The City that Ended Hunger


In writing Diet for a Small Planet, I learned one simple truth: hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. But that realization was only the beginning, for then I had to ask, “what does a democracy look like that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials?” Does it exist anywhere? Is it possible or a pipe dream? With hunger on the rise here in the United States—one in ten of us is now turning to food stamps—these questions take on new urgency.

To begin to conceive of the possibility of a culture of empowered citizens making democracy work for them, real-life stories help—not models to adopt wholesale, but examples that capture key lessons. For me, the story of Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, is a rich trove of such lessons. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had eleven percent of its population living in absolute poverty and almost twenty percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect, if you are too poor to buy food in the market—you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.

The new mayor, Patrus Ananias—now leader of the federal anti-hunger effort—began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a twenty-member council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. The city already involved regular citizens directly in allocating municipal resources—the “participatory budgeting” that started in the 1970s and has since spread across Brazil. During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.

The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce—which often reached 100 percent—to consumers and the farmers. Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.

When my daughter Anna and I visited Belo Horizonte to write Hope’s Edge we approached one of these stands. A farmer in a cheerful green smock, emblazoned with “Direct from the Countryside,” grinned as she told us, “I am able to support three children from my five acres now. Since I got this contract with the city, I’ve even been able to buy a truck.”

The improved prospects of these Belo farmers were remarkable considering that, as these programs were getting underway, farmers in the country as a whole saw their incomes drop by almost half.

In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes good food available by offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use well-trafficked plots of city land for “ABC” markets, from the Portuguese acronym for “food at low prices.” Today there are thirty-four such markets where the city determines a set price—about two-thirds of the market price—of about twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state farmers and chosen by store-owners. Everything else they can sell at the market price.

“For ABC sellers with the best spots, there’s another obligation attached to being able to use the city land,” a former manager within this city agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. “Every weekend they have to drive produce-laden trucks to the poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so everyone can get good produce.”

Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy “People’s Restaurants” (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of diners—grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still others in business suits.

“I’ve been coming here every day for five years and have gained six kilos,” beamed one elderly, energetic man in faded khakis.

“It’s silly to pay more somewhere else for lower quality food,” an athletic-looking young man in a military police uniform told us. “I’ve been eating here every day for two years. It’s a good way to save money to buy a house so I can get married,” he said with a smile.

No one has to prove they’re poor to eat in a People’s Restaurant, although about 85 percent of the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma and allows “food with dignity,” say those involved.

Belo’s food security initiatives also include extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food mostly from local growers.

“We’re fighting the concept that the state is a terrible, incompetent administrator,” Adriana explained. “We’re showing that the state doesn’t have to provide everything, it can facilitate. It can create channels for people to find solutions themselves.”

For instance, the city, in partnership with a local university, is working to “keep the market honest in part simply by providing information,” Adriana told us. They survey the price of forty-five basic foods and household items at dozens of supermarkets, then post the results at bus stops, online, on television and radio, and in newspapers so people know where the cheapest prices are.

The shift in frame to food as a right also led the Belo hunger-fighters to look for novel solutions. In one successful experiment, egg shells, manioc leaves, and other material normally thrown away were ground and mixed into flour for school kids’ daily bread. This enriched food also goes to nursery school children, who receive three meals a day courtesy of the city.

The result of these and other related innovations?

In just a decade, Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost forty percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by fifty percent. And between 1993 and 2002, Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.

The cost of these efforts?

Around $10 million annually, or less than two percent of the city budget. That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.

Behind this dramatic, life-saving change is what Adriana calls a “new social mentality”—the realization that “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.”

The Belo experience shows that a right to food does not necessarily mean more public handouts (although in emergencies, of course, it does.) It can mean redefining the “free” in “free market” as the freedom of all to participate. It can mean, as in Belo, building citizen-government partnerships driven by values of inclusion and mutual respect.

And when imagining food as a right of citizenship, please note: no change in human nature is required! Through most of human evolution—except for the last few thousand of roughly 200,000 years—Homo sapiens lived in societies where pervasive sharing of food was the norm. As food sharers, “especially among unrelated individuals,” humans are unique, writes Michael Gurven, an authority on hunter-gatherer food transfers. Except in times of extreme privation, when some eat, all eat.

