her face. “Finally, we have food for our children,” said the 29-year-old housewife. Her family of six lives in a 20-sqm dwelling in Navotas City. “We were so happy, as well as all our neighbors. The relief goods were a big blessing to us, especially since my husband is a passenger jeepney driver and he can’t work now, so we don’t know where to get money for food.”

The declaration of various quarantine classifications also implied varying degrees of limited mobility in each locality. The restricted movements applied to persons and goods. However, the transport of rice, along with other food products, was never hampered. The free movement of rice was symbolic of the sustenance and continuing nourishment of people in the midst of the pandemic.

Symbolic value

Evidently, as different groups assembled bayanihan acts to help feed Filipinos, rice became the central item in putting up acts of volunteerism, partnerships, and cooperativism. Despite risks to their health in ensuring rice on every table, various groups in different parts of the country toiled almost daily to pack rice and other food items at the height of the pandemic and in times of disasters.

“We derive satisfaction and fulfillment out of helping these poor people, the needy,” Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay, Philippine Army chief said. Rice and its consumption have been interwoven in the culture of the Filipino across its times and identities — defining who we are as a people.

Applying these simple narratives to anthropological analysis, rice grains strengthen its symbolic value of cultural unity, hope, well-being, economic growth, and sustenance for all Filipinos across the country. We are what we eat, as it were. It is not surprising at all that rice’s symbolism as a cultural badge had gained greater prominence during the pandemic.

Symbolism has been central to definitions of culture since 1952 when Kroeber and Kluckhohn wrote “culture considers patterns explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups.”

This definition was echoed by Clifford Geertz in 1973 when he formulated his culture concept as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”

We think and act so we can serve a plate of rice on the table!

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute