Discussions about the green economy are shifting the emphasis of development from quantity to quality: the narrow focus on economic growth is opening up to include concerns about environmental sustainability and social equity. Public sector food procurement is one area where price concerns have typically triumphed over nutritional value. But, in countries like Brazil, the growing evidence of health problems coupled with poor diet and eating habits is prompting people to rethink how to source food in public institutions like schools.

In Brazil, this rethinking has brought nutrition and sustainability front and center, leading to initiatives that seek to promote the local sourcing of fresh agricultural produce for school meals. Such programs are designed to enhance the production and distribution capacity of local farmers’ cooperatives, actively involve citizen-consumers in negotiations with local authorities, and ultimately create an institutional framework that fosters deliberative engagement and guarantees the quality of food used. Local production coupled with local consumption also reduces the ecological footprint associated with food procurement, which contributes to green, ongoing social and economic development.

Brazil’s innovations are not unique. Developed countries like Japan and Italy have national school feeding programs geared toward local agriculture. In Japan, the national food education plan implemented in 2004 promotes chisan-chisho (local production and local consumption) with 30 percent of the food used for public school meals locally produced. Italy’s policy goes further by defining school meals “as an integral part of both people’s right to education and of consumers’ right to health.”1 Yet among developing countries, Brazil’s reforms have led the way by creating an enabling environment for small-scale farmers to access markets and to participate in tendering, while arranging distribution channels for their products.

More specifically, Brazil has met four internationally set goals for more sustainable food-procurement systems: (1) creating a market for small-scale farmers; (2) changing market structures so that a larger proportion of the market price goes to local farmers; (3) promoting a stronger role for local farmers in the supply chain through reducing the relevance of intermediaries in the purchasing process; and (4) ensuring that small-scale farmers produce a sufficient supply of good-quality products to enable them to respond to market demand.2

These interventions rely on a system of standardization and distribution, and cooperation among a wide range of participants in the food chain in order to ensure transparency and accountability. This mechanism of participation is what characterizes quality-oriented food procurement in Brazil.

From Centralization to Decentralization in Brazil’s Public Food Procurement

The origins of local food procurement in Brazil can be traced back to the initial debates over food security during the 1930s. During this time, social nutritionists were trained to combat malnutrition in children in rural areas in the Northeast, the poorest region of the country, which was known for its vulnerability to droughts. These nutritionists sought food aid from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP), while putting pressure on the federal government to establish national nutrition programs. In 1955 a national school feeding campaign offered some schools in the Northeast, the North, and the Southeast powdered milk and nutrient supplements. However, government programs did not reach the interior regions of the North, and some nutritionists attached to churches started to disseminate ‘alternative food’ called multimistura, a mixture of ground grain containing rice powder, wheat, different kinds of seeds and nuts, and dried edible leaves harvested in nearby forests.


Neil Palmer/CIAT
A cassava farmer checks his crops in the Juma Reserve of the Amazon. Distant and rural farms like this one are gaining access to large markets through Brazil’s school lunch program.

In 1976, under the military regime, the whole system of national school feeding programs was centralized. Under this program, the food, together with other school materials, was stored in central warehouses at both the federal and state levels and then shipped to schools. Due to precarious distribution systems in interior areas many schools did not receive food regularly and, therefore, school attendance was low, especially in the North. In the 1990s, to counteract this problem, the government sought to decentralize the school feeding operation, mainly in the relatively developed Southeast. This decentralization effort, however, dwindled in other parts of the country, and particularly in the North and Center West, because of poor institutional coordination between the different governmental agencies responsible for the food procurement operation. Following democratization in 1988, decentralization was revived in order to distribute school materials and food as well as improve transport, although it wasn’t until 1998 that food procurement was fully given to municipalities following a groundswell of negative public opinion over the quality of school food.

Initially, decentralization did not necessarily mean better quality or local food due to the lack of funding and knowledge. In 2003 the new government led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula)’s Worker’s Party expanded the family stipend program called Bolsa Família to improve school enrollment rates by transferring cash to impoverished households. The Worker Party linked this program to a new project called the Zero Hunger Project (Fome Zero). The Lula government then allocated 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to the Ministry of Social Development, which administered the Project.3 Through this connection, the budget for school food procurement was raised to 1.5 billion Brazilian real (BRL) (US$820 million) in 2006, which was the largest sum ever to be used for school feeding in Brazil.

At the same time, the Lula government had promoted the direct purchasing program to enable the small-scale, family-based farmers to access markets without dealing with exploitative intermediaries. In 2009 a law was implemented to include the direct purchasing program into the national school procurement, and it obliged a municipal government to use at least 30 percent of the allocated food procurement budget to purchase local produce from family-based farmers.

