Pagpag: Survival Food for the Poorest of the Poor

Have you ever wondered whatever happened to the left-over food you did not finish in fast food restaurants? You may think they would have been thrown away and discarded for good. For sure they are headed to the trash bin after people leave them on the table. But what happens next is something you ought to know. The morsels of unfinished Chickenjoy in Jollibee or the left-over spaghetti in McDonald’s might yet save a family from hunger.

The leftover food stuffs are thrown in large black plastic bags and collected by a garbage truck. The truck travels towards a garbage dumpsite, either in Payatas in Quezon City or Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila. After the truck has dumped the trash in these garbage sites, the leftovers begin to change its nature: from trash to food. Scavengers would swarm on these morsels like they were gadflies, sometimes even fighting over them.The food we consider trash becomes for them sustenance.

You may think that it is cruel and inhuman to let people eat food thrown away by others. But that’s the way it is in the poorest slums of Metro Manila. Whatever that can be eaten will be eaten. It is the law of nature. It may be harsh but it is the reality. After all, who cares?

These food discards are called pagpag, an ukay-ukay term that has taken a new meaning. Pagpag in this context is to shake away the dirt and maggots in the food. The scavengers would smell the food to determine if it is still good or has started to spoil. If it still smells fine, more or less, then they will eat it right there in the dumpsite. Bringing it home may spoil it some more. Time is of the essence. Hence when a truck unloads some “fresh pagpag” in the dumpsite, an instant feast takes place. The scavengers do not mind the malevolent stench of the garbage that surrounds them while eating.

If the pagpag smells bad, they would simply bring it home to wash in a bucket of water. Some even re-fry the food for good measure. They think recooking would kill the fly larvae already infesting it.

Pagpag is an essential survival food in the poorest slums of Metro Manila. No matter if it is already spoiled, the empty stomach will still appreciate it. In fact, many scavengers consider pagpag as comfort food, much better than the gulay at asin they are accustomed to eat everyday. On a lucky day, they would find whole unsold Shakey’s pizzas or whole Max’s fried chicken. A cause for royal celebration!

Indeed, living in the slums is like living in the jungle; the only difference is that there is already cooked food to be hunted in the mounta ins of trash. In this case, a scavenger needs all the survival techniques he has learned: jockeying for position, digging, clawing, shaking, and eventually developing the taste for discarded food. It does not matter. It is still food anyway.

There are also some very enterprising scavengers who dig for pagpag as a small business. They would collect pagpag from the trash a nd sell it fo r 20 peso s for each small plastic bag. Mary Ann, 15 years old, of Smokey Mountain, Tondo, is a pagpag entrepreneur. She wakes up early at six a.m. and waits for the garbage trucks that bring in yesterday’s discarded foods. At seven in the morning, the trucks start to pull in. These scavengers would be alerted which trucks carried pagpag, because the truck drivers would raise a hand and make an “OK” sign. Mary Ann and her friends would then wait for the trucks to unload the garbage and scamper to hunt for the food items. Today is a good day. The trucks unloaded tons of garbage from the fast food restaurants including of course, food discards.

Today, Mary Ann collected some five bags of pagpag, which she would sell for twenty pesos each. Each bag contained some leftover chicken (chicken bones with some meat still attached to it) burger patties, and spaghetti. But still twenty pesos is hard to come by in Smokey Mountain. If the pagpag bags she collected would not be sold, Mary Ann and her family would feast on them for lunch.

In another garbage dumpsite, Jennifer Cordero, 28, and her family live everyday on discarded food. Jennifer is married with three young children. She is a scavenger in the Payatas dumpsite in Quezon City. She is a little more fortunate compared to the other scavengers in Payatas. She keeps a job guarding a trash bodega owned by a Chinese businessman who contracted some garbage trucks to directly dump their trash in his bodega. Jennifer’s job is to sort out the dumped trash: plastic bottles, Styrofoam boxes, plastic cups, plastic spoons and forks, cardboard boxes, and the like. In exchange for her work, Jennifer helps herself to the pagpag that is dumped in the bodega. The pagpag she collected would be her pay plus free lodging in the bodega. She also gets fifty pesos a day sifting “kalakal.”

Jennifer found one of the huge black plastic trash bags from Pizza Hut, containing pagpag of many kinds: chicken morsels, spaghetti, and slices of pizza. She smelled each of the pagpag and set aside those that can still be eaten. Afterwards, she washed these inwater and re-fried them in boiling oil “to ensure”, she says, “that all the bacteria are killed.” She then served the meal to her three excited children.

The pagpag is food not only for the people of Smokey Mountain and Payatas. There are also many beggars and homeless people in the streets that rely on pagpag for their daily meals. They would open garbage cans scattered all over the metro to hunt for any food that can still be eaten.

Some beggars in Ermita even have a regular supply of pagpag coming from the garbage of restaurants and hotels there. The management of these establishments may have willingly given these leftovers to the beggars rather than deal with their disposal.

In crowded Hidalgo Street in Quiapo, I chanced upon a man who was raking a trash can with his bare hands. He found some discarded food which he ate right there beside the trash can, eliciting varied reactions from spectators. One woman was touched: “tsk, tsk, kawawa naman o;” another was aghast: “kadiri naman yan, eeeew;” and yet another felt awe: “grabe ang galing nung mama, kumakain ng basura!”

