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No Free Lunch

Hope against hunger

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One million less Filipino families experienced hunger in the fourth quarter compared to the third, Social Weather Stations reported recently. Hunger incidence dropped to 16.3 percent of our families, a steep decline of almost 5 percentage points from 21 percent, SWS reported in August. Still, with nearly one out of five experiencing hunger from lack of access to food, we cannot rejoice and rest easy. I’m sure many of us saw large amounts of food go unconsumed and wasted in Christmas parties last month. And it happens every day in hotels and restaurants. Indeed, there is no lack of food in this country—and in the world, for that matter. It is in ensuring adequate access to food for all where we consistently fail.

For almost two decades now, a city on the other side of the world—Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte—has shown that hunger need not be inevitable. In 1993, the newly elected city leadership declared that food was a right of every citizen, and began work to make good food accessible to all. Newly elected Mayor Patrus Ananias—later to become national leader of Brazil’s fight against hunger—established a multisectoral food council with members from government, business, labor, church, academe and other key sectors. Even then, Brazilian citizens already actively engaged in local governance, particularly in allocating local government budgets. Ananias’ food-as-a-right policy apparently inspired Belo Horizonte residents into doubling the number taking part in the city’s participatory budgeting process, to more than 31,000.

In her account of the city’s success story against hunger, Frances Moore Lappe describes the initiatives Belo’s food council developed to make food accessible to all, addressing the interests of farmers and consumers alike. It gave farmers’ families access to prime retail space on which to sell their produce directly to city dwellers. This allowed consumers and farmers to split between themselves what would normally be hefty margins taken by the middlemen. It also bid out to entrepreneurs the right to set up “ABC” markets (Alimentos a Baixo Custo—Portuguese for “food at low cost”) in choice locations in the city. The city fixes below-market prices for some 20 specific foods sold at these markets, while everything else can be sold at market prices. With the privilege of securing a spot for an “ABC” market also came the obligation to transport and offer their produce to poor neighborhoods outside of the city center on weekends.

Other initiatives arising from the “food-as-a-right” policy included creation of a chain of Restaurante Popular (“People’s Restaurants”) serving cheap meals made from locally-grown foods to more than 12,000 people daily; facilitating the development of urban gardens in schools and communities; and allocating national budgets for school lunches to local farmers rather than to processed and packaged foods. Indicative of Belo’s success is how its infant mortality rate—a key public health indicator—dropped to half in less than a decade of its food-as-a-right programs. What is remarkable about Belo Horizonte’s approach, avers former city food programs manager Adriana Aranha, is how it showed that “the state doesn’t have to provide everything … it can facilitate … (and) create channels for people to find the solutions themselves.”

We have a similarly inspiring success story right here at home, albeit on a much smaller scale. Mayor Nacianceno Pacalioga Jr., known to his Dumingag, Zamboanga del Norte constituents as Mayor Jun, won the prestigious Galing Pook Award in 2010 for “Steering Local Development thru People Empowerment” in his town. Among other things, he urged farmers in his town to embrace organic farming. Starting his campaign at the schools, all teachers were trained in the basic principles of organic agriculture, now incorporated in the curricula as a required subject. Practical workshops on organic agriculture were organized in all barangays, and interested farmers offered intensive training courses at the Center for Organic Agriculture. Even the local military camp has embraced organic farming; visitors say the camp looks more like an organic farm than a military outpost. Barangay development workers sustain the mayor’s program, and the organic farmers have organized themselves into a marketing cooperative.

The benefits of the program have been palpable. The town has achieved food security, cultivating 98 different local rice varieties that need not be purchased from multinational seed corporations. Remarkably, only two out of what used to be 10 local pesticide dealers remain in business, a good indicator of the program’s following. Within the initial developmental phase, the number of organic farmers rose from only 20 to 500.

As for Belo Horizonte, Lappe quotes Aranha: “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 to end it.” Lappe gleans from this what is perhaps Belo Horizonte’s greatest lesson: that it is easy to end hunger if we are willing to “think out of the box” and see with new eyes; if we trust our caring and sharing instincts and act no longer as mere voters or critics, but as problem-solving partners with a government that is accountable to us.

If it can be done in Brazil, there’s no reason it can’t be done in the Philippines—or anywhere else.

[Frances Moore Lappe’s widely cited article on Belo Horizonte is at www.yesmagazine.org/ yes/issues/food-for-everyone/the-city-that-ended-hunger. Mayor Jun Pacalioga’s story is at www.one-world-award.com/nacianceno-mejos-pacalioga.html]

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E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com


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Tags: Cielito F. Habito , column , galing pook award , hunger , Nacianceno Pacalioga Jr. , organic agriculture , people’s restaurants , SWS survey , “food-as-a-right” policy



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