Doctors at the local health clinic in Borda do Campo, a town of 30,000 in southern Brazil, were intrigued when a number of children who used to show up frequently with health problems related to poverty and malnutrition stopped coming. Wondering why they were seeing fewer and fewer of these cases, the doctors asked the head of the clinic what might be the reason.
"It was simply that these children were starting to eat better," says Nélia Maria Cruz, the clinic's chief. "We used to see lots of cases of malnutrition, but they soon diminished, and the children's immunity increased, reducing infections and other illnesses that were common in this region."
The staff at the health clinic were not the only ones to notice the difference. At the local school, teachers observed that students seemed to be gaining weight.
"The mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack used to be a relief for them. Many had a second helping knowing it might be their only meal that day. That is no longer the case," says one teacher.
The children of Borda do Campo, in the São José dos Pinhais municipality of Paraná state, are among thousands who have benefited from Fome Zero ("Zero Hunger"), a national effort to eliminate hunger in Brazil. Launched by President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva in January 2003, the ambitious program addresses number 1 of the Millennium Development Goals, "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" and is one of the government's highest priorities.
The program's formula is simple: Give each Brazilian the opportunity to have at least three meals a day. That might not seem like such a bold challenge, except that approximately a quarter of Brazil's 170 million people live below the poverty line. To meet the immediate needs of everyone who goes hungry in the country, the government would have to provide emergency help to 11 million families, according to official estimates. At the same time, the effort must include long-term actions to enable the population to manage on its own, so that in the future every family is able to buy its own food.
"We have two types of policy," says José Baccarin, Brazil's national secretary of food security and the person responsible for Fome Zero within the recently created Ministry of Social Development. "One is a policy with more immediate effects that aims to increase access to nourishment for those living below the poverty line. Then there are longer-term, structural policies."Food now
One of the "emergency" programs already in place targets the children of Borda do Campo, a district that grew rapidly when the French automobile firm Renault established a large factory complex there. The local Catholic Church, which manages the program, set up eight community kitchens to serve the town's residents. According to church figures, approximately 1,500 children have lunch in the kitchens each day.
"Actually, we started the community kitchen program even before Fome Zero," notes Father José Aparecido Pinto, a Dominican priest who has been attending to local parishioners' needs for six years. He says help from the government came in the form of food donations, which allow the kitchens to provide children with a daily meal on a regular basis. Today the government also provides the church with $65,000 annually in the understanding that it will continue to operate the program uninterrupted.
The community kitchens depend on support from the local community as well. The kitchens are housed in cementblock buildings built by the community adjacent to the parish chapels. Some are well constructed, with tile floors, and are nicely decorated. Others have bare concrete walls, unfinished wooden tables, and long benches where the children sit to eat.
Most of the volunteer food preparers are mothers who commit to help out at least once a month. Many go much more often. The menu is varied, with something different for each day of the week, and follows basic nutritional guidelines. The mothers decide among themselves who will cook, serve and clean up every day.
For many children, and in some cases whole families, the community kitchen program was a turning point in their lives. This was the case for Simone Aparecida Oliveira, a 22-year-old homemaker who has three children and is expecting a fourth. With a monthly income of only 450 reais from her husband's job as a machine operator, she had the equivalent of a dollar per person per day to buy everything her family needed. According to neighbors, all three children suffered from malnutrition—until they began taking daily meals in the community kitchens.Grants for families
Fome Zero's main emergency component is a monthly income transfer program for poor families, known as Bolsa Família ("Family Grant"). The program currently covers 3.8 million households and receives the largest chunk of Fome Zero resources, a total of $1.8 billion this year, according to the Ministry of Social Development. The program's goal is to reach 4.5 million families by mid-2004 and all 11 million families in need by the end of 2006, when the current presidential term ends. "On average, we transfer 72 reais [$23] monthly to each family," says Baccarin.
Bolsa Família piggybacks on existing programs that were run by the previous government, but has combined them. Before 2002, families registered locally for different types of financial aid. People could get money for keeping their children in school, or if they needed help to buy gas for cooking, or if they could not afford to feed their families. Da Silva's government consolidated these programs into one and increased coverage across the board. The result, according to the government, has been more money for each individual family.
Other emergency actions include efforts to provide access to cheap or free food. In Brazil's northeast and in northern Minas Gerais, children benefit from a milk donation program that provides 770,000 families with free milk every day. In addition to community kitchens, there are communal restaurants and food banks. The government provides basic food baskets in emergencies such as floods or other natural disasters, as well as for landless rural workers and indigenous and isolated communities. The government also has directed special efforts toward Brazil's northeast, the poorest part of the country. In interior areas where rainfall is scarce, the program is partnering with local communities to build household water tanks, so that residents do not have to travel miles to get water from the nearest river. Some 27,000 tanks were built in 2003, with 50,000 more slated to be built this year. Each holds enough water for one family and costs around $500.Structural action
The longer-term measures envisaged in Brazil's war against extreme poverty are many and varied, and indeed cover nearly the entire spectrum of social programs found in developing countries. The list begins with agrarian reform and includes incentives for family agriculture, a fairer social welfare system, and job creation—an enduring challenge in a country where unemployment hovers at some 13 percent.
