Healthy food for everyone

Blanca Alaníz, Velos de color serie sobre el comercio nº 3, digitized analog photography, Mexico City, 2020


For a national program to combat hunger involving civil society and governments.

Clarifying the dimensions and nature of the problem

The survey by the PENSSAN Network, carried out by sampling, has already been widely publicized, pointing to the existence of 33 million hungry people (technically suffering from severe food insecurity), 32 million undernourished (moderate food insecurity) and 62 million malnourished (mild food insecurity). I will not deal here, again, with the data from the Cadastro Único of the Auxílio Brasil program and which I discussed in my article of 23/11/2022, “The Food Crisis”, published on the website the earth is round. CAD-U is clearly bloated and distorted. But there are other researches related to the problem of food insecurity, which deserve attention (for details of this discussion, see the referred article).

These surveys are based, on the one hand, on IBGE surveys on the income of Brazilians and, on the other hand, on the World Bank's definition of maximum daily income, which defines the limits of poverty and extreme poverty. They point to different numbers: the extremely poor (those believed to suffer from severe food insecurity, or hunger), number 18 million. That's a huge difference of 15 million people between the two surveys. Who is right?

There is a difference in method that may explain, in part, this intriguing contradiction. When the World Bank defines the maximum income below which everyone is extremely poor or the one below which everyone is poor, it does not say that the first are the hungry and the second the undernourished, although this must certainly be the case for the poor. first. This income limit is not all intended for food, as both the poor and the extremely poor have other expenses.

If we take this fact into account, many of those who are in the poor category will not have the minimum resources to guarantee the “filling of the belly” that kills hunger, but without nourishing. The Network survey records whether the respondent ate three meals every day, during the three months prior to the interview. It is likely that the correct number is closer to the Network's research, but the fact is that we are working with inaccurate data.

Neither of the two surveys gives an indication of what people eat. Only if they eat regularly or if they have difficulties to eat three meals (PENSSAN Network) or how much income they have daily (World Bank/IBGE), for food and for other expenses.

The question of what people eat is even broader than the public classified as poor or extremely poor. The diet adopted by Brazilians of all income brackets is a huge problem. Whether due to income restriction or preferential option, practically the entire Brazilian population eats poorly. The small exception is in the higher-income population, which has the purchasing power and information to adopt more nutritionally adequate diets.

When Brazil left the FAO hunger map, it was assumed that the food problem had been solved. It's not like this. The hunger map only includes individuals who cannot consume the amount of calories indicated as the minimum required by the WHO, an average of 2500 calories per day. Turns out, as should be obvious, no one survives on calorie consumption alone.

Protein deficiency is as serious a food insecurity factor as calorie deficiency. And deficiencies in the intake of vitamins, mineral salts and fibers as well. On the other hand, there are serious risks of food insecurity due to the excessive consumption of certain substances, such as salt, sugar, saturated fats and chemical additives. And we cannot forget the risks caused by the contamination of food by pesticides or by viruses, bacilli and bacteria that are very common in food produced in agribusiness systems, such as, for example, salmonella or the mad cow virus.

Our food system is increasingly centered on the consumption of ultra-processed products, which are notoriously high in calories, salt, sugar, saturated fats and lacking in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. The exponential increase in the consumption of ultra-processed products causes, in Brazil and in the world, the explosive phenomenon of obesity combined with protein and vitamin malnutrition. And for those who think that obese people have more money to spend on food, research shows that the poor have a higher incidence of obesity.

This is explained by the fact that ultra-processed foods tend to be cheaper than in natura foods. The rich who eat poorly stuff themselves with Big Macs, which cost much more than the daily income of the poorest, but they consume more products that “fill their bellies”, circumventing the hunger imposed by income limits. The option for ramen noodles or pasta with sausage on people's plates is increasingly clear, replacing rice and beans, which was once an (excellent) staple diet in Brazil.

The goal of a food security program cannot be just “fill your belly”. The impact of this bad diet on the health of Brazilians has a cost that is charged in record rates of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, gastritis, cancer, among others. More people die from malnutrition than from hunger in our Brazil.


