I first read about the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte in the book Hope’s Edge, the Next Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002) by Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Frances and her daughter travel around the world looking at hopeful food initiatives. The book inspired my own research trip to India and I refer to it repeatedly in my new book on the politics of food.
So back to Belo, which means “beautiful horizon” by the way. It is the fourth largest city in Brazil. Since 1993 when the Partido Dos Travalhadores (Workers’ Party) was elected, the city has made a dramatic shift in the way it approaches hunger. And it began with making food a human right. Not that it wasn’t a right already, the UN declared it a right back in 1948. Canada and the U.S. are signatories. Not that anyone would notice. And yet, this local government has taken it very seriously, embedding it into policy in an effort to end hunger and in particular to resolve the malnutrition problem from which a fifth of their children suffered.
“We believe the status of citizen surpasses that of consumer,” said Adriana Aranha, from the City’s Secretaria Municipal de Abastecimento (SMAAB) – the Municipal Secretary of Supplies – the department that oversees the Zero Hunger campaign.
Once they began to look through this new lens, some very creative initiatives and partnerships emerged. For example, they offer prime retail space at next to nothing to food retailers; there are 25 large produce markets around the city. In return, the retailers agree to sell their produce at a set price. On the day the Lappes visited it was 35 cents a kilogram across the board, about half of what you’d pay at the grocery store. The retailer makes money on volume, low overhead and cutting out the middleman. Anyone can shop there, so there’s no social stigma and no degrading line-up. The grocers who have the very best locations must also agree to sell fruit and veggies off a truck in rural areas on the weekend to make sure that the folks there can access the healthy, affordable food as well.
“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,” said Adriana.
Local farmers may also set up produce stands on city land throughout Belo; there are about 40 of them. Farmers’ incomes had plummeted to an all time low in the 1990s, with the stands their incomes have doubled.
Schools and nurseries provide four nutritious meals a day for children, many of them living in slums or favelos as they are called. The flour is spiked with ground eggshells, manioc leaf powder and other nutrient boosting ingredients. Their special enriched flour is also doled out to 20,000 or so children through health clinics and the severely malnourished are rallying. The healthy school lunches and other meals are made using local produce and not the processed stuff – that cuts down on transportation costs. Sourcing the food from a wider list of local suppliers keeps the prices competitive as well. The city spends the federally allotted 13 cents per student per day on the program and they have almost doubled the calories that these children were previously eating.
The City orders the produce for the Restaurantes Populares – Cuba has a similar program, although from personal experience, I have to say I would not exactly recommend the food there. The line-ups at these People’s Restaurants can be long, not because they are soup kitchens, but because they’re popular. And anyone can eat there. People of all ages, means and walks of life eat side by side. They serve about 4000 meals a day, cafeteria style. The meals are not only healthy, but generous in portion. Anna and her mom were served heaps of rice and beans, lovely salad and mixed veggies with a banana for dessert. There was also chicken for those who wanted, all for about 70 cents!
“No one has to prove they’re poor to eat here,” writes Lappe.
By making food a right of citizenship, a new attitude emerged within the government: that people’s access to nourishing food couldn’t be left to the whims of a market. Adriana explained to the Lappes that while food may be a commodity – food security – having enough food to feed yourself and your family – is a human right, a right by virtue of being a citizen. If the market is shutting out people too poor to be consumers, they are still citizens. It’s the government’s duty to step up to the plate and correct for this – market failure, as an economist might call it.”
So instead of doing away with the market, they came up with ways to make it more competitive. Every week, with the help of a university research department, they prepare a list of 45 basic foods and household items from 40 different stores. They broadcast the list on radio, in the newspapers, and at bus stops.
“We try to keep the market honest,” Adriana says. “At a time when record harvests have not reduced the price of food, people know that here we’ve been helping make the market fairer.”
Nor were they willing to leave the job of feeding people to charity or emergency food programs. They partner with many different non-profits, groups and individuals to make things happen. They set up an advisory council, a food policy council really, made up of citizens, labour and church groups to provide direction and input into the budgeting process. And most importantly they take on a facilitating role, more than a doing role spending less than one percent of the total City budget on these very effective initiatives!
Wayne Roberts, the Food Policy Coordinator in Toronto, Canada writes about the forward thinking initiatives in Belo Horizonte including some of the newer ones like the green food box and redistribution of surplus food. In a 2008 article for Alternatives, he writes: “As a result of all the businesses and alternatives stimulated by government programs, Belo Horizonte is the only Brazilian city where alternatives outperform commercial supermarkets in the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables.” He also notes that “the World Trade Organization [WTO] legitimizes government interventions in the economy that provide food as long as they are classified as anti-poverty programs.”
That little loophole may be the only way local governments can legally buy local now. Our federal government has just signed on to the Buy American deal, while the House of Parliament was prorogued and we were all focused on the Olympics. According to the Council of Canadians (COC), that means provincial and municipal governments and their agencies will now have to adhere to the WTO’s government procurement agreement. The deal could be disastrous for local governments, even impeding their ability to buy local. They also say it will not improve access to U.S. markets for Canadian companies, instead “it will further and needlessly restrict how local communities are able to manage local economies in the public interest.”
“Buy Local policies are not protectionist,” says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the COC. “They are smart economic policy. And signing the provinces into the WTO will exclude it as an option for Canadians.”
While we have potentially just suffered a loss of food democracy, Brazil has just adopted the right to food into their constitution.
“I knew we had so much hunger in the world,” said Adriana. “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.”