These varied reactions show how ordinary folks misunderstand the poor scavenger’s plight. Certainly, they did not grow up in the poorest slums of Manila, nor are they vagabonds without food to eat or shelter to go home to, nor have they experienced going to bed on an empty stomach, not sure if the morrow would bring in provenance. In short, they would never understand why the scavenger eats spoiled or spoiling food direct from the trash can.

“Iba ang nararamdaman ng taong gutom,” said the scavenger to me after he feasted on the pagpag. “Makikipagpatayan ka nga para makakain lang eh. Iba-iba na ang pumapasok sa isip. Pag nalilipasan ka na ng gutom, parang gusto mong pumatay. Alam ko rin na marumi yun at nakakahiya, pero mabubuhay ba ako sa hiya?. Mabubuhay ba ako sa awa kung laging kumukulo naman ang aking sikmura?”

Pagpag may indeed be disgusting to most of us who eat well-prepared, freshly-cooked, and delicious foods at home and in restaurants. But to understand the nature of the pagpag, one must look at it from the viewpoint of the scavenger. It is only natural for common people to regard pagpag as “kadiri”, but one must not condemn the beggars and scavengers who eat them as callous or “patay-gutom.”

To understand better their situation, I interviewed one of the pagpag scavengers in Smokey Mountain. Boyet, 23 years old, from Tondo, has been eating pagpag for as long as he can remember. He agreed to be interviewed to share his experience eating the pagpag.

Bakit ka kumakain ng pagpag?

Masarap ang pagpag, kahit paano nakakatikim din kami ng manok, baboy, at minsan pizza at spaghetti. Tsaka pag gutom ka na, wala ka nang sisinuhin eh. Lahat ng pwedeng kainin, kakainin.

Kailan ka nagsimulang kumain ng pagpag?

Matagal na, batang-bata pa ako. Di ko na matandaan. Basta matagal na yun.

Lahat ba kayo sa pamilya niyo ay kumakain ng pagpag?

Oo, lahat kami. Minsan nga kulang ang nakukuha naming pagpag. Lima kaming magkakapatid. Tapos nanay ko pa. Kaya hati-hati na lang.

Nasaan ang tatay mo?

Patay na.

Ano ikinamatay?

Matagal nagkasakit. Tomador kasi kaya namatay sa pag-inom ng alak.

Mabalik tayo sa pagpag. Kinakain ba ninyo kahit marumi na ito, o ang kinakain ninyo ay yung mga sa palagay nyo ay malilinis lang?

Ganito yun eh. Pinapagpag muna namin para maalis kahit paano yung dumi. Tapos inaamoy namin. Kung wala pa namang mabahong amoy pwede nang kainin ng diretso. Kung may amoy na, huhugasan namin ng tubig tapos minsan piniprito uli.

Kung may uod na, kakainin nyo pa rin ba?

Depende kung talagang gutom. Sa amin kasi kapag idinarang mo sa apoy, sigurado patay na lahat ng mikrobyo, di ba? Ganoon din mga uod, mamamatay lahat sa apoy. Pwede nang kainin pag idinarang na sa apoy.

May mga bacteria na minsan hindi namamatay sa init, tulad ng Salmonella. Baka magkasakit kayo kung mayroon noon.

Hindi naman siguro. Ano ba yung salmonella?

Ito’y isang uri ng mikrobyo na maaring pagmulan ng sakit tulad ng tipus. Kailan ka huling kumain ng pagpag?

Kahapon. May nakuha kaming spaghetti galing sa Pizza Hut. Maayos pa naman kaya di na namin ininit. Tamang-tama nga eh, dahil ilang araw na kaming walang nakuhang pagpag.


Minsan kasi walang natitira yung mga kostumer. Puro buto na lang naiiwan. Minsan naman yung mga naghahakot ng basura sila na rin kumakain ng pagpag. Kaya pagdating dito sa dumpsite wala na halos natitira.

Hindi ba kayo nagkakasakit kung nakakakain kayo ng maruming pagkain?

Nagkakasakit din. Minsan sumasakit ang tiyan. Pero pinakamalala na yung nagsusuka at nagtatae.

Food poisoning ang tawag doon. Nagpa-chek up na ba kayo sa doctor?

Wala kaming pera para magpadoktor. Kung suka’t tae lang e ilang araw lang maayos na rin naman. Pinapainom lang kami ng apdo ng manok, tapos ayos na.

Sa ngayon ba ay mayroong maysakit sa inyo?

Wala naman.

May nabalitaan ka na bang namatay dahil sa pagkain ng pagpag?

Wala naman po.


The pagpag is one of the most blatant symbols of extreme poverty in the Philippines. It may be easy for most of us to dismiss pagpag as “kababuyan” o “kadiri “– two powerful Tagalog words that have no equal in the English language. But we have to remember that thousands of people rely on the pagpag for their daily survival. The pagpag exists not because there are desperate people who feed on them, but because poverty has forced them to do so. The sight of people feeding on the trash may be disturbing and even disgusting to many of us, but once we look at the problem from the perspective of the poor, then the pagpag becomes manna from heaven.

Posted 10th June 2010 by Dennis Villegas



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