What if food were treated as a human right? by A Growing Culture

It can be difficult to imagine a world — or even a city — without hunger. It seems so endemic to the world we live in that it can appear intractable. But there are examples around the world of places that have reorganized themselves to eradicate food insecurity completely, whether it be within one community or a larger municipality. I believe telling these stories is incredibly important because it reminds us that with the right combination of political will and social mobilization, these issues can be solved. When they fail to be addressed, it’s not because they are unsolvable. Most of the time, they just haven’t been appropriately prioritized.

Today, I want to tell the story of Belo Horizonte, the third-largest city in Brazil, and the one referred to as “the city that ended hunger.” It is an example of a government that took seriously the idea of food as a human right — and took on the responsibility of fulfilling it. Let’s dive in.

Before we begin, a bit of background. Brazil is a country with high levels of inequality. Land ownership is not evenly distributed, and its social system is stratified along lines of race and class. Most efforts to redistribute land or achieve lower levels of inequality haven’t been widely successful.

As you might expect, hunger and malnutrition have been stubborn and persistent problems. Although the country’s leaders began focusing more on hunger after World War I, they followed the familiar pattern of promoting economic growth through export-led expansion and increasing agricultural production while not addressing access issues within the country. Even when there was sufficient food available, those who fell at the bottom of the income distribution could not access it.

Belo Horizonte was no exception to these wider trends of inequality. Almost 40 percent of families in the region lived below the poverty line in the early 1990s. The rates of hunger reflected this; one study found that in 1993, 15.5 percent of Belo Horizonte’s population was malnourished, while 12.3 percent of infant mortality was attributable to malnutrition.

Things began to change in the 1990s. The political system of the city underwent a left-leaning transformation, in line with a wider trend going on at the national level that promoted decentralization and gave municipalities more power to enact progressive change.

The Movement for Ethics in Politics — a grassroots movement dedicated to holding the state accountable for its responsibilities to its citizens, as well as a related push for civil rights and the fulfilment of the right to food — gained huge traction in these years. In 1993, this translated into two actions by the government in Belo Horizonte that would transform their food system completely.

The first is that they declared food insecurity to be a market failure which required government intervention to correct. The second is that they made access to food a right of citizenship for everyone living in Belo Horizonte, and created the Secretaria Municipal Adjunta de Abastecimento (SMAAB) to serve as the bureaucratic body responsible for fulfilling that right.

SMAAB would go on to become the central node for the suite of policies, programs, and partnerships that the city developed to fulfill the goal of ending hunger and malnutrition within the city’s borders. All programs are funded through SMAAB’s yearly budget allocation, which makes up roughly 2 percent of the city’s total budget. They created a wide-ranging suite of programs to tackle hunger from a variety of different angles. Here are just some of the programs that they implemented.

They believed that it was crucial to provide dignified access to food for the entire population. One program that emerged out of that idea was the Restaurante Popular, which offers healthy meals at a very low cost (a typical meal costs about R$1.00, which is roughly US$0.45; a breakfast costs about US$0.11) through subsidies that come out of SMAAB’s yearly budget. It was intentional to make the restaurants low-cost — but not free — as there remained social stigma about receiving ‘free handouts’ from the government. As a result of this decision (as well as a huge emphasis on the quality of the food being on par with what one might find at a typical restaurant), the clientele of the restaurants is broad — from low-income families to university students, retirees, office workers, and others.

SMAAB also created partnerships with institutions such as daycares, clinics, nursing homes, hospitals, and homeless shelters to ensure the delivery of high-quality food with the help of government subsidies. One of the largest pushes was to create universal school meals for students; in 2007, SMAAB delivered 40 million meals to 150,000 students across the city. All 218 public schools in the municipality have a paid staff that makes the majority of the food from scratch each day.

Another important focus of SMAAB’s approach is sourcing the food for its programs from local farmers in the region. For example, in the School Meal program and the Popular Restaurants, nearly all of the food for its programs is from local farmers (many of them smallholders).

In addition to this practice of sourcing locally, SMAAB introduced the ‘direct from the countryside’ program, which granted small farmers free access to permits to sell in a highly desirable location in the city — those near major thoroughfares or other high-density areas. This program eliminates the intermediary actors, such as food distributors, which farmers have stated in interviews charge high markups on the food they purchase to distribute to supermarkets in the city.

