One of Cleide de Souza Nascimento's five children eats a hot plate donated by an NGO in São Paulo's Jardim Peri favela last May.
One of Cleide de Souza Nascimento’s five children eats a hot plate donated by an NGO in São Paulo’s Jardim Peri favela last May.Victor Moriyama (Victor Moriyama for El Pais)

A door-to-door survey throughout Brazil has translated into a detailed x-ray what is obvious with the spectacular increase in homeless people, the queues in front of soup kitchens and how empty butcher shops are in rural areas or in the favelas: the sharp increase in hunger. Some 33 million Brazilians (16% of the population) do not have anything to eat, according to a survey conducted by Red Penssan, an alliance of academic researchers and civil society organizations, released this Wednesday. In just over a year, the hungry have increased by 14 million (that is, more than the inhabitants of São Paulo, the most populous city in Latin America). During the pandemic, hunger has skyrocketed to levels of three decades ago.

Neither the coronavirus epidemic nor the worsening of the economic crisis that it has entailed are the only factor that explains this brutal increase in hunger. This second national survey points to the disastrous effects of dismantling vital public policies for poor families. For example, institutional purchases that allow small farmers to have an income for supplying food to schools. Children not going to school means learning less, but also eating worse because they no longer have a guaranteed breakfast or snack.

The survey is based on visits to more than 12,000 homes spread over almost the entire vast and unequal territory of the country, which were carried out between last November and April.

Nilson de Paula is a Public Policy researcher, one of the authors of the report of the Brazilian Research Network on Food Sovereignty and Security And this is how he defines hunger: “When a member of the family stops eating, there is no food left and they do not have money to buy it.” The professor from the Federal University of Paraná stresses over the phone from Curitiba that “hunger is a process.”

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Before you get to suffer from it, the needs accumulate. The 33 million hungry citizens are part of a much larger group, that of the 125 million Brazilians who live daily with the concern of whether they will have money or food to put on their plate for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The favorite in the polls for the next elections, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the leftist Workers’ Party, has referred to the worrying data early in the morning in a tweet. Lula has recalled that when he became president, in 2003, “his goal was simple: guarantee three meals a day for Brazilians.” To this he added: “We took Brazil off the hunger map, but unfortunately our country has regressed.” Hunger is once again one of its flags, as it was at the beginning of the century.

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It is true that then the economic situation of the world in general, and of Brazil in particular, was much better. They were the years of boom of the raw materials. But, in addition, the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff gave anti-poverty policies a priority never seen before in Brazil. Hunger fell to 4.3%, according to official data cited in the current survey.

An economic recession fueled discontent and Rousseff’s removal. The Brazilian economy has been stagnant for a decade and the following governments, great defenders of liberal recipes, systematically dismantled a large part of this aid. President Jair Bolsonaro has renamed Bolsa Familia, the most famous and effective program against poverty, Auxilio Brasil and has doubled the amount. He considers it his great claim before the poorest, but not even in this way has he managed to attract more support among them, according to the polls. For the Penssan network, “government measures to contain hunger are isolated and insufficient” with runaway inflation and dwindling incomes.

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Hunger, like everything in Brazil, does not escape inequality. As Brazilian activists often say, it has gender and color. The information collected by the pollsters allows us to make an X-ray of the hungry. They live in a home — or a shack — headed by a black woman with children and located in the countryside in the north of the country.

Professor de Paula emphasizes that, “in a society marked by profound inequality like the Brazilian one, it is not possible for the problem of hunger to be solved by mere market forces.” He explains that in recent years “the negligence of the State has become decisive. There is a systematic precariousness of public policies”, promoted by governments in favor of the minimal state. And the pandemic has compounded an increasingly hostile landscape for the poor, with unemployment rising and wages and income falling.

As if that were not enough, an inflation that is among the highest in the world is especially corroding the pockets of those who have the least. And inflation eats up the increase in the minimum wage. Data that paints a catastrophic picture for a large part of Brazilians.

A third of citizens live with less than half the minimum wage, set at 1,212 reais (230 dollars, 250 euros). Hunger in Brazil is a problem, above all, of income, of lack of money, insists the co-author of the report. To illustrate this, he offers the following data: “Among those who earn above the minimum wage, hunger, severe food insecurity, is only 3%.”

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