Of late, there has been much focus on reducing inequality, poverty, and poor child nutrition in the U.S. Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil (2.5 million inhabitants), provides an impressive example of how to solve all these challenges with fewer resources than this country has available. In the early 1990s, a progressive mayor started talking about the city’s people as citizens rather than consumers and their universal right to food. To implement this vision, he created a food council with representatives from government agencies, labor unions, farms, citizen groups, research institutions, churches, and nonprofits.
The council developed holistic programs to eliminate hunger and malnutrition while simultaneously boosting the local economy. Today there are three pillars of activity that capture the city and larger region’s approach:
(1) Creating affordable food through a network of partially subsidized restaurants (RPs), an extensive program of free school meals, and food assistance linked to social organizations.
(2) Regulating the market price of basic foods, cutting out middlemen so that food travels directly from farm to citizen, and developing food fairs and farmers’ markets throughout the city.
(3) Promoting and strengthening urban agriculture by establishing backyard and community gardens, by developing training and educational programs on best agroecological practices, wholesome nutrition and reducing food waste, and by prohibiting the use of pesticides.
Belo Horizonte has seen child malnutrition plummet by 75 percent and child mortality rates by 60 percent. The RP restaurants make affordable food available to all. Everyone pays the same low price so there is no social stigma linked to eating in these places.
The city provides organic fertilizer and soil amendments to the hundreds of community and school gardens and orchards. Over 100,000 schoolchildren participate in growing vegetables. Fruit trees are planted on streets throughout the city with fruit available for picking by all. Members of the community are selected to care for the trees, which strengthens social networks and community involvement.
Other initiatives include guaranteeing some urban land for farming to relieve competition from real estate development, encouraging the development of rainwater harvesting, and giving small-scale family farms equal access to markets. All these programs cost only 2 percent of the city’s budget.
Food as a human right has spread from Belo Horizonte to all of Brazil. The national “Zero Hunger Program” has cut food insecurity by tens of millions in less than a decade. It has reduced income disparity and poverty while increasing employment.
Spearheaded by the Community Environmental Council and the S.B. Foodbank, similar programs are underway in our tri-county region to address social justice and climate issues. Much can be learned from Brazil’s holistic approach.