Objectives of the campaign for food security.

To reduce open hunger and hidden hunger, we will have to deal with the issue of access to food, combined with the qualification of this food. And, for that, we will have to define which basic basket to be adopted by the beneficiaries of the program. Until today, all programs tend to refer to the basic basket defined in the minimum wage law of 1938. This basket is not adequate, nor has it ever been. It contains excess sugar and salt and, above all, low consumption of fruits and vegetables. Its positive point is the basic consumption of rice with beans, meat, milk and eggs. But it is clear that a new basic food basket will have to be adopted nationally.

The government program, renamed Bolsa Família, works with the distribution of financial resources that allow each family to buy the food they need. This is the theory, but the reality is different.

Firstly, the amount of R$600,00 per family, plus an additional R$150,00 per child up to six years old, does not guarantee purchasing power for an adequate food basket. Second, there is no guarantee that these resources will be fully used to guarantee food. As already pointed out above, no one lives on just food resources. The standard family (father, mother and two minor children) who will receive R$900,00 per month, have other expenses to pay, starting with the fact that 70% of families in poverty and extreme poverty have a third of their income committed to debt.

In addition, they pay for rent, water, electricity, cooking gas, transport, cleaning and hygiene products, medicine, school supplies, clothes. Among other permanent or occasional expenses, but imposing. Among evangelicals there is still tithing. In many homes there is still the internet or Gatonet. The program intends to supply resources as an income supplement, but, for a growing portion, the Bolsa Família contribution is the only source of regular income.

In other words, government program resources do not guarantee that beneficiaries will eat properly. With a deficit income, these beneficiaries will use as little resources as possible on food, in order to be able to spend on other needs. And we fall once again into the situation where the poor will consume the cheapest diet to “fill their bellies” and continue to suffer from all the elements of food insecurity, except caloric intake.

The solution to this problem would be the adoption of a broader program, such as a minimum income, which would cover all the needs of the poor. Even so, the risk of poor nutrition would continue to exist, now with another motivation. The poor population is used to the regime of "filling the belly" and will not, spontaneously, change their eating habits without an intense process of nutritional education. More resources for food could support a trend that is already manifesting itself: eating (qualitatively) poorly every day to be able to spend more on feast days, on Sundays for barbecued sirloin steak with beer.


A nutrition program

How to ensure a healthy and balanced diet for the poorest? As we saw above, the mere distribution of money is not a guarantee. When the food programs for the poorest distributed basic baskets and not money to buy food, there was a possibility of making available the diversity of products included in the basket. However, except in small municipalities, where the baskets were easily accessed by beneficiaries, in most cases all perishable products ended up excluded from the basket, for logistical reasons. That is, in addition to the basket already being deficient in the supply of vegetables and fruits, even these are no longer distributed.

It is clear that the enormous number of beneficiaries of the current Bolsa Família rules out the possibility of returning to a distribution of food baskets. But the State can campaign for food quality through the PNAE, guaranteeing resources for schools to properly feed all children with three meals and a snack a day, educating them for the wide consumption of vegetables, legumes and fruits. This education could be extended to the children's families to ensure that the food model is adopted in their homes.

What can civil society do to face the problem described above? First of all, all the programs of non-governmental entities that deal with the access of the poor to food do not distribute money, but food products. In the first place, we should discuss between these entities the issue of the most suitable basket for good nutritional quality. Secondly, we should discuss the need for food and nutrition education among beneficiaries. Third, we should assess the need to provide culinary education, showing how to make food in the most attractive way for consumers.

This last point is not a minor issue. Many of the poorest are unaware of the vast majority of vegetables and greens and do not know how to prepare them. Even if educated on the importance of eating broccoli, for example, and even with access to this vegetable, if they do not know how to cook it, it will not be consumed. To give a broader example, I recall an organic vegetable garden program that was widely disseminated in the semi-arid region of the Northeast during the five-year drought, 1979/1983.

