Many of us instinctively turn away, disturbed by the notion that other human beings must eke out a living by making use of what we throw away.
This week, as part of its Eye on the Philippines feature, the international news organization CNN trained its cameras on the hidden food system for the urban poor known by the Filipino word pagpag.
The word means to dust off dirt, as from clothing, but to the urban poor in Manila, it means scraps of leftover food pulled from trash.
The CNN piece follows a pagpag merchant who hunts through garbage at night for leftovers from fast food restaurants, washes out the meat and bones—even though they are sometimes rank—and repacks them in plastic to sell the next morning in Tondo. A bag of such leftovers, she says, can sell for P20.
At dawn, a 27-year-old mother of two buys a bag, washes the chicken, heats the pot and adds vegetables to the pagpag. She hands her toddler a half-eaten chicken wing, while telling CNN that she knows that it comes from garbage.
A social worker explains that the poor who live in Tondo’s slums have little choice but to buy such food, even though it exposes them to diseases, because they can afford little else.
While most of us would retch at the thought of eating someone else’s discarded food, the 27-year-old mother says the pagpag is better than nothing.
“By the mercy of God, this is enough,” she says.
In an earlier segment on the reproductive health bill and the religious opposition to it, a Catholic priest cheerfully explained to a CNN reporter that overpopulation was not the reason for poverty, and that population control was no solution to the country’s problems.
Rather, he said, it was the deterioration of morality that we as a people must address.
It was a familiar message, but one that sounded all the more ludicrous in juxtaposition with images of a toddler eating meat from somebody else’s garbage bin. That we as a society allow this to happen is no less immoral than the loosening of sexual mores with which the Catholic Church is so obsessed.
Some might argue defensively that the CNN Eye on the Philippines series holds up an imperfect mirror of our society, but the images we see through it are no less disturbing because they are viewed through an outsider’s eyes.