Another cornerstone of the programs is leveling the accessibility of healthy food across geographic regions in the city. Before the shift, certain regions in the city had few brick-and-mortar grocery stores (only small corner stores selling mostly packaged goods), making healthy food (especially fresh produce) difficult to attain.

The government tackled this by creating the Comboio do Trabalhador (Worker’s Convoy) program. This program gave private sellers (usually sourced from small farmers from around the region enrolled in the ‘direct from the countryside’ program) permits to sell their products from mobile trucks in desirable parts of the city (high foot-traffic areas that would otherwise be expensive to obtain a permit to sell from, as they are owned by the city).

The exchange for access to these desirable locations is that they must agree to drive to low-income neighborhoods on weekends to sell products there, addressing the lack of grocery infrastructure in those regions. There, they must sell 25 products (key grocery staples) at rates that are price-controlled and subsidized by the government, often at 20–50% below market prices; the rest can be sold at market prices, allowing the farmer to make a small profit.

Another one of SMAAB’s pillars involved using agroecological methods and community participation to build more food access into public spaces in the city. The government facilitated the creation of community gardens; school gardens; ‘pro-orchards,’ where fruit trees are planted in communal areas; and workshops to teach people how to grow food in alternative spaces.

All together, this suite of programs created an alternative food system that saw profound effects amongst the city’s population. For one, food insecurity basically ceased to exist, which is incredible in its own right. Infant mortality rates, for example, have dropped by over 70 percent since 1993. Child hospitalization for malnutrition has decreased by 60 percent. Hospitalizations for diabetes have dropped by 33 percent. Per-capita fruit and vegetable consumption increased by 25 percent between 1987 and 1997, making it the city with the highest consumption in the entire country.

I think this story is important for several reasons. The first is to break through the idea that hunger is an unsolvable problem. They have proven that with the right combination of political will, innovation, and community involvement, hunger is a problem that can be solved, even without significant percentages of the budget being dedicated to solving it. In many cases, a lack of political will may be behind the stubbornness of hunger, rather than some kind of intractability.

The second reason it’s important is not because of the model itself, but how the policies came to be. The government brought together groups of diverse actors in the city — from farmers to teachers to nonprofit organizations to members of the public — to gather their input on the design of the programs. This led to many groups feeling as though they had a stake in the project and that their priorities were taken into consideration. Their feedback was taken seriously and led to many design changes in the programs based on their input.

The third reason is the treatment of food as a right of citizenship. This is a chronically under-developed idea, but one that must be fought for more widely. The fact that broadly, we have accepted food as a commodity that one must work to purchase, even though it is required for survival, is a serious flaw in the cultural narrative about hunger. The fact that Belo Horizonte declared food security to be a public good (and food insecurity a market failure) is a radical act, and one that should be replicated in other contexts. Food is too important to be left solely to a market that does not allocate it effectively. This story is one that ought to be used to pressure more city governments to take on this responsibility as well.

There are some caveats to Belo Horizonte’s success story, and they’re also worth exploring. Even though many diverse groups were consulted in the process of forming the policies, the government was the actor ultimately responsible for funding and implementing them. In the years following their implementation, some of the programs have been whittled down by subsequent administrations who weren’t as supportive of the movement. People surveyed today are hardly aware of the SMAAB programs, even if they benefit from them in some way.

This shows the weakness of relying on government alone to guarantee these rights: where one administration can be radical and innovative, the next can be the opposite, undoing much of that work. In my view, this shows the importance of initiatives that are led by communities themselves, perhaps with government support.

Regardless of the particularities of this case, sharing these stories of viable alternatives is some of the most important work we can do right now. These models exist all over the world, at all scales, compositions, structures, and designs. But these are not the stories that are being told.

The stories that are being told are the ones about billion-dollar projects to sequester carbon or about whichever country is pledging to reduce their emissions to net-zero by some impossibly far-off date. These are meant to make us hopeful, but their emptiness is beginning to show.

We need real alternatives — ways of organizing ourselves into new ways of living, of growing food, of supporting each other. We need to tap into our creativity, our agency, and our relationships with one another. We need to start looking around us, at the places where we have roots, and beginning to grow something different. Truly, this is the path forward. And stories are where we start.

This post first appeared in A Growing Culture’s newsletter, Offshoot.

Photo: Felipe Tofani: Bananas! (Mercado Central, Belo Horizonte), CC BY-SA 2.0

Originally published at https://www.localfutures.org on September 28, 2022.

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