[URBANTH-L]NEWS: The City that Ended Hunger (Frances Moore Lappe)

Angela Jancius 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 
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.

"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 
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. 

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