The city that ended hunger did it by going local
What struck me in Frances Moore Lappé’s piece at Yes! on Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the city that ended hunger — was how simple the solution was:
[The city] 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.
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 34 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.
[The city started] 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.
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.
If those policies sound familiar, it’s because they echo common recommendations among US food policy progressives, as well as those in Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s report on localizing the NYC foodshed. But it’s always nice when someone tries them out first — and they work. And work they did:
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 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.
And the cost? $10 million for a city of 2.5 million. Granted, that figure isn’t adjusted for US purchasing power — but it represented a mere 2 percent of the city budget (and Belo probably has a much smaller/simpler budget than NYC). Also, note the focus on school lunches (sound familiar?) and the way the city directly subsidized purchases of fruit and vegetables.
Granted, Belo’s efforts focus on malnutrition, while we in the developed world must attack the two-headed monster of hunger AND obesity. On the other hand, Belo’s policies would likely conquer both. Still, this Brazilian city provides hard evidence that you can address underlying social ills when you localize urban food systems and promote healthy eating. That is very good news indeed.