A dump, a garden, and an urban food hive

“What we hope for most is food security—to know that we can feed our children,” says Zeny Gallanos (shown here), president of the Women’s Food Producers Association of Payatas. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Urban food insecurity is often overlooked—and so is the potential for growing food in unlikely places.

Step through a door on a narrow street in Quezon City, the Philippines, and you enter the Garden of Hope.

It is lovely. Raised beds are arrayed across the sloping land, and the view of the hills and neighborhoods below gives a sense of wide-open space, not something you expect to find in the crowded slums of the country’s largest city. Healthy-looking fruits, vegetables, and herbs are growing here, including eggplants, peppers, sweet potatoes, radishes, bitter gourd, okra, herbs, greens, jute, flowers, bananas, and guava, and there’s not a weed in sight. The beds have colorful borders that turn out to be soda bottles—painted, upended, and lined up carefully, looking prettier in their afterlife than they ever did on supermarket shelves.

The gardeners—members of a women’s self-help group supported by Oxfam and partners—are pleased to tell their story. Which begins with a garbage dump.

Transformation of land and lives

Quezon City is home to a landfill that covers around 50 acres of land. Families once built shelters on its slopes and eked out a living rescuing anything of value they could find, but after catastrophic slides and fires, the dump was closed and capped by 2017. Fast forward to 2023. What was once a pile of trash is now a pile of trash with city neighborhoods on top, including paved streets and roadside shops—and the Garden of Hope.

It wasn’t easy turning a 1,000-square-foot plot of wasteland into an oasis, the women explain. For starters, they had to order up more than 20 tons of clean soil and haul it from trucks to the beds, bucket by bucket. But it was worth it, and they are pleased with their creation. The gardeners grow some produce for consumption and some for sale, pooling their profits, and issuing small, low-interest loans to members whenever they need or want them. The result they appreciate most: better health.

“Some of our children used to be undernourished,” says group member Maribel Teoxon, “but now they are gaining weight.”

All the women agree that their own physical health has improved, as well, with the addition of daily vegetables.

“Farm collectives not only help women earn a living and improve their families’ nutrition,” says Cherrie Atilano, CEO of AGREA, an Oxfam partner on this initiative. “They create the kind of camaraderie that can help women feel supported and gain confidence in their lives.”

The women couldn’t agree more.

“Working in the garden with the other women relieves our burdens and stress,” says Joann Oribia.

They have a lot to be stressed about. The women in this group are barely scraping by. Imagine if you had a family to feed every day and no reliable income, and your cupboards were empty except for maybe a small bag of rice. Every day would be a crisis. People living in deep poverty, like many of the gardeners, experience that crisis as normal life. And when a disaster like a storm or flood or epidemic comes along, they lose opportunities to sell goods or engage in day labor, and their families quickly come face to face with hunger.

But you would never know by visiting this group what strain the women are under. They are warm and welcoming, and they laugh together—a lot.

“Everyone needs access to fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Oxfam’s Leah Payud (right), shown here with group member Lorna Antiola. “Growing foods locally is one way to improve that access.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Foodpreneurs unite

For urban families in the Philippines already struggling with unemployment, poor nutrition, and food-price inflation, COVID-related disruptions in the food supply chain brought a simmering crisis to full boil. It also set the stage for a new initiative we call urban food hives.

Urban food hives are an innovation of Oxfam, SecondMuse, and other partner organizations we work with. They are networks of “foodpreneurs”—business people that include growers, processors, distributors, waste managers, recyclers, vendors, and consumer advocates—who are committed to producing healthy, affordable, and sustainable food. The network members help each other out, providing information and connections, and together they advocate for policy changes that will help foodpreneurs and their businesses thrive.

Meanwhile, they are helping address the underreported phenomenon of hunger in the cities, where in many cases people have access to enough calories—they may even be overweight—but are undernourished due to the poor nutritional value of the food they can afford.

The Garden of Hope is part of a Philippines food hive. The women are working with network suppliers to get hold of affordable seeds and other resources, and they have joined forces with other women’s groups and organizations to carry out advocacy with their local government on issues like access to land and improvement in market infrastructure and financing.

“Urbanization is on the rise, and so is urban hunger,” says Laté Lawson-Lartego, who leads Oxfam’s Global Innovation Lab and helped develop the food-hive initiative.

The climate crisis is forcing farmers and fisherfolk around the world to abandon their homes and traditional livelihoods. By 2050, he says, it’s estimated that seven out of 10 people will live in cities.

“If food systems don’t adapt, urban malnutrition will escalate dramatically,” says Lawson-Lartego, “but if we can create complementary local food systems with urban farmers and other key actors, we can fill gaps in the supply of affordable food, and that could produce a very different outcome.”

The women specialize in finding the potential in what the world has cast aside. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

A bright future

“The Garden of Hope is about transformation,” says Leah Payud, resilience lead for Oxfam Pilipinas. “Transformation not only of land but of women’s lives.”

There are three other gardens like it at the landfill, and food-hive networks are taking shape in 11 other cities and municipalities across the Philippines. Members are advocating for policies to make healthy food more affordable and accessible, and for women—who shoulder more than their share of work caring for others without pay—to have more opportunities to participate in agricultural policy-making and practice.

The Philippines isn’t the only country where the hives are buzzing: Oxfam is supporting partners to develop this work in Colombia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. The new networks are engaged in projects like helping young people earn incomes through growing and promoting healthy food, and turning food waste into organic fertilizer.

Supporting networks of foodpreneurs is a win-win-win situation, says Payud. Low-income families benefit from the produce, organic methods protect the environment, and gardeners and other foodpreneurs benefit from improved incomes—and the pleasure of working together on a project they believe in.

“We see a bright future for the food hives.”

Marites Montajes tends the peppers. “My health has improved since I started eating more vegetables.” Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam
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