One initiative already under way is the Direct Local Purchase program, designed to prevent rural exodus by ensuring an income for small-scale farmers. The program allows communities across the country to purchase food at a reasonable price from eligible farmers. These include farmers who employ no more than two workers, who live on the land they farm and obtain at least 80 percent of their income from the land, and who receive funding from the National Family Agriculture Support Program, which provided some $1.7 billion in production incentives during this harvest year.
Farmers participating in the Direct Local Purchase program can sell up to $800 worth of produce each year to the federal government. The upper limit ensures that large-scale farmers will not be interested in competing for an allocation, and it also helps distribute the money more widely across the country. To date, the National Supply Company (CONAB) has released $25 million for next year's program—enough to buy produce from some 30,000 farm families.
Food purchased through the program serves several objectives. It creates reserves and helps maintain prices, something formerly done through food purchases from large-scale producers and cooperatives. The food is also distributed through the Fome Zero program itself. For example, the food that reduced child malnutrition in Borda do Campo was purchased from farmers in the municipality of São José dos Pinhais through Fome Zero. Every two weeks, qualified producers are invited to deliver their products to the community kitchens. All in all, about 80 farm families sell their produce this way.
"This is a structural program that is already reaping immediate results," says Sílvio Porto, director of logistics and business management for CONAB. He cites as an example the direct purchase program in the state of Acre, in Brazil's Amazon region. There, CONAB bought the entire cashew nut harvest of 1,300 families for $1.2 million. The result was an increase in family income. Producers used to sell a tin of cashews for about $1.60. With a buyer the size of the government, producers had to increase what they paid to pickers to maintain supply. At the peak of the harvest, the price reached $5 a tin.
"There were cases of families who had left who then returned to the reserve to produce cashew nuts again, to guarantee themselves a paying job," says Porto.
The main challenge facing the program now is to increase the resources available for purchases. The program is currently expecting an additional $75 million, but CONAB has requested a funding increase of $1 billion reais, or $327 million, by 2005. A second challenge is to get farmers to diversify their production.
"In 90 percent of the cases, all they manage to produce is corn and beans," says André Michelato, manager of the Paraná Fome Zero program, an initiative of the state of Paraná. "If they were certain they could sell their production, they could invest more, grow other kinds of vegetables, and augment their earnings with the proceeds."Urgent need
Most of the criticism that has been leveled at the government's poverty-reduction efforts has to do with the pace of its structural programs. Some say the government should invest less in emergency actions and more in long-term efforts. But there are a number of obstacles. One is the country's obligation to set aside money to pay off foreign debt. Under an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Brazil must earmark 4.25 percent of its gross domestic product to service its debt. The remainder is always vigorously disputed among the country's ministries.
Yet the urgency of speeding up the long-term programs is recognized even within the National Food Security Council, a government-commissioned consultative body that oversees the Fome Zero program.
"We have to see how we can move ahead faster," says Francisco Menezes, council president. "Those structural measures have been delayed because the country is embroiled in a complex situation. Fome Zero is a very important step, but it has to be complemented."
Few would argue that Fome Zero is not an admirable effort, and some say the program's achievements already go well beyond the extra mouths now being fed.
"I consider Fome Zero to be an important instrument for the Brazilian government to reduce hunger and misery in Brazil," says Zilda Arns, president of Pastoral da Criança, one of Brazil's bestknown nongovernmental organizations, which works to improve the lives of children from low-income families. "This is one of the goals our country committed itself to when we signed the U.N. Millennium Declaration. Fome Zero has helped mobilize people to discuss and to do something about this problem. With this national effort, the subject of hunger has won the streets, has gone to important sectors of society—such as the press, universities and big summits. And most important, it has raised expectations in the poorest communities."
For Menezes, the most important thing now is for the country to take advantage of the opportunities created by Fome Zero, expanding its action into other areas. He considers agrarian reform, illiteracy reduction, and an increase in health investment to be the most critical areas.
"Perhaps it will not be possible to eradicate hunger entirely, since there are factors beyond our control," he says. "There will always be someone, somewhere, in a difficult situation. But we are certain that it will be possible to drastically reduce the problem in a relatively short time."
Will Brazil be able to meet the 2015 goal of reducing hunger by half? Fome Zero's program managers have no doubts. Their president's goal is even more ambitious: to guarantee that every Brazilian has at least three meals a day by 2006.
Rogerio Waldrigues Galindo is a Brazilian journalist who lives in Curitiba.