Civil Society, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

SOUTH AMERICA: Scarcity Amid Abundance

Darío Montero*

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 16 2007 (IPS) - Hunger continues to be a problem in South America, barely contained by the safety nets created by government programmes and networks of civil society groups, as deep-rooted inequality nourishes the ranks of the poor despite economic growth and an abundance of food.

One example is Brazil, the world’s top exporter of beef and one of the world’s biggest food producers, which nonetheless has failed to satisfy the hunger of 14 million of its 188 million inhabitants, while another 72 million do not have regular access to meals, according to a 2006 study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

Hunger in this region today is not a problem of a lack of food, but of inadequate purchasing power among the poor.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that Brazil has enough food to provide up to 2,960 kilocalories a day per person, above the recommended 1,900 kilocalories.

The same is true of Argentina, once known as the world’s breadbasket, and Uruguay next door, which exports a large part of the meat and dairy products and nearly all of the rice it produces, while domestic prices of those products are currently high for workers.

On the other hand, “poverty and extreme poverty take on a culture of their own, and it takes years, and specific policies, to fix those problems,” Luis Álvarez, with Uruguay’s National Food Institute (INDA), told IPS.

“What we have to tackle is the transformation of the culture, that has generated the crisis and structural inequality,” he argued.

To narrow the gap between rich and poor, which has long existed in South American countries like Brazil and Venezuela but was widened by Argentina’s late 2001 economic collapse and the severe crisis it triggered in small neighbouring Uruguay, leftist and centre-left governments in the region began to adopt emergency plans to fight extreme poverty and hunger.

Thus emerged Brazil’s Zero Hunger plan, Argentina’s National Food Security Programme, Uruguay’s Emergency Plan, Chile’s National Food Programmes, and Venezuela’s broad network of soup kitchens and state-owned Mercal grocery stores where generic products are sold at prices 25 to 50 percent lower, on average, than in private supermarket chains.

The Zero Hunger plan launched by the government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when he first took office in 2003 in Brazil is aimed at social inclusion of the poor and marginalised, says Mauro de Miranda Siqueiro, an official involved in the programme.

The programme coordinates the implementation of policies, programmes and actions by different government ministries under four main objectives: improving access to food, generation of income and rural employment, the strengthening of family agriculture, and engaging civil society and active participation by society as a whole, combined with citizen oversight.

In the view of Miranda Siqueiro, it is the fourth aspect that distinguishes the Zero Hunger programme from other efforts, because it not only ensures access to food but also promotes “the expansion of food production and consumption, the generation of income and work, and an improvement in school enrolment, health coverage and water supplies, all of which are seen as citizen rights.”

The programme brings together national, state, municipal and civil society initiatives.

One example are the “popular restaurants” in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where anyone can have a nutritious meal for just one real (55 cents of a dollar), and which are especially frequented by labourers and other workers at lunch time.

Celia de Souza, 53, isn’t complaining. A domestic worker all her life, she is a regular in one of these restaurants offering subsidised meals. “The food is good, and at a price that the poor can afford,” she told IPS.

Celia’s grandchildren, meanwhile, eat lunch for free in the Rio de Janeiro schools they attend – another Zero Hunger initiative.

Argentina, which fell into its worst crisis in history in late 2001 that plunged nearly 60 percent of the population of 37 million into poverty, also unified its various food programmes in the Ministry of Social Development, which also coordinates efforts with municipal and provincial governments as well as social organisations.

The National Food Security Programme provides direct assistance through public and community-run soup kitchens, school lunches, and community and family gardens. Top priority is given to children under 14, pregnant women, the elderly, the malnourished, the disabled, and people with celiac disease (who can’t eat gluten).

Another aspect of the programme is the promotion of food production by means of the distribution of tools, seeds, and machinery.

Most initiatives that fall under the programme’s umbrella involve the transfer of resources to provide people with the means of acquiring food, through plastic magnetic cards, for example, rather than directly distributing food products. They also include mechanisms to ensure that the beneficiaries have regular health checkups and are tested for malnutrition.

But in the case of the homeless and extremely poor, food is still directly distributed.

Although Argentina has enjoyed strong economic growth for the past few years, and the poverty rate has fallen to under 27 percent, with 8.7 percent living in extreme poverty, there are still areas in the northeast of the country, for example, where malnutrition remains a problem.

In these pockets, the authorities are handing out food aid, but activists complain that it falls short.

The situation has improved, however, considering that some 150,000 boxes of food were distributed in Buenos Aires at one point, compared to 30,000 to 40,000 today, said a government social worker.

Mónica Carranza, the founder of a famous Buenos Aires community soup kitchen, “Carasucias”, told IPS she was satisfied with the assistance that the centre-left government of Néstor Kirchner is providing.

When the crisis broke out at the end of 2001, “we fed the community in shifts of 250 people at a time, and we had to continue serving meal after meal into the wee hours of the morning as thousands of people showed up. Even with that system, we didn’t have enough space for everyone, and we had to give people their rations to go, so they could sit and eat them in a city square or park,” she recalled.

But things have gotten better. “I don’t have a political commitment to anyone, but these (the current administration) are the people who have helped me the most. I call them when I’m running out of some food item and they tell me ‘don’t worry, we’ll send it over’ and they do,” she said.

Nor did Uruguay, which like Argentina has traditionally had a large middle class, escape hunger. Since the leftwing government of President Tabaré Vázquez took office, the Emergency Plan, which has now been transformed into the Equality Plan, and a well-oiled network of 715 civil society organisations have filled hungry mouths.

INDA coordinates the programmes and implements the government’s food policy.

“We have been able to streamline things in terms of the volume of assistance provided, and we have achieved savings that have allowed us to focus on improving quality. So baskets of food aid that previously contained soybean oil now have sunflower oil, and instead of broken rice, we now hand out whole kernels,” said Álvarez.

In addition, iron-fortified wheat and fortified milk are handed out, to fight anemia and vitamin deficiencies in children.

The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has fallen 50 percent in the last two years, said the Uruguayan official.

Buoyed up by oil revenues, the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez set up a network of Casas de Alimentación or soup kitchens, which prepare two meals a day, five or six days a week, for pregnant women, children and the elderly. The beneficiaries are selected by community organisations, and the food is provided by the government stores that sell subsidised groceries.

The menus are drawn up based on National Nutrition Institute guidelines, and include beef, beans, rice, plantain, rice with chicken, vegetables and fruit, “as well as oatmeal, rice pudding and fruit juice,” Coromoto Álvarez, head of the Casa de Alimentación in Escalera al Ávila, a poor neighbourhood on the east side of Caracas, told IPS.

The Food Ministry reports that there are 6,000 Casas de Alimentación that serve hot meals to 900,000 people, or 3.2 percent of the Venezuelan population, 33.9 percent of which lives in poverty and 10.6 percent in extreme poverty, according to official figures from 2006.

There are also private initiatives, such as the Fundación Polar, established by Empresas Polar, the country’s largest business group.

Chile, which has the best social and economic indicators in South America but among the poorest distribution of wealth, also has National Food Programmes that target pregnant women, children, the elderly and several specific high-risk groups, for a total of 300,000 people out of a population of 16 million.

To that are added school lunch programmes, which provide free meals to 1.6 million children. In 2002, the World Food Programme recognised Chile’s school feeding programme as one of the five best in the world.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Verónica Rivas in Brazil, Daniela Estrada in Chile and Humberto Márquez in Venezuela.

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