Before leaving Belo, Anna and I had time to reflect a bit with Adriana. We wondered whether she realized that her city may be one of the few in the world taking this approach—food as a right of membership in the human family. So I asked, “When you began, did you realize how important what you are doing was? How much difference it might make? How rare it is in the entire world?”

Listening to her long response in Portuguese without understanding, I tried to be patient. But when her eyes moistened, I nudged our interpreter. I wanted to know what had touched her emotions.

“I knew we had so much hunger in the world,” Adriana said. “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.”

Adriana’s words have stayed with me. They will forever. They hold perhaps Belo’s greatest lesson: that it is easy to end hunger if we are willing to break free of limiting frames and to see with new eyes—if we trust our hard-wired fellow feeling and act, no longer as mere voters or protesters, for or against government, but as problem-solving partners with government accountable to us.

This article originally appeared in Yes! magazine.

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14 Responses to The City that Ended Hunger

  1. The world needs a whole lot more of this. This is exactly the most important challenge of the 21st Century.
    I would like to see the leaders of the Gaudiyas in the western countries doing a lot more in the way of food distribution, especially prasadam distribution to the spiritually starving masses of materially obese western people.

    The myth is that western civilization is more successful and prosperous than old Asian cultures that are more spiritual and less materially advanced. The fact is that western civilization is starving to death spiritually, though in fact there are pockets and sects within western civilization of enlightened people who have received the glorious spiritual gifts of the East from the great Ambassadors of Bhagavat-marga.

    These starving masses in the west need spiritual food.
    There is certainly no shortage of spiritually starved souls in the West who desperately need some spiritual nourishment in the form of Krishna prasadam.

    As well, the world needs to learn how to grow all this food through Green Farming all over the world without dependence on fossil fuels that pollute the environment and destroy the Earth.

    There is a real need for leadership in the world by leaders who can advise all peoples and nations to urgently develop massive Green Farming movements and communities that can produce the food that is rapidly becoming more and more scarce with a rising world population.

    Otherwise, the western countries will in the future be the land of starvation when they have no gas to put in their farm machines while many Asian and South American people still know and practice the ancient system of farming with powerful animals like Oxen, Horses, Mules and Donkeys.

    What is more beautiful than man plowing the soil with an Ox?
    Spiritual life and spiritual culture are also very natural and beautiful like a man plowing the ground with his animal.

  2. A great article that should not have had to be written. It’s a sad truth that when we view essentials like food, water and land as commodities instead of as basic rights then we end up with the huge inequities in distribution–and hunder and thirst–we have today.

    Belo is a wonderful example of how the simple shift in perspective from food as commodity to food as right has the power to change the entire system. I was also impressed by the idea that the government does not need to bear the burden of providing everything, but can instead act as a facilitator to help people solve problems themselves by putting them in contact with the resources and information to make their own solutions. This effectively destroys any objection that addressing hunger (or water shortage, etc.) on a large scale is “too expensive” and also results in an empowered population.

    The rest of the world needs to learn from this example and begin implementing ways to accomplish the same thing. The trend toward privatizing everything to make a profit needs to be reversed, or else one day we’ll be paying for air too.

  3. Actually, contrary to Adriana Aranha’s belief, unfortunately its not easy to end world hunger. Experts have done the math and shown that clearly the imbalance between population growth and food production is immense currently and continues to widen with time. Human nature has been cited in that article as the possible pivot to turn things around on. Indeed, food is the most readily shared of essentials in a society. But not the most essential of essentials for the individual. Our most essential need is always happiness, self realization: if it comes to that, the individual will ‘neglect’ the physical for the spiritual (even if not conscious of the process). Historically we see that humanity has pursued happiness through material means, but attempt at self realization it has been nevertheless. As we know, such misguided attempt has had a tremendous negative impact on the environment and consequently on food resources. There are various facets to human nature. To a great many, easy access to food pretty much summons up the whole idea of happiness, of self realization. But to another great number, more mouths to feed will not be enough pressure to move their focus and therefore their actions away from the deeper hunger which is to know what is it that we eat for in the first place; why do we want to be.

