Zero Tolerance for Hunger in Brazil

By on September 17, 2012


Diners in The Popular Restaurant #2, Belo Horizonte, Brazil


Yes, it’s true.  The country of Brazil has made a public policy that says the country will not tolerate hunger. Period.

Sounds like political posturing you say?  Not in Brazil, where they have put their money where their collective mouths are and have driven hunger way down.  How do they do it?

Support of small farmers, cash payments to the poor, and – perhaps the centerpiece to the program, a series of government-run restaurants known as “Popular Restaurants”.

So how is this any different than the support for the poor we have in the U.S.? We have food stamps and soup kitchens.

But there is still that pesky fact that 22% of the children in the U.S. who suffer “food insecurity” at least part of every month.  This handy euphemism means that kids go to bed hungry.  Period.  That’s the blunt truth.

So what does Brazil know that we don’t know?  Perhaps it speaks to their basic culture.  The Popular Restaurants bear little resemblance to American Soup Kitchens.  Seated in a Popular Restaurant in Belo Horizonte, Brazil will be seniors, next to construction workers, next to college kids, with the poor mixed in.

It’s egalitarianism in action, unseen in this country since Jane Addams established the Hull House in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century. Ms. Addams aimed her projects at the newly arrived immigrants, often Italian in that time and place, because she believed that the quickest way to assimilate the new Americans was to mix it up with American middle class women, in classes, at the table, and in the schools.

She didn’t invent this idea.  She’d seen it in action in London, where a group of upper class men formed a club that included the poor in their eating society.

But it speaks to basic human rights that believe that All Men Are Created Equal.  Write that down.

 In Brazil this plays out as the government guarantees a well-prepared balanced meal of fresh food in these great lunch places scattered throughout the city.  For about a buck, each diner gets the de rigueur rice and beans + a fresh green vegetable (they love kale in Brazil) and meat.  Come back for dinner and they serve a nourishing soup and bread for around 50 cents.

Also scattered across cities, towns and villages are government backed farmers’ markets where good, fresh food is sold at reasonable prices affordable by all.

This is in stark contrast to farmers’ markets in the U.S. which tend to be expensive, only located in middle and upper middle-class areas and certainly unsupported by the government in any way.  Here, we treat farmers’ markets as if they were a privilege.

In Brazil, they treat affordable food as a human right.  Now that, my friends, is a basic difference in public policy that matters.

But back to this question, what do the Brazilians know that we don’t know about feeding everyone? They get it that to feed people you need to support small farmers and they have made a concentrated effort to support the folks who are most likely to grow “row crops”, kale, and carrots and onions,   not just the commodity crops most often owned by corporate interests, the big fields of soy and corn and wheat that dominate American fields and threaten to overwhelm small farmers in Brazil as well.

They are a practical as well as an idealistic people.  For example, they sell many products to Europe, which will not tolerate GMO foodstuffs, so they have set aside entire states who guarantee they will NOT grow GMO products.

This protects Brazil’s economic interests because they can sell their agricultural product to Europe freely.  And they put some muscle into enforcement.  When I was in Brazil a couple weeks ago, a lawsuit between Nestle and the government of Brazil was settled wherein the international food giant had to pay a very large fine to Brazil. Why?  They had put GMO soy into cookies sold without labeling the GMO. They were also forbidden to sell this or any other product in the country without proper labeling for GMO.  What a concept.

Within a five year period during the first decade of the twenty first century,  Brazil reduced its poverty level by a remarkable one-third.

Could we do that here?  You bet we could but it takes a real commitment on the part of the lawmakers and the government to do it, as well as the will of the people who can express themselves at the voting booth.

Michele Obama has planted a garden on the lawn of the White House.  I say, we give that pair another four years and see if they can’t accomplish an end to Hunger.  The Brazilians did it. We can do it here, too.

End of part one:   Zero Tolerance for Hunger

About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”

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