Thursday, March 26, 2009

The City that Ended Hunger

I don't usually post articles verbatim, but this one blew me away.
Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market—you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.

The new mayor, Patrus Ananias—now leader of the federal anti-hunger effort—began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a 20-member council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. The city already involved regular citizens directly in allocating municipal resources—the “participatory budgeting” that started in the 1970s and has since spread across Brazil. During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.

The city of Belo Horizonte puts
The city of Belo Horizonte puts “Direct From the Country” farmer produce stands throughout busy downtown areas.
Photo by Leah Rimkus
The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce—which often reached 100 percent—to consumers and the farmers. Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.

'Food as a right'. It makes sense to me. As humans, we owe that to one another, especially when there is enough to go around. Frances Moore Lappé, the writer of this article, put it well:
"In writing Diet for a Small Planet, I learned one simple truth: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy."
Like health care, there is a minimum subsistence level that every person deserves simply by being human. If you want to call that socialism, fine by me. 'Private charity' is not the whole answer, because then it becomes dependent on personal generosity, which can fluctuate, and it can become a 'moral issue' in which a superior deigns to throw a crumb to an inferior. The donation depends upon the good will of the person doing the donating, and often entails conditions put upon the donation.

Sure, there will always be people who will 'take advantage' of public support, but I believe that, since the majority of people in need are not in need because of laziness or irresponsibility, but are in need because of circumstances beyone their control, it is unfair to deny help to those who need it because of the relatively small percentage of people who take advantage of the system. And, as the article mentions, it is beneficial to society as a whole if everyone is fed, just like it is beneficial to society when everyone is educated.


Soon To Expire said...

Considering the practical aspect of 'Food as a right', I wonder... Would one person have the 'right' to walk to a farm and consume the farm's product? Would one person have the 'right' to pull up his or her truck in front of a ranch, load up one of the ranch's sheep in the back, and drive away, as long as they promise it would be used for food? If they do not have that 'right', why not? Is it not 'food'? Is that person not a person? If the answer is that it is not a government-instituted system, what makes a 'right' only viable if it is instituted via government? How can a person distinguish between government-instituted rights and non-government-instituted rights?

Also, can any 'right' exist? (Such as a right to cable-television.) Do the majority of people determine what 'rights' exist, is it a one-half majority or a two-thirds majority? Can a minority of the people determine a 'right'? Why or why not?

How small of a government is allowed to institute 'rights'? Can just the national government determine a right? Or can a state, county, city, neighborhood council determine a 'right'? At what population level is 'right-determining' power possible and why is it at that level?

Alicia Morgan said...

Well, in that sense, no - no 'rights' exist at all. 'Survival of the fittest' (as the hated Darwin put it) is the only 'natural law'. In that light, why have a nation of laws at all?

However, we as a nation, in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of (what?) Rights decided that our goal was to work towards what was best for all the people in our country. We don't leave people to die in the streets if they are too old or young or sick to work.

'Certain inalienable rights' - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - the founders get to 'rights' pretty quickly. Now, of course, there is considerable debate about the exact meaning of those words, and you can get bogged down right there. But there is also a part that states our aim is to 'promote the general welfare'. To my mind, this is not just handing out freebies to whoever wants it, but to ensure that as a nation we choose policies that benefit the country as a whole, not just the privileged few.

I believe that there is a certain subsistence level that all people are entitled to by being human. I believe that there is a difference between necessity and luxury, and that we are entitled to the former and not to the latter. Food - not filet mignon and caviar, but enough to sustain health - is one of these. Health care at a basic level is another. There is much debate in health care over what is 'basic' and what is not, but I think as a society everyone is better served if the overall population has access to health care regardless of current ability to pay. This is an investment that gives long-term returns. That's what I see the parameter as.

For instance, many conservatives/libertarians are opposed to public education and see that as an infringement on personal liberty and choice. But I see public education as making us a stronger and more competitive nation. You are always free to educate your children elsewhere if you do not care for public education, but when your tax dollars go to public ed, you are paying for an educated workforce - competent people you can hire, people who put the United States on a competitive level with other countries who provide good public education for their citizens. To complain about paying for education if you don't have kids, or if your own kids go pto private school, is short-sighted and childish.

I feel the same way about food - that there is enough to go around, and that to commit public resources to ensure that a subsistence level of food security is available to all who need it is not only morally the right thing to do, but practically as well.

As a society, we subsidize our police, our firefighters, and our military. To me, comparing food subsidy or support to stealing someone's sheep is the same as saying you're stealing a policeman's labor when a crime occurs, or stealing a doctor's labor when a person is ill. It is not an apt analogy.

But, to attempt to answer one of your questions, I think that a city does have the 'right' to determine for itself how it allocates shared resources under its jurisdiction, within the parameters of its governing rules.

Comrade Kevin said...

What we could accomplish if we used sense and reason to attack all our problems.

opit said...

'Soon to Expire' s comments were all too typical of a phenomenon which infests threads started by articles promting 'common' which I mean decency of the commons, in which the rich do not participate without an agenda.
Troll.101st Fighting Keyboarders whacking away at positive feedback for people making worthwhile - and valuable - contributions to public discourse. Given your familiarity with media control, it should come as no shock that blogging is under attack : now by disinformation sites and false liberals.
Luckily there are so many of us with other ideas : the vast Left Wing Conspiracy just keeps growing as I continue to explore.