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School lunches are Brazil's secret — and delicious — weapon in halting hunger

A student at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School in São Paulo enjoys an apple for dessert after lunch. Brazil's school lunch program, enshrined in its constitution, is a pillar of the country's anti-poverty efforts.
Tuane Fernandes for NPR
A student at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School in São Paulo enjoys an apple for dessert after lunch. Brazil's school lunch program, enshrined in its constitution, is a pillar of the country's anti-poverty efforts.

The kindergartners sing at the top of their lungs as they hop and skip their way around the corner and into the small cafeteria at São Paulo's Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School.

"Twenty-four, 25, 26!" they shout, counting the number of steps they take before lining up single-file to serve themselves lunch at the buffet-style steam table that, just like the tables and chairs where they sit to eat, is kid-sized.

Students and a teacher head to the cafeteria for lunch at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Students and a teacher head to the cafeteria for lunch at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School.

As he waits his turn, Davi Lucas fidgets with his hands and strains his neck to see the sample plate of food on a side table and another dish of vegetables showing them what's been used to make their meal.

On today's menu is one of the 6-year-old's favorites — pasta with fresh tomato sauce. There's also tuna with vegetables and a kale salad, two things he wouldn't have touched before trying them at school.

He scoops a generous portion of pasta onto his clear glass plate — no plastic or disposable items are used here — and a small spoonful each of tuna and salad.

Each day a table is set up in the cafeteria with the ingredients that will be served to the children, allowing students to observe the preparation process and the transformation that occurs with the food.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Each day a table is set up in the cafeteria with the ingredients that will be served to the children, allowing students to observe the preparation process and the transformation that occurs with the food.

A knife and fork in hand, he chooses a seat next to his friends at one of the three long tables. When they finish eating, gabbing about who cleared their plates and using napkins to wipe their tomato-stained mouths, they place their dishes in a large bin for washing and take a bowl of fruit salad before heading toward small outdoor tables. Rosemary, basil and mint planted in terracotta pots sit at their center.

While they finish their dessert, another classroom of kindergartners files into the cafeteria, ready to repeat the same routine.

At a buffet-style table students serve themselves lunch. This day's menu includes rice, beans, roast meat with vegetables and cabbage and carrot salad.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
At a buffet-style table students serve themselves lunch. This day's menu includes rice, beans, roast meat with vegetables and cabbage and carrot salad.

At Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School, like all public schools in Brazil, children are provided meals for free. It's a government program for which the South American country has been widely lauded, feeding more than 40 million students, from daycare through high school, across 5,570 municipalities. The program has become a pillar of post-COVID efforts to keep kids fed and in school. It also provides economic opportunities for farmers and employment for some parents — benefits that officials hope will grow in coming years.

Davi Lucas has lunch in the dining area with his classmates. He says the food at school has encouraged him to eat healthier.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Davi Lucas has lunch in the dining area with his classmates. He says the food at school has encouraged him to eat healthier.

Hunger returns during the pandemic

Brazil's National School Feeding Program (PNAE) is one of the largest school meals programs in the world. Embedded in the country's constitution, it's a key part of the national strategy to combat hunger.

"One indicator of food insecurity is who in the family is served at mealtime first," says Walter Belik, a professor of agricultural economics at the State University of Campinas and former member of Brazil's National Food and Nutrition Security Council. "Who is getting food first? Kids or adults? In poorer families, it's always the kids, because if there isn't enough food, the adults would rather go without. Kids need to eat. But when their children go to school and [adults] know they'll eat well there, [the adults] don't have to worry as much. So school meals reduce hunger not just for kids but for adults too."

Between 2004 and 2013, a concerted effort to eradicate poverty helped slash the rate of Brazilian households facing hunger to 4.2% from the previous 9.5%. The progress during this period helped the country exit the World Food Programme's Hunger Map in 2014.

When COVID-19 arrived, things changed. The fallout from the pandemic meant many caregivers lost their jobs, and schools — where many children eat their only meals of the day — were closed. Hunger came back worse than before, and Brazil was on the Hunger Map again in 2021.

An employee at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School prepares lunch for the students.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
An employee at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School prepares lunch for the students.

According to a study conducted by the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security, hunger affected 9% of homes in Brazil by the end of 2020, wiping out the gains of the early aughts. By 2022 the rate had reached 15.5% — adding 14 million people to the ranks of the hungry, for a total of 33.1 million.

In households with children under 10, those numbers are even higher, starting out at 9.4% in 2020 and nearly doubling, to 18.1% in 2022. For homes with three or more children under 18, the rate is 25.7%.

An ambitious set of public policies

Now, as the country continues to recover from the pandemic, one of its main objectives is to strengthen the public policies that first took it off the Hunger Map.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced in August the Brazil Without Hunger plan, a series of measures to help combat the hunger that had returned to the country. They included boosting incomes through an updated social welfare program, increasing the national minimum wage and providing professional training. He reiterated the importance of the school feeding program and said it would be at the forefront of efforts to improve food security.