    We have passed the point where actual material food can be easily had by every human being on the planet. We are entering times when the greater hunger of the spirit must be appeased or else there will be no human nature left to speak of, let alone to nourish.

    In developing societies such as Brazil daily hunger is part of life, so the possibility of ending such evil means advancement of life. But then the advancement sought is to attain that position which the well fed have already attained, which unfortunately, as we have seen historically, has not amounted to much. In fact, it has been the story of disregard for the environment, disregard for life, disregard for actual human development. Feeding the world without substantive spiritual advancement will not mean more of the same. This time it will mean more, much more of the worst.

    • I have seen a lot of cases where the spiritual side of life was negatively impacted by experiencing serious material difficulties, such as hunger or lack of shelter. It is the duty of administrators (kshatriyas) to make sure people are safe and have food to eat. It is the duty of the brahmanas to make sure their spiritual needs are met. Because there is a world-wide shortage of true kshatriyas and brahmanas these needs are not always satisfied.

      • But kshatriyas and Brahmanas are not produced on demand. And so if there is a world-wide shortage of kshatriyas and of brahmanas on whom biological as well as spiritual food are dependent upon, it follows that there will be hunger in the world no matter what. As we have seen in this article, its the sudra class who organized itself to distribute the food among themselves. This system unfortunately isn’t sustainable – its effect, even if palliative for the time being, might prove more harmful than positive in the long run. The problems generated by overpopulation cannot be solved by regimental distribution of food. The focus hasn’t been put on the actual issue: unlimited production is not possible. The obvious aspect to tackle is the procreation of the species. How many is a balanced, sustainable number. This is, after all, a limited world.

        • I agree that in the modern context population has to be stabilized at a locally sustainable level. At times, distribution of food actually makes it more difficult.

          Very often kshatriyas and brahmanas are simply supressed by the vaishyas and sudras. Our HK movement is a good example of such supression.

        • Could you explain more clearly please what do you mean by vaishyas and sudhras supressing kshatryias and brahmanas in our Krsna Consciousness Movement? Do you mean that political manipulation has taken over and therefore brahmanas and ksatriyas where checked in their natural development in the movement? Your answer to this question might surprise, but I suspect you are referring to events related to the brief history of Iskcon itself. Personally I think of the movement as the wider Gaudiya Vishanava faith, the many branches of Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s original proposition. From that perspective, Mahaprabhu himself has even stated that in this age everyone is pretty much sudra. He even performed the lila of accepting social rejects to the shock of brahmanas, etc. This seems to make more sense than the idea of reviving varnashram as an imperative for KC. If we consider the recent history of human society, how since the industrial revolution there is no going back to a genuine pastoral life, the meaning of a mostly sudra society becomes quite obvious. It might not mean a bad thing necessarily, just another opportunity for uncluttering the conciousness of relative concepts. Regarding food as a right, that article demonstrated that food/existence goes hand in hand with power. From the point of view of the movement it could actually be debated that in human society food is indeed a right but instead a commodity. The great right of all beings is to life. To human beings, all subsequent rights among humans are negotiable because of relative to individual behavior, to free will. In the socialist concept food was seen as a right, but that concept was abandoned because it opened the door to claims of other, unwarranted rights, like the right to pursuance of religiosity, a subjective and therefore unessential item in socialism. In animal behavior we see that life is respected perfectly. The animal kingdom is run by a program without will, without power as its goal. Human beings are not bound idfferently. Therefore man’s very birth as human sets him off in to a course of negotiation with everyone around. Thus while humans share food at the same time that they debate what should even be considered food, animals eat a quota, and a quota only. But their rights are trampled by humans in humans’ only terms.

        • You are right, I was talking about ISKCON and how devotees with very obvious vaishya tendencies got to usurp positions of kshatriyas and brahmanas and how those who had higher varna tendencies were either kicked out or forced to act as lower varnas. I have seen it done many times over the last 30 years.

          I disagree that in this age of Kali everybody is a sudra, unless we are talking about strict caste criteria borrowed from ancient times. But even that is much more complicated.

          There are huge social differences between people. Krsna says in BG that the four varnas are his creation, just like the 3 modes of nature. Saying that we are all sudras dominated by ignorance is patently false. The majority of people may be sudras but that is pretty much a normal state of being. Problems begin when people of sudra and vaishya nature dictate the way the human society is organized. A failure can always be traced to the leadership.

