Silent Killer - The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger Silent Killer - The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger
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Adriana Aranha
Hunger Program Director
City of Belo Horizonte
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I believe that we will be able to win this war on hunger, this war on poverty, and I believe that this war is worthwhile for all of us to invest in, for my daughter, Beatriz, for all the children.

ABOUT
Adriana Veiga Aranha is a social worker and a professor at the Catholic Pontifical University of Minas Gerais state in Brazil. She has a master's degree in public administration. Ms. Aranha is currently working as a special assistant to the Minister of Social Development and Combating Hunger, Patrus Ananias, for the Fome Zero program, a publicly funded, multi-faceted approach to feeding the poor of the city of Belo Horizonte.
INTERVIEW
I have a background in social studies. In 1993, when the first popular democratic government won the elections in Belo Horizonte, the new mayor Patrus Ananias invited me, along with three other professionals in the field, to be part of a team responsible for coordinating the food sector of the city.
When Ananias was one of Belo's representatives in state government he wrote a law which made the matter of food security a mandatory responsibility of the state of Minas Gerais. Then, when he became mayor he put our team together, and each one of us had a different field of focus. My focus was to develop the social part of the program.
"The food programs in the country have been, in the past, very inconsistent."
The food programs in the country have been, in the past, very inconsistent. Communities would get the cesta basica (basic food basket) during the period prior to the elections, but a few months after the elections the programs would be cancelled.
Belo Horizonte's food program is different because it has been able to bring together all the sectors involved with food: from the producers, to sellers, to the consumers. We think that in order to be successful we need to work with all those sectors. Belo Horizonte does not produce any food, it is ninety-seven percent urban. Therefore, we created a production sector by stimulating the small producers to bring their products straight to the city, without going through other sellers. Thus, we have minimized the costs, eliminating sellers, and at the same time we generated more profits to the small producers who needed incentives.
In the commerce sector, we have invested in equipment that allows the city to control the price of these products. The community started to buy more products, which drove down prices, but still generated enough profits for the sellers.
"By doing this we were able to lower the mortality level among children."
In the consumption sector, we asked ourselves: 'What parts of the community are most vulnerable to hunger?' They are children, pregnant women and the elder. This part of the community is not only more vulnerable to hunger socially speaking, but also biologically speaking.
We provide one hundred percent of the daily amount of food consumed in the daycare centers. Children can have all their meals at the daycare and then go home. By doing this we were able to lower the mortality level among children.
We also have oficinas de alimentacao, where we teach the community about nutrition and making healthy food choices. It is not enough to just have food; the community also has to be able to distinguish what is healthy to eat. We encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables, to eat fewer products that contain chemicals, and to avoid waste when preparing them.
"The poverty in Brazil always bothered me, ever since I was a little girl."
The poverty in Brazil always bothered me, ever since I was a little girl. I come from a Catholic family. My grandparents were Vicentinhos (religious congregation members of St. Vincent de Paul) who helped supply food to the needy. In our house, at lunchtime, there was often a line of people asking for lunch. So I've grown up knowing about hunger. I've studied at religious schools. I was touched by the situation and knew it wasn't right.
While I would sleep, warmly under my covers, with the rain falling outside, there would be others outside, without these basics, hungry and cold. This was something that always greatly bothered me. When I started acquiring a political conscience I realized this was not the way it was supposed to be-this was not what God wanted. We had to do something to change this situation.
So I started doing social work, both Catholic and with the left wing party. I was born during the period of military government in Brazil when there was a lot of injustice. People were not free to speak, there was no democracy.
Our political activism was directed toward the communities. When Brazil started becoming more politically open and people could participate effectively in politics, I became a member of the Workers' Party.
"Food is not a material commodity."
From what I could see, the distribution of food was an area that was completely ignored. I was indignant. Why? Because food is not a material commodity. It cannot be treated as a material commodity. It is as essential as the air we need to breathe. If people don't eat they don't live.
So I decided to dedicate myself more to the issues around food and people's access to it. I realized the problems surrounding the access of food were not caused by lack of food; they were caused by the market forces impeding people's access to food.
