Covid-19 pandemic is worsening hunger in Brazil

Less than four years after the government instituted a ceiling on public spending, almost 60% of the country’s population is facing food insecurity amid rising job losses.

The abandonment of policies to combat poverty is pushing Brazil on a path back to the United Nations World Food Programme’s Hunger Map. In fact, the country has already reached the food insecurity indexes that initially put it on the map, even though the UN has not yet officially done so.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already caused the loss of 7.8 million jobs and served to exacerbate an already precarious situation. According to data from the Free University of Berlin in Germany, 125.6 million Brazilians suffer from food insecurity. The number is equivalent to 59.3% of the country’s population. 

“We wake up with no hope of having bread, breakfast, rice. And without knowing if we will have something to eat the next day,” says Jaqueline Félix, from São Paulo, who used to be a cleaning lady and a sales clerk but gave up looking for a job.

27 May 2021: Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployed São Paulo resident Jaqueline Félix and her two sons have been able to eat only twice a day.

At 22 years old, she receives R$375 [R1 056] as emergency aid from the government of Jair Bolsonaro and depends on donations to survive. “A package of diapers, a pail of milk, cost R$50. It doesn’t fit in the budget.”

Félix and her two children only have two meals a day: breakfast when they wake up, and a late lunch.

Brazil was once the gold standard 

One of the primary goals of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party when he took office in 2003 was to guarantee that all Brazilians have three meals a day. Months before, a UN report had said that hunger was getting worse and there was no strategy by the Brazilian state to address it.

Lula’s response was the Zero Hunger programme, which targeted four central elements related to food security. The first two were already discussed by popular movements at the time: availability and access to food.

The third aspect was stability. “That is, the maintenance of all this. It was not a discussion of just giving a basic basket,” notes economist Walter Belik, one of the programme’s creators and a retired professor from the Institute of Economics at the State University of Campinas.

8 June 2021: Aline Silva lost her job as a waitress in a hotel at the beginning of the pandemic and relies on emergency aid and goodwill to feed her family. 

Also at the center of the debates was the question of the food’s quality.

Thanks to the programme and policies to increase the minimum wage and income distribution, Brazil left the Hunger Map in 2014. 

“Statistically speaking, it was a very small number of families that were experiencing hunger in the last decade,” explains Belik.

Survival row

For security guard Emerson Pavão, 50, the achievements of that time are in the past. Unemployed, he had to leave the house where he lived and, for more than a year, has been spending nights in hostels in São Paulo.

“There are NGOs [non-governmental organisations] that come to bring us lunch, but not every night. And there comes that time when you are forced to humiliate yourself. To come to a stranger and say, ‘I am hungry.’ Many are sympathetic, but many treat you as if you were a mongrel,” Pavão says.

3 June 2021: The entrance to Companhia de Entrepostos e Armazéns Gerais do Estado de São Paulo, a wholesale market for perishable goods that has become one of the most important spaces for food donation in São Paulo.

One of the most important spaces for food donation in the city is the Companhia de Entrepostos e Armazéns Gerais do Estado de São Paulo, a wholesale market for perishable goods.

“It’s the survival line,” defines Sônia de Jesus, 55, who lives with her son, an economics graduate who is also unemployed. She worked as a cleaner and caregiver for the elderly until the beginning of 2020, but ended up being laid off. 

Before discovering the donations at the market, the moment of opening the refrigerator was one of the saddest of the day. “There was only water,” recalls the worker, who receives R$150 as emergency aid.

“Ten years ago, I used to fill my cart at the market. Today, when I go, I leave with a small bag.”

Food is a priority again

Sociologist Herbert de Sousa, known as Betinho (1935-1997), was one of the icons in the fight against hunger in Brazil. Twenty-eight years ago, he created the NGO Ação da Cidadania (Citizenship Action), which has local committees in every state and organises communities in the fight for social rights.

The NGO’s initial proposal was to collect and distribute food. However, advances promoted by Lula’s Zero Hunger programme made Betinho’s successors look for other horizons.

29 July 2021: A plate of food distributed in a community kitchen. 

“When I joined Citizenship Action in 2010, we were already working with the issue of ‘book hunger’, ‘citizenship hunger’,” says Ana Paula de Souza, advocacy coordinator of the NGO.

The demand for food reappeared in 2017. The Constitutional Amendment 95, approved in December 2016, froze investments in social areas for 20 years. The amendment was approved by Michel Temer, who took office after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor in the Presidency.