    • I agree that spreading spiritual development is important. At the same time, it is very difficult to educate someone in even mundane manners if they are physically hungry. That’s why the US government bothers to provide free breakfasts for poor children.

      Once people are spiritually advanced, it is easier for them to forgo food. If they have not developed their spiritual life, food remains an extremely important need. Pull a stranger off the street and ask them to fast for Janmastami, then try to teach them about spiritual life while they are fasting.

      From “The Science of Self-Realization”

      In the Bhagavad-gita it is also stated that those who attempt but do not complete the path of approaching God-in other words, those who have failed to achieve complete success in Krsna consciousness-are given the chance to appear in the families of the spiritually advanced or in financially well-to-do mercantile families

      Why well-to-do? Because being poor and hungry is not conducive to pursuing spiritual advancement.

      I think that a program like that in Brazil which raises people to at least a minimum level of physical comfort is a goodness, because it allows these people at least the opportunity to consider existential questions and be open to education about spiritual life. Maybe it is our duty to provide that education as the next step in their development.

  4. correction: on the fifth line from the end and up it should be read “Human beings are bound differently”.

  5. Social differences are result of culture. A ‘nature’ is inate. Or so it was believed in what is called the Varnasharam system. Saraswati Thakur spoke of turning everyone into brahmanas. Personally I have come to question the theory of varnashram as it has been arrived at by ISKCON. You say Krishna said in Bagavad-gita He created the varnas. So then what? It could be interpreted that He created each natural characteristic that goes into each varna just as He created electricity or magnetism. It does not seem to mean all four tendencies are distinctly present in their pristine forms in four distinct classes of people at all times. Its quite obvious that in the world today the predominant tendency corresponds to sudra characteristics, perhaps even less. And with “less” I don’t mean a moral judgement but just a statement of fact. It is a fact that the world is not even interested in a form of socialism that would benefit most of the destitute, which are, factually, the great majority. Most people go hungry in the world every day. And those who eat, do not eat properly. Still the great push forward is for consuming of not only unecessary but actually harmful stuff, from tobacco, to plastic, to agressively politically and morally incorrect images and sounds, etc, etc, etc. Clearly asuric nature at work. The responsibility for this state of affairs is never with the other alone. I don’t believe there is a class of people who usurped the good in Nature and run with it. We all share equally the responsibility for the present state of affairs in the world. And Mahaprabhu’s movement is about a return in trust in human nature by way of invoking the Divine. Trusting that God is in the other human being factually, not only rhetorically. Harinam sankirtan is by definition a leveling of all in the transcending of the four basic material orders because, as Mahaprabhu says, there is no other way, there is no other way, there is not other way.

  6. The photo illustrating this article does not seem to be of actual Brazilian children but perhaps of African children in uniforms, somewhere in Africa? If it isn’t indeed Belo Horizonte’s children, wouldn’t it be great if readers were shown actual photos of the event – the city and its no longer hungry population? Reporting and docufiction are never the same thing. Just like Africa and Brazil are never one and the same reality.

    • Yes, this is not a picture of children from the town that the article is about, but is that a big problem? I tried finding a picture of Brazilians that would fit the article but I had no such luck. The picture does show children who are obviously elated to get grains and therefore it seems like a reasonable and obvious connection to the article. How does this make docufiction or suggest that africa and Brazil are the same? Starving people are starving people though, so maybe there is less of a difference than you might think. If you have a better picture I will gladly replace it, assuming it meets the technical requirements for this site.

      • “Starving people are starving people though, so maybe there is less of a difference than you might think.”

        Famine is not all the same in the world. And even if hungry, individuals and corresponding enviroments are very distinct. Actual reporting would show this. Actually the article is more opinion than a structured reporting of reality.

        I understand that this site just quotes articles from various sources with a view to perhaps offer perspectives in current world events. And the photo in question might serve such policy. But its a good exercise also to keep in mind that truth is better served when shown as is.

        An actual photo of the program referred to in the article might reveal things otherwise not perceived through the text or in the elected related illustration.

        I wish I could help with a photo as asked, but I can’t. Perhaps no photo at all would have been the solution.

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