The richest ten percent of the population in Brazil controls fifty percent of the produced riches. This is what creates the inequality. If we were able to divide this income and create equal access to the goods of production, we would end hunger, without a doubt.
"In Brazil, two babies die from starvation every three minutes."
In Brazil, two babies die from starvation every three minutes. Sixty-one percent of infant mortality is the result of malnutrition, whether it is pneumonia, diarrhea, or other sicknesses connected or related to malnutrition.
In 1993 at the health center in Belo Horizonte, we had a child malnutrition rate of eighteen percent. The number was actually much higher. Instead of registering these kids as suffering from malnutrition, they were registered for sicknesses related to malnutrition.
Today it has changed. Now, all children who arrive at the health center, who are underweight are considered a victim of malnutrition, even if they came to the health center for another reason, such as diarrhea, which is caused by hunger. So, these kids now are registered and treated for malnutrition.
In Brazil, the theorists, academics and politicians say: 'Let's solve the hunger problem by increasing production.' We who work with these issues see this is not true. It is correct that stimulating the production of food is valid, it's correct that the small producer needs stimulus and incentives to guarantee food security in the country. But today we are able to produce-if you look at per capita in Brazil-we produce 3,200 calories per day.
"Then why don't we end hunger?"
The FAO recommends 2,200 calories per day per capita. There is sufficient production in Brazil to end hunger. Then why don't we end hunger? Poverty and unemployment are what limit access to the food produced.
Geographically this food production is very unequal. We have sixty-percent of the starving people living in the Northeast of Brazil. On the other hand ninety percent of our food is produced in the South or Southeast. In other words, the places where people are starving the most are the places that produce the least food in Brazil. We need to produce more food closer to the regions where people are starving.
"We could end hunger."
I have since invested ten years in this issue. I first worked in a small municipality in Minas Gerais, trying to fund programs to bring products and food to benefit the people. Later, my experiences here in Belo Horizonte proved to me that if all of us who were indignant about this situation worked together, we could end the hunger situation.
To do that, we have instituted a program where we regulate prices in the market. I believe this kind of private initiative can make a good partnership with the state-there is common interest.
Experience shows that a serious, responsible private initiative, that has a social responsibility, has the capacity to make a profit and, at the same time, generate, what we can call, "social profit". We have a partnership with state government and with federal government.
In the governmental spheres we have a partnership with an institution that works with the producers in their own cities (because Belo Horizonte does not produce food). We search out in the state this partnership where they can, together with other city halls, make a partnership where they stimulate the producer there and we stimulate a market for these products here. We have partnerships with entrepreneurs who want to make donations of food.
"Food cannot have just any price."
Also of concern is the issue of price regulation. Food cannot have just any price. It has to have a fair price, a market price where the middleman can see a profit, but not an exorbitant one. There has to be a just control, at least for the staples. If this was implemented, the government would not have to subsidize these staples, such as rice, beans, some meats, basic vegetables, sugar, milk. There has to be just price controls for the public to have access to these foods.
"It does no good if people are producing food in a way that compromises future generations."
The subject of food security is broad. I believe there is a responsibility that has to be divided-the market has responsibility; the state has responsibility; society has responsibility. It reaches from production to consumption, encompasses issues of sustainability and the environment. It does no good if people are producing food in a way that compromises future generations.
The concept of food security in Brazil solidified in the 80's when the Workers Party's parallel government created a national food security plan.
Healthy food has to be nutritious, supplied sanitarily, not contaminated, and it has to guarantee people's survival--in all phases of their lives--and has to be produced in a sustainable manner; we can't be polluting the environment.
In my opinion, the state is still not doing enough in relation to the issue of food security, from issues of food stocks to stimulus for family farms programs.
In Brazil, family farms produce most of the products consumed, yet the small producer lacks access to stimulus such as financial credit from banks. The interest rates are high. Only the large concerns are able to get decent financing. So the small producer, the one who produces most of the food we eat, is denied credit.
