The pandemic has worsened Brazil’s hunger crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened Brazil’s ongoing hunger crisis, according to a recent study. Meagre welfare assistance has meant that around 60 per cent of the country’s population – 125 million people – are now unable to get three square meals per day. This is a major jump from 35 per cent who were food insecure in 2004, and amounts to a major reversal of the gains made in 2014, when the UN removed Brazil from the World Hunger Map.
According to research published by the Brazilian Research Network on Food, Nutritional Sovereignty and Security in April, the quality of meals has sharply declined for six in ten households. Less people can afford to buy quality food and the consumption of fruit has diminished by 40 per cent, vegetables by 36 per cent.
Many look to the government’s failure to effectively address the economic impacts of the pandemic. Unemployment, lack of support for informal workers forced to stay home and self-employed people having to shut businesses have all contributed to this deterioration.
‘In December, the federal emergency cash was modest, but it still existed. After January, the population was left without this assistance for months. What we see now is that the demand has grown immensely,’ says social historian Adriana Salay Leme, a hunger researcher at São Paulo University who is volunteering in Quebrada Alimentada, a food assistance movement in São Paulo.
Despite the federal cash transfer programme, emergency welfare has been inconsistent (no allowance was paid from January to March 2021); insufficient (it currently consists of four installments of around US$28, and is expected to last until July 2021), and unable to assist those most in need (around 46 million people don’t have a bank account, internet access, or a taxpayer ID).
Many argue that the pandemic has simply prised open a long-worn crack in Brazilian statecraft. Leme identifies the root of the problem as a key moment in 2016, ‘when social assistance initiatives started to dismantle’. She cites the now closed PNAE (National School Feeding Programme), CONAF (National Confederation of Family Agriculture), and Bolsa Família (Family Allowance – the world’s largest conditional cash transfer scheme), as examples.
Not coincidentally, 2016 also marked the return of neoliberal governance in Brazil, with the tenure of President Michel Temer, who came to power after the controversial impeachment process of social democrat President Dilma Rousseff. Marked by strong pro-privatization rhetoric – a kind that remains under current president, Jair Bolsonaro – Temer’s rule enacted an austerity package that, according to the UN, represented an ‘attack on poor people’. Since then, the welfare state system that prevailed in Brazil from 2003 to 2016 has been increasingly under threat.
According to Renato Maluf, a former President at Brazil’s National Council of Food and Nutritional Security (also dismantled by Bolsonaro), such a fallout was expected: ‘There has been an economic crisis since 2015, which has only worsened after Temer took office. (…).When you dismantle social programmes in a context where the economic conditions are getting worse, we know the result will be bad. And the pandemic has only made things more critical,’ he told media outlet O Joio e O Trigo in October last year.
The scale of the crisis has also meant that NGOs and grassroots campaigns have had to fill the gap. Dozens, if not hundreds, of food campaigns across the country right now are distributing millions of meals, including Panela Cheia Salva, Tem Gente Com Fome, and Cozinhas Solidárias. The demand, however, is much bigger than the donations have been able to cover and some food campaigns are even working with waiting lists:
‘The number of requests for basic food items is very high. Our main challenge is to get more donations. We are still figuring out how to deal with the waiting list. Lots of people are calling us asking for food, but donations have decreased,’ René Silva, founder of NGO Voz das Comunidades, in Rio de Janeiro, told media outlet G1 in March.
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This article is part of the Food Justice files, which is funded by the European Journalism Centre through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.