With resources distributed by the Catholic Church, many families managed to avoid the usual migration process in these times of crisis, but the direct food effect was minimal. Peasants were unaware of most of the vegetables they learned to produce. Some left aside most of them to concentrate on the production of garlic, onion, coriander, sweet potato, corn and pumpkin, which were regularly consumed. Others maintained the great diversity of products included in the widespread program, but sold everything in markets in the nearest cities. A food and cooking education program was necessary for these families to start consuming carrots, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, arugula, watercress, eggplant, etc.

In this food education program, the element of communication is fundamental. In the past, numerous leaflets were produced for this purpose, but nowadays it is visual instruments such as videos that have the greatest impact on the public. And publicity campaigns through TVs should be evaluated, as it still has a lot of impact on the general public.


Control food losses

A civil society (and government) program must also work with another “invisible” problem, the loss and waste of products that occur in what is called the food chain, which goes from rural properties to the consumer's plate.

In Brazil, one of the ten countries with the highest rate of waste in the world, research by UNEP/FAO indicated that the proportion of food that goes to waste is 17% of production. This is the part of food that disappears in retail (2%), in food services (restaurants, bars) (5%) and in homes (11%). Another 14% of food is lost between the rural producer and the consumer; in transport, processing, storage, distribution and wholesale.

How to avoid this problem? Civil society cannot act on losses still located on rural properties, in general those that occur due to deficiencies in the storage of products before their sale. This will depend more on government programs that finance storage infrastructure for different types of products. It is estimated that there is a deficit of 85 million tons in storage capacity throughout Brazil, a large part of which is on rural properties.

Wholesale marketing is carried out by private companies and they do not seem to be bothered by the much that is lost in transport and storage in centers of consumption. Just to have a small sample of these losses, it is estimated that 13% of the soy transported in trucks is deposited on the side of the roads through which they travel, escaping the precarious tarpaulins that should contain it. Tons of fresh food are also lost in CEASAs across Brazil, either due to deterioration in transport, local storage or lack of buyers. Programs for the use of these discarded products are already underway in several states, delivering them to entities that produce soups for distribution among the poor in the region.

The food processing industries are responsible for a significant part of these losses, mainly because they tend to discard (even by virtue of regulations and laws) raw materials that do not comply 100% with their standards. This disposal could be used instead of going to fill the country's landfills.

The same losses are found in fairs and supermarkets, with enormous waste. The solution for its use in soups should be generalized either on the initiative of economic agents or by giving it to philanthropic entities.

Finally, there is a lot of loss in consumers' own homes and this can be tackled either by educating the poorest people on how to better conserve what they buy, or by distributing surpluses to more affluent households. In some wealthy condominiums there already exist or there have been initiatives by liquidators collecting these surpluses for direct distribution to homeless people or for the production of soups for the same purpose.


Relationship with producers.

A food and nutrition security program should encourage a direct relationship between producers and consumers, outside market mechanisms. The program (extinct in the Bolsonaro government) known as PAA, Food Acquisition Program of CONAB, will be relaunched in the new Lula government. This program had, and will again have, a component that allows the purchase of food from family farming, with State resources, delivered to philanthropic institutions such as Asylums and Orphanages, among others. On the other hand, the Movimento dos Sem Terra and the Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores distributed food baskets to the urban poor across the country, at no cost to the State, throughout the entire COVID pandemic.

A food and nutritional security program should also encourage the multiplication of urban gardens, which will be crucial to expand the supply of vegetables directly at fairs close to the production sites. A program of this nature has been operating for decades in Argentina and has even stimulated the creation of over a million organic gardens.

To conclude, these are some of the most important problems in facing our food crisis. Part of the solutions depends on state programs, but another and significant part can be undertaken by civil society organizations. Encouraging the creation of initiatives to offer adequate food and food education will be essential. It will be crucial to mobilize all entities that organize or can organize both food demand and supply. I imagine a movement made up of churches of all denominations, industries, restaurants, street vendors, CEASAs, neighborhood associations, … everyone.

It is necessary to create a broad solidarity mobilization to eradicate our biggest social problem. On the other hand, it will be very important that these initiatives are articulated in such a way that the experiences of each one can be socialized in a collective learning process.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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