"Agrarian reform is a taboo issue."
Agrarian reform has not happened in our country. It is a taboo issue. People worry that agrarian reform would take away land from small farmers, but this is not true. It takes away land from the big landholders who aren't using it to grow food. In reality, agrarian reform in Brazil would democratize the land. Currently, vast amounts of land are in the hands of a few who do not produce anything. At the same time, there are many people who, because they do not have any land, are forced into the cities, creating more violence and urban problems.
"We are starting to change the way people think about food.'
The cost of our food program is one percent of the budget of the Belo Horizonte. We spend 3 million Reais (approximately 1,000,000 USD) per year. There is not one complaint about this. I think that deep down, people are united with this. They don't complain about how much it costs to save a life with food. I think that we are starting to change the way people think about food.
"If you work with food as if it was a basic right, you convince the population."
People see working with food as if it was charity or donation, but if you work with food as if it was a basic right, you convince the population. In Brazil, the population is very united in this: Each time there is a food campaign for example, during heavy flooding, rains, drought, the population gives lots of food. The population is very united at these times. So there aren't complaints about this.
"Why not save lives through food?"
But there is a pervasive attitude that this is not the role of the state. And we challenge this: Why isn't this the role of the state? Because the state is saving banks, constructing highways-why not save lives through food? Why can't we be investing in the population, as a basic right, not as a donation? It can't be treated as a donation, it has to be a guaranteed basic right, ongoing.
Today the Restaurante Popular (low-cost no-frills lunch) is a basic right. Not one elected mayor has the courage to close a Restaurante Popular. Why? Because the population already thinks that this restaurant is a basic right. It is subsidized. Today it costs City Hall 70,000 Reis (approximately 20,000 USD) per month to run, including water, electricity, employee payroll and the food. It's very inexpensive, and you are benefiting more than 5,000 people per day. For each Real each person pays, City hall pays two, or about 70 cents.
I consider this a wonderful investment on the part of City Hall. Because those people who are eating there walk out well-nourished and will bring fewer consequences to the heath services, therefore creating less overall expenses in the area of social services.
"Brazil continues to produce starving people."
But this doesn't solve the bigger problem. Brazil continues to produce starving people. Unemployment has not ended yet, and the numbers are actually increasing. Only when we are able to change Brazil entirely will we really obtain success, and I have hope that this will happen.
Poverty is not just about hunger. The mother of a malnourished child is also malnourished-culturally malnourished, educationally malnourished, lacking access to information. Unsafe housing, no running water or sewer-so it doesn't help just to furnish some food for the child, you need to change the living conditions for that family, from running water to education. This is what is expensive. The difficulty is attending to the child holistically, through food, but also investing in education, plumbing-this is expensive.
"The consumer pays less, and the producer earns more."
For City Hall to control the price of food, it must act as a regulator in the market. We sell food at a fifty percent lower price. This way the merchant makes a profit through higher volume. At the same time, the population can buy more at a lower price.
In the case of the producer, he is already exploited because we have a very unjust system in Brazil where there are numerous middlemen that buy from the producer, going to a central warehouse. What City Hall does is end this intermediary so the producer sells directly to the consumer. The consumer pays less, and the producer earns more.
"The expectancy for a newly-born child to live past one year just went up forty-one percent."
All these food-supplying projects bring positive consequences to the population. We are experiencing a fall in the mortality rate in Belo Horizonte, better than what was expected.
But if we were to look at the infant mortality rate for this period we see a decrease of seven percent in Brazil, but a decrease of forty-one percent in Belo Horizonte. In other words, the expectancy for a newly-born child to live past one year just went up forty-one percent. This is through the food-supplying projects.
"From the jaws of death, a kid is able to fatten up."
We have a nutrition project, it is enriched flour. This enriched flour recuperates the kids-in six months fifty-two percent of the children treated are able to maintain proper weight, that is to say, they don't get sick. And ninety-one percent of the children with the worst malnutrition--third-degree malnutrition-recuperate. In other words, from the jaws of death, a kid is able to fatten up-well, fatten up is not the case here-but as long as nutrition is in place.
