It has become counterintuitive for people that the issue of hunger is almost never one of an absolute lack of food, whether we’re talking cascading harvest failures, war-induced famine, or workaday poverty.
From poor and agriculturally de-developed Yemen suffering amidst a catastrophic U.S.-Saudi war, to India under colonial Britain’s Late Victorian Holocausts, if someone is starving, it is not because there is no food.
Yemenis are so poor because U.S. bombing has so leveled the agricultural economy as to reduce salaries to nothing, making merchants’ food unaffordable. Bureaucrats in colonial India exported grain while the gaunt perished on the side of streets.
Scarcity is social.
Jahi Chappell’s new monograph, Beginning to End Hunger, is a bit of a hybrid of historical sociology and policy analysis of the Brazilian city Belo Horizonte’s stunningly successful programs to put an end to the rumble of empty stomachs.
The book’s guiding framework is a kind of rigorous, proof-in-the-form-of-social-policy, which seeks to establish empirically what follows logically from famine studies. If lack of food is a result of structural powerlessness, what kinds of programs empower – I apologize for the NGO-speak! – the hungry and leaves them sated?
But Chappell has, I think, done much more than that, precisely because his object of analysis is not merely the social programs and institutions themselves. It is the hungry urban society, the poor rural society, and the broader ecology within which both are nested. Programs, then, are a means to recode the social metabolism, the patterned interaction, between people and place, power and powerlessness.
Beginning to End Hunger carefully describes several Belo Horizonte policies, including farm-to-table programs, food enrichment, popular restaurants, and school kitchens. Some of the achievements have been quite stunning: among them, reducing infant mortality and under-5 child mortality 72.6 and 59.2 percent, respectively, from 1995 to 2005.
This monograph brings several key contributions to studying food programs to the table. One which particularly struck me is Chappell’s piercing ethnographic eye for how the programs attended not merely to the empty stomachs of Belo Horizonte’s poor and oppressed, but also their souls. Programs were designed to avoid smirching the integrity of those using them. They distributed real silverware in lieu of sporks and plastic cups, and charged everyone the same low price for the food.
In this sense, the program has a very interesting element – a kind of anti-capitalist moral economy. If capitalism would encode the poor, on Malthusian lines, with a tendency simply to breed as animals and thereby erase any notion of ensuring they are permanently fed, these programs consider their beneficiaries’ humanity in the full sense, not merely as hungry stomachs but as people demanding dignity.
Another contribution is showing the organic and living interaction between Belo Horizonte’s agricultural hinterland and peri-urban spaces, the farms located there, and how they supply food to the city and its feeding programs. Chappell shows with careful survey data that farmers were able and willing to shift to more ecological methods of farming when they felt more secure financially.
Meanwhile, local food procurement became increasingly political – subject to the calculations of planners and stabilized by the scaffolding of institutions rather than subject to rollicking, capricious, and socially brutal market forces. It ought to go without saying that “embedding” the food price system within political stabilizers is a good thing of its own accord. It is much more interesting that farmers perhaps felt more comfortable attending to the surrounding ecology when they could be sure that while doing so they would still be able to supply a living to their families.
In showing how the national Zero Hunger (Fome Cero) program did much to reduce extreme poverty in Brazil, the book cuts to the empirical bone of what the Pink Tide did in the form of social policy. Far too much analysis of the Latin American leftist governments – where it is even minimally honest, including from what passes for the Left – pays little attention to the architecture of social programs through which these states embedded themselves in society.
We need much more on comparative welfare systems in the Third World, including agricultural extension and food provision, to begin to pop the balloons of “good left/bad left” so often in front of us, and to better understand what programs produced what was good, what produced what was bad, and what was, is, and will be historically possible or impossible at any given moment.
This leads me into my critique of this impressive study. I felt it feeling unsure about how the Belo Horizonte feeding programs interacted with the complicated, internally fragmented, Worker’s Party (PT), and with the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST). Policy space depends on political space, and the capacity to carry out any of these programs turns on who controls the state, and the vivacity of poor people’s movements in the face of state repression. I had trouble extracting from Chappell’s account the historical motors behind the policy decentralization which led to municipal empowerment.
On the other side of the coin, it would have been fascinating to learn more about how the PT took Belo Horizonte as a model, and which social forces leaned on the Lula administrative to scale up the local food security experiment into the subsequent national program, Zero Hunger.
Similarly, Chappell reports on a feeling of a stalling or sputtering of the city’s food program, in part due to the lack of financial fuel – according to his interview subjects – in 2004-2008. But this was precisely the period when the PT was at the height of its power nationally, and the Brazilian tax-base was exploding amidst a commodity boom. Thus, the government ought to have been, relatively speaking, in the best position to extend financial assistance and deepen the program.
Along the same lines, Chappell reports on on the Secretariat for Nutrition and Food Security’s (SMASAN) limited resources vis-à-vis scaling up Belo Horizonte’s extension services, one of the ways it seeks to scale up agroecological practices amongst farmers. One worries that the microscopically-detailed ethnography of policy formation within Belo Horizonte occults or stands in for the wider PT system of governing and shifting state-society linkages that its governance brought with it.
I also would have liked much more about the role of the MST in PT-era rural policy formation, including its food security programs. For example, what was the relationship between the PT devolution of power to municipalities, and the rise-and-fall of SMASAN and Minas Gerais’s agroecological extension? Was this tied, then, to the MST’s decline in activity during the early years of Lula’s government, in comparison to the relative golden years of the later Fernando Henrique Cardoso period, and thus the ability of large agribusiness to put a heavier hand on the scale of policy formation at the local level?
Such questions, of course, in a sense go beyond the formal parameters of the study, which is to strictly establish that the food security/sovereignty policies that might begin to end hunger are indeed possible. In this, Chappell has delivered a strong contribution, to which I think it is important to add merely that I would have liked more attention to the questions of power precisely because, in the spirit of his conclusion, it is organized power alone that not only makes the impossible possible, but the possible actual.
Max Ajl is a doctoral student at Cornell University studying the Tunisian national liberation struggle and post-colonial development.
The ideas and opinions posted here are the author’s and not necessarily that of ARERC as an organization.
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