[URBANTH-L]NEWS: The City that Ended Hunger (Frances Moore Lappe)
jancius at ohio.edu
Wed Apr 15 21:51:29 EDT 2009
The City that Ended Hunger
by Frances Moore Lappé
YES! Magazine, Spring 2009
A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities
have yet to do: end hunger.
"To search for solutions to hunger means to act within the principle that
the status of a citizen surpasses that of a mere consumer."
More than 10 years ago, Brazil's fourth-largest city, Belo Horizonte,
declared that food was a right of citizenship and started working to make
good food available to all. One of its programs puts local farm produce into
school meals. This and other projects cost the city less than 2 percent of
its budget. Above, fresh passion fruit juice and salad as part of a school
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
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
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.
"I knew we had so much hunger in the world. 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."
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
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.
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