For the malnourished children who come to the health center we give them a nutrient-rich mixture of wheat bran, powdered eggshell, powdered manioc leaf, and wheat flour. We mix this with powdered milk and supply it to the kids.
We have the mothers come to the Health Center to learn how to make the mixture and for a more complete orientation about how to care for the children's nutritional health, their dental health and how to deal with the issue of breastfeeding. If you just give the food to the mother to take home, you lose contact with her. You have to bring the mother to the Health Center to involve her in other services.
Another issue we are working on is the obesity that can be found in people who are malnourished. Why this obesity?
People are obese because they are not eating foods like whole grains and dark leafy vegetables which are rich in fiber, vitamins and vitamin complexes. We are educating people about ways they can include these things in their diet. Instead of eating just the filling of the squash, we encourage them to eat all of the squash. This is our philosophy.
"Lula's victory was a big wish come true."
For me, Lula's victory was a big wish come true. Here in Belo Horizonte we had the same hope when Patrus was elected, and he stated that his government was determined to end hunger. Today we see the same pledge: 'In my government, the population has to have three meals per day.' I started to cry when I heard the president's speech because I saw that I had a leader who had a mandate like this.
We have an experience here in Belo Horizonte that I think could be repeated at the national level, a national program-"Fome Zero" (No Huger) -that addressed hunger on all fronts, not just through donations. It would be focused on issues from agrarian reform, creating employment and income, to a more direct supply to the populations in immediate need; it would be seen as a basic right of this population to not die of starvation.
Beyond having a well-structured program, we have a leader fronting this program, Lula. When Lula says that for him hunger is a serious concern that must be resolved, it gives us a lot of hope.
And here's a special fact: Lula himself has starved. Lula came from a poor family, Lula is a migrant from the Northeast interior, that came on a Northeasterner and arrived in Sao Paulo, was a metal worker-and he knows what it is like to starve, and he does not wish this on people. He has not deceived me since he won the election.
He is taking small, secure steps. He says Brazil is an ocean liner; we have to make changes slowly so as not to sink, and I believe he is going to make these changes.
"To end hunger in the world we have to rethink this model of globalization."
I believe that to end hunger in the world we have to rethink this model of globalization that we want. I think that globalization of science, education, closer contact of cultures--preserving cultures, of course--is very good, very healthy.
But globalization cannot be solely economic, cannot be only profit-oriented. Human rights have to be considered, including the right to food. It doesn't help that there are very rich countries and very poor countries.
"This poverty influences everyone, including the ability of rich people to be happy."
The poverty of the African, the South American and Asian countries, this poverty influences everyone, including the ability of rich people to be happy. Happiness does not exist when there is starving in the world.
I believe that we will really only end hunger when countries elect governments which will act on this and say: Enough! We don't want hunger, we want to change this situation, we want independence, and we want to be free countries, to be able to rear our children in a free manner.
And I think we will be able to achieve this only when the richer countries rethink their manner of coping with the poorer world.
".I feel discouraged and I wonder, does humanity have a solution? Then I look at my dear daughter, so special."
We watch our TV news every day and we feel a mix of discouragement and hope. With each bomb dropped on a country, with each ecological disaster, with each drug dealer-related violent act in Brazil, I feel discouraged and I wonder, does humanity have a solution? Then I look at my dear daughter, so special-I think all mothers think this way of their children-and it gives me a great hope that we will be able to overcome this situation.
"The future depends on us today."
The solutions to these problems won't come solely from the local municipality of Belo Horizonte. They will come from the entire country, the entire world!
I believe that we will be able to win this war on hunger, this war on poverty, and I believe that this war is worthwhile for all of us to invest in, for my daughter, Beatriz, for all the children. I think if all parents were to look at their children and ask "What world do you want for your baby, what world do you want for your own child" I think we would achieve a better world. The future depends on us today.



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DISCLAIMER:  The interviews on this Web site were all conducted between 2002 and 2004 for the film SILENT KILLER.
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