Will it take a strong role from municipal governments to once and for all alleviate food insecurity?
If we were to analyze the role of local governments in North America, the most common responsibilities of municipalities consist of water and sewer services, road/sidewalk maintenance, upkeep of parks, garbage collection, snow removal, and many other infrastructure-related needs of an urban centre.
What we don’t find on that list of ‘things-to-do’ is food.
Whereas some cities across Canada and the United States might be taking baby steps towards showing concern for this fundamental need, Cecilia Rocha of Ryerson University believes that the Brazilian City of Belo Horizonte is a global leader in demonstrating just how a local government can take a comprehensive approach to adding food to its list of priorities.
For the past ten years, Rocha has been travelling to this Brazilian city of 2.5 million to study their work on alleviating food insecurity. Rocha is the Director of the Centre for Studies in Food Security – a group at Ryerson University that promotes food security through research, dissemination, education and community action.
Since the early 90s, Belo Horizonte has operated a municipal department to address concerns around access to food that the city’s population had long been challenged with. “I don’t think there’s any other city in the world that has had such comprehensive programming developed,” says Rocha.
The ‘programming’ consists of managing four government-operated restaurants throughout the city, where any resident can access nutritious food for incredibly low prices. The city also manages fruit and vegetable outlets offering the produce at controlled prices. Rocha believes that these two programs have been key in explaining why Belo Horizonte is one of the only cities in Brazil where the consumption of fruit and vegetables has increased instead of decreased.
According to Rocha, these programs have significantly reduced infant mortality and malnutrition among the city’s population. The presence of these restaurant and food outlets has also increased the equitable access to food across the city’s income classes.
Cornell University student M. Jahi Chappell has also worked alongside Rocha to study the impact of the city’s policies on local farmers. Chappell’s work contributed to his thesis research while studying at the University of Michigan. “I was looking at how the local policies were impacting the environment, and in particular, resulting from the impact these policies were having on local farmers,” describes Chappell. “The results are preliminary, but the short answer, is ‘yes’; it appears [policies] have had positive environmental impacts.”
Rocha believes Belo Horizonte is unique in the world, in that it has taken a comprehensive approach instead of a singular approach to addressing food insecurity. While she does not necessarily believe the city’s work is a model for North American cities, she does believe it’s a great example.
“It’s always possible,” says Rocha when asked if cities here could adopt similar policies. “I think what the example of Belo Horizonte says, is that it’s always possible. But a number of things are first necessary,” she adds. “We need to first see an acceptance that government should play a more active role in the food system. We don’t have that yet here – this mindset, that it’s acceptable to have a more pro-active government in the food sector.”
Instead, Rocha believes governments of all levels continue to believe that the market will solve our problems. “What happened in Belo Horizonte, was that early on, it was recognized that there are a lot of things that will not happen without government,” says Rocha. “I don’t think we’ve got to that point yet and we’re still hoping and trusting that this market system will solve the problems.” The people in Belo Horizonte accepted that this was not the case, and took action.
As we’ve seen so strongly in the past year, one notable fear in North America to any such government intervention is the response from the private sector.
This was indeed the case in Belo Horizonte.
“There was opposition from owners of small restaurants neighbouring the government-operated restaurants,” describes Rocha.
“There has to be a very strong public policy argument,” answers Rocha to the question of how this opposition was overcome. “[Government] has to be ready to respond to this and if the gains clearly outweigh the losses, then that’s how you proceed with policy.” Certainly a strong and noble position that many North American governments seem afraid to take.
Rocha is now working as part of a committee in the City of Toronto that has been commissioned by the public health department to explore food security concerns. She believes her experience in Belo Horizonte might help the city of Toronto develop a similar comprehensive policy to address food insecurity; perhaps North America’s first.
Deconstructing Dinner is a weekly radio show heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on this topic can be found at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/061809.htm