While public schools across the country are run by municipal and state governments, their meal programs are mostly paid for with federal funds. In March, President da Silva increased those payments by about 35%.

School menus have also been revised to promote both healthy eating and economic goals. Since 2009, a rule has required that at least 30% of federal funds go to produce supplied by small-scale or family farms, with preference given to local suppliers.

Apples are this day's dessert at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Apples are this day's dessert at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School.

In São Paulo, where Davi Lucas goes to school, the government has set two goals: sourcing all school food supplies from producers who practice sustainable farming by 2026 and serving 100% organic meals by 2030.

The goals may seem ambitious, but experts say they are attainable for this city of more than 12 million.

"São Paulo is a city that's basically a country," says Juliana Tângari, director of Brazilian food think tank Comida do Amanhã. "It has the capacity to solve problems that the other 26 capital cities in Brazil don't have. It can make big purchases from larger cooperatives of small-scale farmers that will have good fresh ingredients at prices that fit its budget."

São Paulo has set a goal to source all of its produce from organic farmers by 2030.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
São Paulo has set a goal to source all of its produce from organic farmers by 2030.

Getting families involved

Feeding kids may be the most important goal of Brazil's school meals program, but there are ancillary economic benefits for people like Silvia Cardoso de Oliveira. At 10:30 a.m. she is on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt. The 34-year-old has been a "Guardian Mother" at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School, where her son Davi Lucas is a student, for the last two months. She and another mother were hired by the city to take care of the school's gardens, part of a push to involve, and employ, more parents.

Silvia Cardoso de Oliveira (right), mother of student Davi Lucas and "Guardian Mother" of the school's gardens, teaches students about soil care.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Silvia Cardoso de Oliveira (right), mother of student Davi Lucas and "Guardian Mother" of the school's gardens, teaches students about soil care.

In the grassy areas around the urban school's perimeter are several fruit trees — mango, guava, lime, date, banana and jabuticaba, a local berry that grows on its tree's trunk. Sweet potatoes, chayote, ginger, thyme and anise grow in small patches of soil scattered around the school's outdoor space.

When she started working here, Oliveira didn't know much about gardening. "I only ever had potted plants at home and they're a lot different than this," she says, smiling, waving her hand above the garden where she's standing. But she says she's learned a lot from the training she's received and lectures she's attended since getting her new position. She's asked the kitchen staff to set aside any seeds from the fruits and vegetables they serve so she can plant them for the children to eat again.

Students play among trees and plants in the school's garden.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Students play among trees and plants in the school's garden.

The gardening program stopped during the pandemic and just restarted in May, so not much is blooming yet. But Oliveira is excited for when it does.

"I like that I can participate in all of this," she says, "that I can be a part of making sure my child and all of his classmates are fed healthy meals every day."

Keeping kids nourished — and engaged

Next to the tables where the children at Professor Lourdes Heredia Mello Municipal School eat in the cafeteria is a long stone counter with a glass whiteboard mounted on the wall behind it. It's what they call their experimental kitchen, where they take healthy ingredients like the ones grown in their garden and learn how to cook with them. School officials say it has gotten kids excited about making good food choices again after being away during the pandemic.

Ingredients for this day's lunch are displayed in the cafeteria.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Ingredients for this day's lunch are displayed in the cafeteria.

Not long ago they made big batches of blackberry jam with the abundance of berries that came from the bushes dotting the schoolgrounds. For their end-of-year party they'll make an African rice dish they learned about during a lesson on Black cultures.

"When they saw [the rice dish], they asked if we could make it," says teacher Michelle Costa Duarte. "It has a lot of things in it that they already like to eat — ginger, peas, green beans, corn, tomato — so they're excited to try it."

Davi Lucas agrees. He wasn't always a fan of trying new foods, but eating at school has changed his mind.

Davi Lucas says he's become much more adventurous in his eating because of the food at school. He's added a third fruit to his repertoire: star fruit, along with bananas and watermelon.
/ Tuane Fernandes for NPR
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Tuane Fernandes for NPR
Davi Lucas says he's become much more adventurous in his eating because of the food at school. He's added a third fruit to his repertoire: star fruit, along with bananas and watermelon.

"Sometimes I don't think I'll like it," he says, "but I'll still try."

His friend Catherynne once got him to try a piece of carambola, also called star fruit.

"It's yellow and sweet and shaped like a star," she told him. "You'll like it."

And to his surprise, he did.

"Now I like three fruits," says Davi Lucas. "Bananas, watermelon and carambola. Maybe one day I'll like four."

Jill Langlois is an independent journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has been freelancing from the largest city in the western hemisphere since 2010, writing and reporting for publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time. Her work focuses on human rights, the environment and the impact of socioeconomic issues on people's lives.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jill Langlois