Vitamin Angels’ Fledgling Fight for Filipinos

Santa Barbara-Based Nonprofit Attacks Malnutrition in The Philippines

<b>NURTURED IN NATURE:</b> Howard Schiffer holds aloft a child during an information meeting and vitamin distribution in Javier, Leyte.
Jack Crosbie

It was hot, crowded, and noisy in the tin-roofed, open-walled gymnasium at the center of Javier, one of the larger towns in the Philippine province of Leyte. A limp banner in the corner of the stands advertised the “Mayor’s Cup” basketball tournament, but on a Friday afternoon late in October, the newly painted concrete floor was home to several hundred mothers, fathers, and young children, spilling in and out of seats and aisles arranged across the court. As we walked in, flanked by the town police and mayor’s personal escort to a cacophony of prompted applause, I muttered, “Whoa.”

“It’s always like this, especially if there’s politicians involved ​— ​they really know how to bring out the people,” Howard Schiffer replied, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the noise. “But this is how you get to 30 million.”

Schiffer has been many things in his life: a commune member at the height of the flower-powered 1970s, a midwife, a natural-products entrepreneur, and, for the past 20 years, one of the most avid opponents of malnutrition on a global scale. His Santa Barbara–based nonprofit organization, Vitamin Angels (VA), has programs in 50 countries, including the United States, and has reached an estimated 30 million children in danger of or suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.

Children play on a hill in Sitio Cataquiz, a village built on an active garbage dump site just downstream from two major pharmaceutical plants.
Jack Crosbie

During the past five years, they’ve gotten plenty of ink on these pages, including a cover story on their work in India in 2008 and a report from earlier this year on how they are helping expectant mothers in Kenya. But compared to programs like those, Vitamin Angels’ work in the Philippines is in its fledgling stage, and yet it’s growing fast, for Schiffer believes that vitamin programs are often impoverished communities’ best bet for a noticeable rise in the quality of life. He explained, “No other technology can offer as big a change for the lowest cost in such short of a time.”

The real potential for long-lasting change in VA’s programs comes from their integration with in-country partners, especially those on a smaller, more regional scale. It’s an approach that could be difficult to manage in a “brute force” relief organization the size of the Red Cross, but with VA’s more nimble structure, Schiffer is able to arrange budget partnerships with both small government organizations like barangay health departments and independent organizations, such as Cebu City’s Our Lady of Sacrament ministry, all of whom have a nuanced knowledge of the culture and population. VA delivers the supplies, explained Schiffer, and then the partners “tackle distribution on the ground and grow from there.” That symbiotic relationship also allows these partners to grow in stature themselves, thanks to VA’s influence.

<b>HEALTHY HANDOUT:</b> A child opens his mouth to receive a multivitamin in Our Lady of Sacrament, Cebu City.
Jack Crosbie

One such partner is Maria & Joseph’s Ministry to the Poor (, VA’s go-to team on the ground in Cebu City, the first place we visited. MJMP is a small, faith-based (but non-evangelical) relief organization founded by Joseph “Klint” and Maria “Lenie” Robins that specializes in feeding programs for the needy. Lenie’s strong family ties to the Cebu area and nearby province of Leyte make MJMP a perfect organization to expand VA’s influence and vitamins ​— ​in this case mostly multivitamins for children younger than 5 and prenatal vitamins for expecting and breast-feeding mothers ​— ​throughout the central Visayas region.

And it’s not just organizations like MJMP, or the multinational Food for the Hungry, which is VA’s chief partner near Manila: Schiffer’s personal trips to various regions often involve doing the legwork with government officials and setting up training programs to involve community organizers and health officials at every level. In Leyte, the organization’s efforts are centered around Javier, a sprawling city of loosely connected barangays, which are small villages or neighborhoods that function semi-independently under the umbrella of the city government.

At the city’s helm is the enigmatic Sandy Javier, the enormously wealthy owner of Andok’s Chicken, one of the Philippines’ largest chain restaurants. Mayor Javier (whose grandfather founded and named the town) also serves as president of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines and seems genuinely interested in using his wealth and position to facilitate change by funding roads, schools, and other development projects. “Our main concern is, how do we secure the future of our country?” Javier said over coffee with Schiffer and the VA team, referring to the program’s focus on children. Due to his involvement with the League of Municipalities, Javier believes that the “module of [this] program can be implemented immediately” across the country, with other mayors’ cooperation.

Over the course of 10 days, I accompanied Schiffer, VA photographer Matt Dayka, and Schiffer’s son Austin Moore (who, like me, was on his first trip with VA) into barangays and slums around Cebu, Javier, and Manila, trying to find the areas the VA’s program has helped or can help the most. Abject poverty, unfortunately, was one of the chief unifying factors: In the provinces and city slums alike, a laborer is lucky to pull in 300 Philippine pesos (about $7) per day, and most have to settle with half of that or less. For the lower classes, work is also inconsistent, as unpredictable construction schedules and extreme weather like typhoons and floods often leave many providers unable to work.

A girl eats a typical breakfast of plain rice and dried fish in her house in Javier, Leyte.
Jack Crosbie

And so the people get by any way they can, scraping together money, washing recycled bottles, or doing other odd jobs. “Sometimes it is okay, but sometimes it is very difficult,” said Igleserio Camino, a farmer and father of 12 children, one of whom died in childhood. Camino’s family, like many in his village outside of Javier, usually manages to eat three times on a diet of fish, rice, vegetables, and occasionally other meats, when there is consistent work for the family’s providers.

“The hardest time was when my kids do not have enough food to eat,” said Deliah, a mother of three who shares a dwelling in Manila with another household. “Last month my husband does not have any work … as all of the construction contracts have been completed.”

Despite their desperate situations, the various communities we visited had another unifying factor: an unbelievable sense of generosity and kindness. Families offered to share food when they had little and welcomed foreign faces and probing questions into their homes without flinching. Their resilience, too, is incredible.

In August, a typhoon swept through some of the slums we visited in Manila. Houses were flooded and damaged, work was delayed or canceled for many breadwinners, but the people rebuilt. Then in November, Typhoon Haiyan, which some claim is the strongest storm in recent years, devastated much of Leyte, including Javier. The recovery process in the provinces of Leyte and Samar will be a long and difficult one.

While I was able to report on the disaster from Tacloban City in an article for this paper last month, I wasn’t able to make contact with Mayor Javier or any of my contacts in Leyte. But Schiffer had, and Mayor Javier reported that “destruction is everywhere,” and thousands of his constituents are homeless. The hotel VA and I stayed at was destroyed completely. It took nearly 36 hours to clear a single lane of the road so help could come in from Tacloban ​— ​and when they did, one medical team saw 2,800 patients on the first day.

So the province is in even more dire trouble than when I first visited, but Schiffer says distribution to the area, as well as subsequent trips by VA training staff, will continue as scheduled. Though malnutrition is just one of a myriad of problems the people of the Philippines are faced with ​— ​especially in the wake of Haiyan ​— ​VA’s programs and the efforts of their on-the-ground partners appear to be continuing unabated.


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