Now Playing: A City in In Brazil their Hunger Problem is not a problem
> The City That Ended Hunger
> by Frances Moore Lappé
> A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have
> yet to do: end hunger.
> In writing Diet for a Small Planet, I learned one simple truth: Hunger is not
> caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. But that realization
> was only the beginning, for then I had to ask: What does a democracy look like
> that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials?
> Does it exist anywhere? Is it possible or a pipe dream? With hunger on the rise
> here in the United States—one in 10 of us is now turning to food
> stamps—these questions take on new urgency.
> To begin to conceive of the possibility of a culture of empowered citizens
> making democracy work for them, real-life stories help—not models to adopt
> wholesale, but examples that capture key lessons. For me, the story of
> Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, is a rich trove of such
> lessons. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its
> population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children
> going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a
> right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy
> food in the market—you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.
> The new mayor, Patrus Ananias—now leader of the federal anti-hunger
> effort—began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a 20-member
> council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in
> the design and implementation of a new food system. The city already involved
> regular citizens directly in allocating municipal resources—the
> “participatory budgeting” that started in the 1970s and has since spread
> across Brazil. During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy,
> perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of
> citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to
> more than 31,000.
> The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to
> food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It
> offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to
> sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on
> produce—which often reached 100 percent—to consumers and the farmers.
> Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor
> people got access to fresh, healthy food.
> When my daughter Anna and I visited Belo Horizonte to write Hope’s Edge we
> approached one of these stands. A farmer in a cheerful green smock, emblazoned
> with “Direct from the Countryside,” grinned as she told us, “I am able to
> support three children from my five acres now. Since I got this contract with
> the city, I’ve even been able to buy a truck.”
> The improved prospects of these Belo farmers were remarkable considering that,
> as these programs were getting underway, farmers in the country as a whole saw
> their incomes drop by almost half.
> In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes good food available by
> offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use
> well-trafficked plots of city land for “ABC” markets, from the Portuguese
> acronym for “food at low prices.” Today there are 34 such markets where the
> city determines a set price—about two-thirds of the market price—of about
> twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state farmers and chosen by store-owners.
> Everything else they can sell at the market price.
> “For ABC sellers with the best spots, there’s another obligation attached
> to being able to use the city land,” a former manager within this city
> agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. “Every weekend they have to drive
> produce-laden trucks to the poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so
> everyone can get good produce.”
> Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy “People’s
> Restaurants” (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily
> serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent
> of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of
> diners—grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers
> with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still
> others in business suits.
> “I’ve been coming here every day for five years and have gained six
> kilos,” beamed one elderly, energetic man in faded khakis.
> “It’s silly to pay more somewhere else for lower quality food,” an
> athletic-looking young man in a military police uniform told us. “I’ve been
> eating here every day for two years. It’s a good way to save money to buy a
> house so I can get married,” he said with a smile.
> No one has to prove they’re poor to eat in a People’s Restaurant, although
> about 85 percent of the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma and
> allows “food with dignity,” say those involved.
> Belo’s food security initiatives also include extensive community and school
> gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government
> contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now
> buys whole food mostly from local growers.
> “We’re fighting the concept that the state is a terrible, incompetent
> administrator,” Adriana explained. “We’re showing that the state
> doesn’t have to provide everything, it can facilitate. It can create channels
> for people to find solutions themselves.”
> For instance, the city, in partnership with a local university, is working to
> “keep the market honest in part simply by providing information,” Adriana
> told us. They survey the price of 45 basic foods and household items at dozens
> of supermarkets, then post the results at bus stops, online, on television and
> radio, and in newspapers so people know where the cheapest prices are.
> The shift in frame to food as a right also led the Belo hunger-fighters to look
> for novel solutions. In one successful experiment, egg shells, manioc leaves,
> and other material normally thrown away were ground and mixed into flour for
> school kids’ daily bread. This enriched food also goes to nursery school
> children, who receive three meals a day courtesy of the city.
> The result of these and other related innovations?
> In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as
> evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit
> almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period
> in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And
> between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption
> of fruits and vegetables went up.
> The cost of these efforts?
> Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget.
> That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.
> Behind this dramatic, life-saving change is what Adriana calls a “new social
> mentality”—the realization that “everyone in our city benefits if all of
> us have access to good food, so—like health care or education—quality food
> for all is a public good.”
> The Belo experience shows that a right to food does not necessarily mean more
> public handouts (although in emergencies, of course, it does.) It can mean
> redefining the “free” in “free market” as the freedom of all to
> participate. It can mean, as in Belo, building citizen-government partnerships
> driven by values of inclusion and mutual respect.
> And when imagining food as a right of citizenship, please note: No change in
> human nature is required! Through most of human evolution—except for the last
> few thousand of roughly 200,000 years—Homo sapiens lived in societies where
> pervasive sharing of food was the norm. As food sharers, “especially among
> unrelated individuals,” humans are unique, writes Michael Gurven, an
> authority on hunter-gatherer food transfers. Except in times of extreme
> privation, when some eat, all eat.
> Before leaving Belo, Anna and I had time to reflect a bit with Adriana. We
> wondered whether she realized that her city may be one of the few in the world
> taking this approach—food as a right of membership in the human family. So I
> asked, “When you began, did you realize how important what you are doing was?
> How much difference it might make? How rare it is in the entire world?”
> Listening to her long response in Portuguese without understanding, I tried to
> be patient. But when her eyes moistened, I nudged our interpreter. I wanted to
> know what had touched her emotions.
> “I knew we had so much hunger in the world,” Adriana said. “But what is
> so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy.
> It’s so easy to end it.”
> Adriana’s words have stayed with me. They will forever. They hold perhaps
> Belo’s greatest lesson: that it is easy to end hunger if we are willing to
> break free of limiting frames and to see with new eyes—if we trust our
> hard-wired fellow feeling and act, no longer as mere voters or protesters, for
> or against government, but as problem-solving partners with government
> accountable to us.
> Frances Moore Lappé wrote this article as part of Food for Everyone, the
> Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Frances is the author of many books
> including Diet for a Small Planet and Get a Grip, co-founder of Food First and
> the Small Planet Institute, and a YES! contributing editor.
> The author thanks Dr. M. Jahi Chappell for his contribution to the article