MARCH 23, 2007 (STAR) Smarting from criticisms that her administration is failing to address hunger in the country, President Arroyo said yesterday skipping some meals does not mean one is poor.

In a televised roundtable discussion on the economy at Malacañang with Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral and Education Secretary Jesli Lapus, Mrs. Arroyo said she herself sometimes finds herself skipping meals.

She was reacting to a recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) nationwide survey showing that hunger in the Philippines remained at a record high 19 percent, with an estimated 3.4 million households saying they experienced hunger at least once in the past three months.

She said some of the questions in the SWS survey might have been misinterpreted by the respondents since it was simply about missing meals, which anybody, rich or poor, could have experienced.

"The question (in the survey was) if you missed one meal during the last three months? Even I missed one meal in the last three months, but…" Mrs. Arroyo said without finishing her statement.

She, however, did not say what the circumstances were or how she came to miss her meals, whether it was due to some diet program or a hectic schedule.

Mrs. Arroyo said poverty and hunger are due to lack of income and based on studies many of the country’s poor are families of coconut farmers.

The government’s anti-hunger program, she said, aims to address both the supply and demand of food.

On the supply side, the government is implementing measures to increase food supply from the agricultural sector, make food production more efficient, and bring the food faster and cheaper to consumers, Mrs. Arroyo said.

This is being done, she said, by constructing more farm-to-market roads, bridges, irrigation systems, ports, roll-on and roll-off facilities and food processing centers as well as reducing the involvement of middlemen.

She said because of the projects in Northern Luzon, the prices of vegetables have gone down by as much as P20 a kilo.

On the demand side, the government is trying to increase the income of poor families through livelihood projects and increasing job opportunities through skills training and scholarships.

Mrs. Arroyo said there are programs being implemented to make coconut farmers benefit from the so-called coco levy funds. She did not elaborate.

She also called on Filipinos to spend less on vices and more on basic necessities and urged families to practice responsible parenthood.

Cabral pointed out that the government’s food-for-school program has been very successful in reducing hunger and improving nutrition as well as school attendance among poor schoolchildren and their families. The program entails giving each student a kilo of rice a day.

She said the failure of Congress to pass a budget last year somewhat hampered the program. She said lawmakers only wanted the schoolchildren to be fed to prevent the program to be used in electioneering.

Mrs. Arroyo however said giving soup only feeds the children but giving rice, which would cost the same or P20, would feed an entire family.

Opposition laughs off ‘hunger’ deadline By Christina Mendez The Philippine Star 03/23/2007

Opposition senatorial candidates yesterday laughed off the deadline set by President Arroyo to reduce hunger incidence.

Genuine Opposition (GO) candidates Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. and former senator Loren Legarda said it would be a "big lie" for President Arroyo to achieve her desired results within six months.

"The problem is a serious concern. You may be able to feed a family for one or two days but you won’t be able to feed them their entire lives. One cannot address the hunger problem in this country in six months. That is a big lie," Villar said.

He said the problem is not Filipinos going literally hungry but their economic plight of living below the poverty line.

"If you say hunger, it simply means skipping one’s meals to save for other needs," Villar said.

Villar said the government should focus on how to address poverty by providing a long-term solution to the problem.

At the same time, Villar lauded Mrs. Arroyo’s efforts in improving the economy but he said the President should now work double time in addressing issues concerning human rights.

For her part, Legarda stressed the need for the government and the private sector to work together in generating employment opportunities to put more food on the tables of indigent families.

Re-electionist Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the government should stop applying superficial solutions to the problem. He described the six-month time frame by Mrs. Arroyo as "not realistic."

"If she’s really bent on solving the hunger problem within six months, stop committing graft," Lacson said.

The senatorial candidates gave their respective reactions to President Arroyo’s declaration of easing hunger in six months and ordering bureaucrats to make the effort or lose their jobs and go hungry.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo can revamp the government agencies involved and replace their chiefs.

Ermita said Mrs. Arroyo has directed the officials concerned to speed up implementation of the school-feeding program and the provision of cheap medicines and basic goods, and other anti-poverty programs.

At the same time, the President ordered a stop to the unnecessary use of government vehicles as part of its belt-tightening measures.

She asked Filipinos to spend on what is necessary and shun luxurious goods in order for them not to go hungry.

The recent Social Weather Stations survey indicated that at least 3.4 million Filipino families, or one in every five households in the country, suffer from involuntary hunger.

Administration senatorial candidate Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr., however, blamed the opposition for the worsening poverty in the country.

He said that for three years now, the opposition has successfully blocked the passage by Congress of a new budget, crippling the government’s capacity to deliver basic services and create jobs for the people.

"The blocking by the opposition of the proposed 2006 budget alone resulted in a 1.1 percent cut in GDP (gross domestic product) growth, and prevented the upliftment of 276,000 Filipinos from poverty, based on official data," he said.

"This was because the budget reenactment from the previous year 2005 meant lesser government spending for social services, feeding programs and infrastructure projects that could have meant more new jobs," he added.

The Surigao congressman said the government would have been in a better position to fight hunger in the last three years had Congress not failed to approve the annual budget.

He said the national budget is the government’s tool for development, for delivering basic services and for creating jobs.

But critics like Bayan Muna Rep. Joel Virador said Mrs. Arroyo should step down from office if she fails to address the problem of hunger in six months.

Virador said the greater majority of Filipinos would die from hunger because of her administration’s strangling economic measures.

"She is being bald-faced in asking Filipinos to live a simple life while she and her family live a lavish lifestyle," he added.

"What is better is for the President instead to step down in six months or less so that the perennial problem of hunger would be properly addressed," he said. -With Jess Diaz, Edith Regalado

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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