“Popular restaurants and community kitchens were closed all over Brazil,” says De Souza. “Health and food security were put at risk during the pandemic, exactly when people needed to have strong immunity,” she explains.

Cutting public spending

The dismantling of public policies to fight hunger began during the Dilma administration.

“The political situation was unstable and a perspective of austerity began to be adopted, of cutting public spending,” recalls Belik.

With the parliamentary coup of 2016, Rousseff was replaced by vice-president Temer and the budget suffered even deeper cuts.

The reversal of the hunger curve was immediate. According to the 2017-2018 Household Budget Survey, food insecurity had an increase of 33.3% compared with 2003 and 62.2% compared with 2013. 

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Today, in the middle of the pandemic, even those who receive a minimum wage at the beginning of each month have difficulty when shopping at the market.

This is the case for Vera Lúcia Silva dos Santos, 66, who lives in the São Judas neighbourhood in São Paulo. Since 2019, she has frequented the line at the wholesale market to receive food. 

“We pay R$3 for a lettuce stalk, an absurdity. Egg, which is the cheapest thing we had, nowadays we don’t buy anymore. Meat, not to mention,” she laments while she waits for the donation of fruits and vegetables under the sun.

More and more elementary needs

Father Julio Lancellotti is one of the people responsible for food distribution in the large shed of the São Martinho de Lima Social Centre, located in the Belém neighbourhood in São Paulo. According to him, the increase of misery in the country is obvious.

In times of a pandemic, with 14 million people looking for work, the needs are more and more elementary.  

“People are constantly looking for gas for cooking. It is an indicator of a humanitarian crisis, having to go back to making food with ethanol. And people can’t even do that, because alcohol is very expensive,” he describes.

Cleaning lady Luzia Janaína da Cunha lost her job in the pandemic, lives in a hostel and starves herself in São Martinho.

“I would never be able to support myself paying R$25 for a package of rice [5 kg], being that now I’m not working and earning nothing,” she says.

28 May 2021: Father Julio Lancellotti is one of the people responsible for food distribution at a social centre in the Belém neighbourhood in São Paulo. He says more and more people struggle to meet their basic needs.

Belik estimates that 60 million Brazilians, or 27% of the population, depend on solidarity to feed themselves during the pandemic. In his evaluation, the problem could be alleviated with investment in regulating stocks.

“When prices skyrocket, the government would act to increase supply and lower the price. When the price is very low, causing losses to farmers, the government buys stocks in order to sustain the price,” he explains.

The Food Purchase Programme provided for regulatory stocks, based on family farming purchases, to supply daycare centers, schools and hospitals. In 2014, the programme’s budget was over R$1 billion, but it fell almost 90% after Dilma’s departure.

De Jesus is clear that the food insecurity that affects her family is linked to the dynamics of agribusiness.

“Brazil is rich in food, fruits, vegetables, but it exports a lot abroad. When it goes abroad, the price comes back in dollars, more expensive,” she comments, based on what she learnt from her economics graduate son.

The senses of solidarity

De Souza points out that donations are important, but they do not solve the structural problem of hunger.

“One thing is to give a basket of basic food to a person who needs emergency help at a specific moment. It’s another thing to see more and more families getting into a permanent situation of need for food,” she says.

Father Lancellotti reflects on his own role in a dialectical way.

“With one hand we give the bread, and with the other hand we fight. I cannot say to those who are hungry now, ‘Let’s wait for the revolution to happen, for social transformation, for justice to be installed. Until then, it is dead.’ But I have to keep fighting. I can’t lose the horizon of the fight,” he says.

28 May 2021: A land occupation by the Homeless Workers’ Movement in Capão Redondo, São Paulo.

One of the most wide-ranging solidarity campaigns in Brazil is Periferia Viva (Living Periphery), organised by militants from organisations such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Movement of Workers for Rights.

By providing healthy and agro-ecological food, peasants help fight hunger and open a debate in society about agrarian reform and food sovereignty.

In permanent contact with hunger-stricken workers, Lancellotti says Brazil needs to inaugurate a new cycle of hope.

“I feel that the people are very tired, they can’t take it anymore. The hunger is for food and for a sense of life,” he emphasises.

“If the little I have to eat I eat sad and anguished, that doesn’t sustain me. I need to eat with hope.”

Hunger in the World is a collaborative series produced by ARGMedios, Brasil de Fato, BreakThrough News, Madaar, New Frame, NewsClick and Peoples Dispatch.

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