The law he was referring to, which was passed in 2009, requires that at least 30 percent of the funds that municipal governments receive from the National Fund for the Development of Education go towards the purchase of food produced by local family farmers.
The formula is one of those discoveries that later seem obvious, self-evident, normal.
Besides guaranteeing small farmers an important market for their produce, “it improved the quality of the food,” the mother of two students, Jaqueline Lameira, who represents families on the Itaboraí School Feeding Council, which oversees the quality of school meals, told IPS.
Itaboraí, a municipality of 230,000 people in the southeast state of Rio de Janeiro, 11 percent of whose residents are rural, dedicates more than the required minimum.
Over 40 percent of school breakfasts and lunches served in the municipal schools are made up of food produced by local small farmers, said Inaiá Figueiredo, in charge of nutrition in the city government’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Supplies and Fishing.
That proportion was just seven percent when the current municipal administration took office in 2012, she told IPS.
The food offered in the school meals was diversified, with a larger proportion of fresh produce, including typical local vegetables that are highly nutritious but not widely consumed, she explained, adding that each meal includes at least three kinds of vegetables.
“For dessert there’s fruit, never candy, and the juice doesn’t have sugar, but locally produced honey,” she said.
“The kids eat everything, they ask for seconds; there’s one who only comes to school because of the meals,” Penha Maria Flausina, the cook at the João Baptista Caffaro School in a poor neighbourhood of Itaboraí told IPS, laughing.
She showed IPS the maize, okra, squash and fresh fruit in the school pantry.
This is the result of a lengthy process that began in 1986 with the First National Conference on Food and Nutrition, further editions of which were held in 2004, 2007, 2011 and in the first week of November 2015 in Brasilia, with 2,000 participants.
The National Council on Food and Nutritional Security (CONSEA) was created in 1993, with representatives of civil society and the government. The Organic Law on Food and Nutritional Security was passed in 2006.
Three years later, under that legal framework, a new law linked the National School Feeding Programme (PNAE) and family farming, after overcoming stiff resistance in the legislature, economist Francisco Menezes told IPS.
“The enormous school meals market, today made up of 45 million students, was dominated by companies, some of them contracted by municipal governments for all of the schools,” said Menezes who, as president of CONSEA from 2004 to 2007, played a key role in the drafting and approval of the law.
“Higher prices and lower quality” are typical when suppliers enjoy a monopoly, he said.
It took the law three years to make its way through Congress, where it was blocked by legislators interested in that market themselves or financed by companies that supplied it, which in the end still had control of 70 percent of sales to school meal programmes, although that is a ceiling that was set.
Forging a new path
But in this huge country of 206 million people, the effectiveness of the law has been irregular. “There are municipal governments that comply with it, others don’t, and there are some in the south of Brazil that achieved 100 percent supplies from family farming,” said Menezes.
But there is also fraud, he admitted.
“Strong” municipal councils inhibit irregularities, but they are also subject to pressure, said the expert. Because of that, “everything depends on family farms organised in associations and cooperatives, so that if one producer fails, other members are there to step in to guarantee supplies,” he added.
But the law is essential, because “it turned the school meals programme into a state policy, making setbacks more unlikely to occur,” he said.
Correa, the farmer who would have liked the law to have been in place since slavery was abolished in 1888, told IPS it was smart to set the minimum quota for supplies from family farms at 30 percent.
“It’s a first, experimental step; small farmers can’t increase their production overnight, they have to do it gradually,” said Correa, the president of the Association of Rural Producers of the Fourth District of Itaboraí, who inherited a 100-hectare farm that his father received during the agrarian reform process in the 1950s.
He also agrees with the annual limit of 20,000 reals (5,200 dollars) for each farmer’s sales to the municipal government, although that was not ideal for him this year as he could have sold above that quota with his production of maize, beans, potatoes and fruit.
“It’s better this way, more farmers can sell; if the quota were to be expanded a lot, very few would be able to sell,” he said.
“At the start of the current municipal administration, in 2012, only nine or 10 farmers were taking part in the school feeding programme; now that number is 54,” agronomist Ana Paula de Farias, technical adviser to the local Secretariat of Agriculture, Supplies and Fishing in Itaboraí, told IPS.
There are some 300 farms in the municipality, but most of them raise cattle.
Another problem in expanding the number of suppliers for the school meals programme is that many of them do not have the required documents, she explained.
Furthermore, technical assistance was necessary to help farmers begin to grow organic products, or at least to significantly reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides, and to adapt to the specific needs of meals for children, such as guava fruits in small uniform sizes, in order to provide one for each child without having to cut them into pieces.
“The most important lesson in this learning process was planting without agrochemicals,” said Correa. “You learn as you go along, living up to the requirements of the programme. We used to plant more to earn more, since we weren’t in a position to compete with the big companies; now we try for better quality, and we’re more careful, because it’s food for local children.”
Sales to schools gave a boost to local small farmers, even though there is a quota, he said, because the programme pays retail “supermarket prices,” and there are no costs for transportation because the municipal government sends out its own trucks, while in the big agricultural market farmers have to deal with middlemen who pay less and charge to cover their own costs.
Brazil’s experience in linking family farms and school feeding programmes has already been exported to several countries in Latin America and in Africa, including Bolivia, Mali, Mozambique and Senegal.
It is also one of the models used by the Parliamentary Front Against Hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean, an initiative that emerged in 2009 with technical support from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
Brazil’s law will be studied during the Nov. 15-17 Sixth Forum of the Parliamentary Front Against Hunger, to be held in Lima with the participation of legislators from throughout the region as well as guest lawmakers from Africa and Asia.
Brazil’s Food Purchase Programme, based on an earlier law from 2003 and geared towards supplying social assistance networks, has also been replicated abroad, as an example of a public policy that has been doubly successful: in bolstering food security while strengthening family agriculture.
In addition, the area of food security has served to develop a multi-disciplinary approach involving various ministries, such as those of agriculture, health and education, which tend to act in an isolated fashion, said Menezes.
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