Can the U.S. Learn From Brazil’s Fight Against Food Insecurity?

The South American nation is making an effort to alleviate poverty and hunger among its poorest citizens.

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

After the final whistle blew at Mineirao Stadium on Tuesday, wrapping up Germany’s stunning 7-1 defeat of Brazil in the World Cup semifinals, tens of thousands looked on in disbelief and agony. The team had been decisively embarrassed, exiting so swiftly from a pre-written script that had the host country claiming the cup for itself. For the 64,000 fans who paid upwards of $1,000 per ticket, the result could not have been more heartbreaking.

Outside the stadium, those living in poverty and experiencing hunger live with heartbreak daily. But the story of how Brazil is slowly eradicating extreme poverty and food insecurity may serve as a model for our struggles here in America. A decade ago, more than 27 million Brazilians lived on less than $1.50 a day. Today, that number has been cut by 89 percent, after more than a decade of a set of aggressive social programs aimed at lifting up the country’s poorest people.

Observers credit the successful Programa Fome Zero—Zero Hunger Program—which began in 2002 “to eradicate hunger, extreme poverty, and social exclusion.” The program coordinates 11 national departments to help raise nearly 50 million people out of poverty altogether by increasing access to food, strengthening family farming, and developing ways for the poor to generate income, among other initiatives. The United States, on the other hand, seems to address different social issues within their own silos, says Ana Población, a visiting nutrition researcher with the Boston University School of Medicine and Children’s HealthWatch.

“In contrast with Brazil, in the U.S., each component of the overall problem is being confronted separately,” Población, who is Brazilian, wrote recently in a Children’s HealthWatch blog post. “Poverty and hunger are addressed by several different social programs, such as the national food assistance programs and a separate cash assistance program. But in order to effectively help families suffering with the lack of food, shouldn’t all these social policies be streamlined?”

She continues: “Shouldn’t food assistance be in line with raising the minimum wage, creating jobs, workforce training to raise career opportunities, day care for children, and continuing to offer cash transfer benefits? Wouldn’t having all these programs integrated be more successful in enabling families to accomplish a better life standard, as intended by Brazil’s Zero Hunger Program?”

An example, she says, was the mom she heard speak recently about her fight to lift herself out of poverty and stave off food insecurity. This “Witness to Hunger” wants to receive the training she needs to reenter the workforce and make a better life for herself and her children, she but lacks an affordable child care option. In Brazil, Población said in an interview, the country is building several new child care facilities for young moms who want to go back to work or school.

Some say such programs, combined with direct monthly payments to nearly 2.5 million Brazilians, have had historically positive results. Last year, President Dilma Rousseff said the country had almost eradicated extreme poverty, slashing it by nearly 90 percent since the programs began. Problems still remain, of course: 2.5 million Brazilians currently receive benefits from the government, and as many as 2.5 million more are unenrolled in the nation’s poverty program and may still be struggling. And Población says the Brazilian government is giving the extremely poor only enough money each month to technically move out of extreme poverty. As the protests against the lavish spending of public money on World Cup facilities suggest, Brazil’s poor still believe there’s a long way to go.

The focus on food access is one of the more notable components of Brazil’s anti-poverty strategy, according to Población. Access to fresh, healthy food is so important in Brazil, the nation’s leaders have officially named it a human right, and its place as the first priority of the Zero Hunger Program reflects its importance. All public school children receive free school lunches, something Población says “the U.S. is struggling to achieve.” She believes the universal school meal program is probably the nation’s most well-run social service, a program that has been a model in other developing countries.

“The government buys from local farmers and puts the carrot or whatever they sell into the school meal,” she says. “It is supporting the local farmer as well as getting the nutritional food to the children. It’s a very nice program.”

She adds that universal school meals in the U.S. would benefit the many millions of families who “send their children to school to be fed because they don’t have any food at home.” Between 12 and 20 percent of the U.S. population struggles occasionally with finding food to eat. In Brazil, the last census, in 2006, revealed a food insecurity rate of 14.5 percent, including nearly 5 percent of children. Población says she believes that when the next census data is collected, the food insecurity rate will have dropped alongside the poverty rate.

“I think this Zero Hunger Program is a well-designed program. Unfortunately, there are some flaws here and there,” she says. “I think it has taken people out of poverty. Not the majority of people, but some of them have benefitted from this program.”

Eradicating hunger, even the most die-hard seleção fan would certainly agree, is more valuable than any World Cup trophy.

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