This story also ran on American Public Media’s Marketplace.


Brazil 1 photo

In 1993, Belo Horizonte opened the first cafeteria offering meals to the poor. Now the city serves 13,000 meals a day to students, workers and anyone on a tight budget.Cecilia Vaisman

One of the world’s most recent success stories is the country of Brazil, where a government program called “Zero Hunger” has received a lot of attention for radically reducing hunger in that country. Here’s reporter Cecilia Vaisman with a question: What can Brazil teach the world?

Cecilia Vaisman: People in Brazil have been fighting hunger since the 1940s when hunger was endemic, especially in rural Brazil. But it wasn’t until 2003 that things started to change. That’s when the leftist union leader Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was elected president. Lula, as he’s known, grew up in poverty and he was hungry as a child. One of the first things he did as president was make food a basic human right of the Brazilian people. Zero Hunger was the program he created to feed them.

One of the places in Brazil people exercise their right to food is in Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million people in central Brazil.

Restaurant sounds

This is Popular Restaurant No. 2. It’s one of five government-run cafeterias in the city where you can get a heaping plate full of hot food for only two reais, about $1.10. When the doors open at 11, people start streaming in. This used to be only for the poor. Now college students sit next to senior citizens, and construction workers next to homeless people; there are nurses from the hospital across the street having lunch here, and cops in uniforms. On the menu today: rice, beans, ground beef, salad and an apple. In an hour and a half, more than 4,000 people get lunch. This happens three times a day, five days a week.

Manager Carlos Henrique Siqueira:

Carlos Henrique Siqueira: This program is essential because of the ups and downs of capitalism. One day I might need this if I’m unemployed. Tomorrow you might need it.

It’s this idea — that government has a responsibility to offer healthy, inexpensive food to anybody who might need it — that’s key to the Zero Hunger strategy. Former mayor of Belo Horizonte, Patruz Ananias, started the food programs in 1993.

Patruz Ananias: Food is the most basic human right.

When Lula came to power and saw what Ananias and others were doing, he said let’s take it nationwide. He created a ministry to fight hunger and with a budget of $2 billion a year, the Zero Hunger team set out to create a national food safety net. But they quickly realized something really important: Food programs are not enough. Riding the momentum that put him in office, Lula turned Zero Hunger into a vast web of social services.

Food for 9 Billion: Brazil 2 photo

In an hour and a half, 4000 people are served lunch. “This is necessary, because of the ups and downs of capitalism,” said manager Carlos Henrique Siqueira.Cecilia Vaisman

Ananias: it is the cash transfers that have had a key role reducing poverty.

Cash transfers literally mean giving poor people money. If you go to Brazil today, people have almost forgotten about Zero Hunger. That’s because it’s morphed into Bolsa Familia. Regiani Correia dos Santos is perfect example of how the program changed and how it’s helping ordinary Brazilians. Correia dos Santos is 32 years old, has three young kids and makes about $260 a month working as a maid. That puts her below the poverty line for a family of four and makes her eligible for an extra $40 a month in cash from the government.

It isn’t much, she says, but the extra cash does help.

She opens her refrigerator. It is almost empty. When the government check arrives, which should be any day now, Correia dos Santos says she’ll buy milk and meat. But here’s where Bolsa Familia could make a real difference in the long term. To get the monthly cash, Correia dos Santos must have her kids immunized and enrolled in school. This is causing a cultural shift in Brazil. Correia dos Santos never went to school. Now all three of her kids do. And in Brazil, with a booming economy, that means more opportunities.

Our lives have changed a lot after Bolsa Familia, she says. This is happening in families across Brazil. Cash transfers reach nearly one quarter of Brazil’s 200 million people. Since 2003, 23 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty.

Marcelo Neri, an economist in Rio de Janeiro, says all the programs are adding up.

Marcelo Neri: There is really a remarkable increase of income in Brazil, in the rural parts of Brazil a sharp fall of poverty, an increase of the so-called middle class.

Over the past decade Brazil has spent more than $35 billion on fighting hunger. Most of it was given directly to poor people. How do they pay for that? Simple — economic growth. Since Lula came into power, Brazil has created more than 10 million jobs, discovered major oil fields and the country’s agricultural exports have become among the largest in the world. Lula and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, are both leftists, but they’ve aggressively supported big business and economic expansion and given some of the proceeds to the poor. Lula came into power making hunger a priority. He figured out what he needed to do, and he did it.

Neri: So I think the Brazilian story is a beautiful story. Of course, what we have to discuss is how to make these changes more sustainable.

So what can the world learn from Brazil about fighting hunger?

Jose Graziano da Silva: There is no general formula. There is no silver bullet.

Jose Graziano da Silva was Lula’s minister of food security. Now he’s director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Graziano da Silva’s first challenge is figuring out how other countries without booming economies can create the political will and find the resources to attack hunger and poverty.

Graziano da Silva: We need a big web of the whole society involved. It’s not only the government that fights hunger. Civil society, private sector, has an important role to play in this game.

In other words, the key is that all of society needs to work together to make fighting hunger a priority.

In Belo Horizonte, I’m Cecilia Vaisman for Marketplace.

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Cecilia Vaisman teaches audio documentary at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. A co-founder of the journalism cooperative Homelands Productions, she has produced radio features and documentaries from Central and South America, the Caribbean, South Asia and the U.S., reporting extensively on identity and women's issues, the environment and development. Cecilia has been a staff producer at NPR, a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a special projects editor at Chicago Public Radio.

She has received the Clarion Award and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters' Golden Reel Award, as well as two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for reporting on the disadvantaged. A series she co-produced on AIDS in Brazil won her an Armstrong Award. She produced the documentary series “When the Rainforest Burns” and created Argentina's first radio documentary news program for Radio América in Buenos Aires. She lives in Chicago with her husband, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, and two teenage children.