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We can beat hunger

AROUND 300,000 more Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger just before the turnover of government to the new leadership, according to the latest Hunger Survey of the Social Weather Stations released over the weekend. The incidence of hunger rose to 3.4 million families (15.2 percent) nationwide in the second quarter, from 3.1 million (13.7 percent) in the first. Interestingly, Mindanao actually had dramatic improvement, with hunger incidence falling nearly six percentage points from 19 to 13.3 percent, or by more than 300,000 families. That is, hunger fell in Mindanao by about as much as it rose elsewhere in the country. Perhaps Mindanao and our new leaders from there have a thing or two to teach the rest of us.

Even as hunger persists worldwide, it’s not because there is not enough food. One need not look far to see this. Almost on a daily basis, we see large amounts of food wasted in gatherings, in hotels and in restaurants. Recently we heard of tons of meat rotting in containers stuck in the port, and of grains similarly rotting away in warehouses nationwide. There’s 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 the failure lies. One might say that at this time, the challenge of food security at the national or global levels is not so much about food supplies as about food distribution and accessibility to the poor and hungry. As I’ve often argued, it’s about prices and incomes.

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Why is there so much food in the world, yet so many continue to be without it? The World Future Council blames market structures that are profit-seeking and speculative, leading to prices that exclude the poor from access to healthy food and hinder investments in small-scale agriculture. It notes how world food prices roughly doubled between 2006 and 2009, with the most significant jump (by 85 percent) happening between April 2007 and April 2008—when speculators pounced on food commodities. It also notes that official development assistance for small-scale agriculture was cut by 85 percent between 1980 and 2002, and that agricultural productivity had declined in many developing in the last 50 years.

The same World Future Council gave the Future Policy Award in 2009 to the city of Belo Horizonte, the fourth largest city in Brazil—a country now in the limelight for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. For two decades now, lesser-known Belo Horizonte has shown that hunger need not be a fact of life. 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. Mayor Patrus Ananias—later to become Brazil’s minister for social development and the Fight against Hunger—established a secretariat for food policy and supply that included a 20-member council of citizens, workers and business leaders from all sectors involved with food. He pulled in church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. The explicit mandate was to increase access to healthy food for all, as a measure of social justice.

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Brazilian citizens even then already participated actively in local governance, particularly in allocating government budgets, via the bottom-up budgeting system that Brazilian cities (including the other famous city of Porto Alegre) had pioneered worldwide. Mayor Ananias’ “right to food” policy is credited for having led Belo Horizonte residents in doubling the numbers who took part in the city’s participatory budgeting process to well over 30,000 individuals.

Belo Horizonte’s food council developed ways to put food within everyone’s reach, addressing the interests of farmers and consumers alike.

Family farmers were given access to prime retail space in which to sell their produce directly to city dwellers. Thus, consumers and farmers split between themselves what would have been hefty margins garnered by middlemen. The city also bid out to entrepreneurs the right to set up “ABC” markets (for alimentos a baixo custo, or food at low cost) in choice city locations. Prices are fixed below-market for some 20 specific foods sold at these outlets, 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.

The “food as a right” approach also included the creation of a chain of restaurante popular (people’s restaurants) serving up to 12,000 cheap meals made from locally grown foods every day, to up to 700 people at a time. The bulk of visitors are poor, but the service is open to everybody, which helps avoid having the restaurants stigmatized as mere poor people’s diners. The city also helped develop urban gardens in schools and communities, and allocated national budgets for school lunches to local farmers rather than to processed and packaged foods. Food banks were added in 2004, where fresh fruit and vegetable donations are cleaned and vacuum-frozen, and distributed to charitable organizations and social service agencies.

Proof positive of Belo Horizonte’s success is that among other substantial public health improvements, the city’s infant mortality rate dropped by 60 percent in a decade.

This case demonstrates how, with a government that is responsive and accountable to the people, we can beat hunger if we are prepared to think out of the box, trust our caring and sharing instincts, and work together as problem-solving partners. Belo Horizonte has shown that it can be done. We only need to follow the example.

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TAGS: food, hunger, hunger survey, opinion, Poverty, Social Weather Stations, SWS
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