Accompanying the law was a campaign to promote “food sovereignty,” including the concept of a “food culture” (cultura alimentar) and that of providing local food as part of familial agricultural development. The food culture has been embodied in menu development, with the government setting a goal that 15–30 percent of nutrition intake be provided through local procurement of fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat. This produce is sought from local farmers, while more centralized, large-scale procurement is maintained for basic, nonperishable foodstuffs such as rice, beans, flour, salt, sugar, and oil. Some municipalities and schools have also created school or community gardens (horta comunitária) in order to produce basic vegetables on their own. In this process, students, teachers, and parents become involved in growing food as part of the educational program that informs them about the food culture.

About half of the more than 5,500 municipalities in Brazil have created School Feeding Committees (Conselhos de Alimentação Escolar, or CAEs) comprising local officials, parents, and teachers’ associations. These councils have taken a lead in local school food procurement and, as a result, school meals contain fresh produce such as vegetables, fruit, and meat, with menus reflecting the wishes and dietary needs of children and their parents. Together with the long-standing informal arrangements of provisions of the multimistura by churches and informal school meals by rural workers’ organizations in remote areas, this has become a principle institutional mechanism of public participation to ensure school food quality in Brazil.


Gustavo Minas
In North and Northeast Brazil, rustic infrastructure remains one of the main barriers between schools and small farm cooperatives.

The Example of Campinas

São Paulo is one of the states that has vigorously promoted the decentralized school-feeding program and, within the state, Campinas has been the most active municipality in improving the quality of school food in its school network. In the 1990s the municipal government commissioned three private agro-industrial companies to administer school feeding. Dissatisfied with their service, the municipal government had turned by 2002 to a government-run wholesaler, Central de Abastecimento e Serviços Auxiliares (CEASA), for its food supplies for schools. The Campinas branch of CEASA oversees more than 1,000 registered wholesalers and producers. For the local producers in Campinas and the interior of the state of São Paulo, CEASA is the major commercialization, storage, and distribution center. In 2003 CEASA created a local food bank, which buys directly from the small farmers in the state of São Paulo and donates to the poorest section of the municipality’s population. The same program also initiated a project called Full Plate, which provides 6,000 baskets of basic foods (cesta básica) and over 10,000 sacks of fruit and vegetables donated by wholesalers to the beneficiaries of Bolsa Família.

Within the framework of this program, CEASA created the Department of School Food, which organizes menu development and food procurement and storage, and also sends nutritionists and cooks to schools when requested. In 2006 it also established the Administrative Centre of School Food with financial help from a wholesaler, De Marchi. In 2007 the Department of School Food employed 10 nutritionists and 30 other administrators who constantly created new menus based on what was available to procure during the year. The CEASA-oriented school feeding program has significantly increased the use of fresh fruit and vegetables in school meals, which now appear four days a week and in one snack on the fifth school day. Before this arrangement, the menu was “industrial,” including items such as sweet rice, porridge, pasta, and soy juice. Many children did not approve of the quality of the food and some took their own food to school or went home to eat. After the new arrangement was introduced by CEASA, the nutritionists conducted a survey, which showed that nearly 80 percent of the students approved of the new menu, which consists of meat and salad or chicken stew and fresh juice. The fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables are sent directly by the wholesalers who enter into contracts with the municipal government for the year. The cooks are trained twice a year at CEASA in the nutritional aspect of menus, sanitary matters, and culinary experiments. These menus are tested at each school and need to be approved by the School Feeding Committees in five different districts within the municipal territory of Campinas.

According to a CEASA nutritionist, the cost of the school food depends on each menu but, on average, the food costs BRL 0.50, or 25 cents per child per day. In 2007 the federal government provided BRL 0.18 per student per day, and the state government of São Paulo provided BRL 0.22 from its tax revenues, and the municipal government provided approximately BRL 0.34 per student in order to improve the menu and to cover other costs (e.g., providing the necessary cooking equipment and sending approximately 600 cooks to the schools). In 2008 CEASA developed 15 different menus in Campinas, which covered 164,000 students across 512 public crèches, primary schools, and adult learning centers. That year, in total, the municipal school-feeding program in Campinas provided an annual budget of BRL 37.5 million (US$16 million).

The active involvement of the municipal wholesaler and the multi-level budget arrangement for the improvement of school meals has also contributed to the recommended procurement interventions. The small-scale farmers can now access a newly created market of school meals in which the government directly purchases their fresh produce at the wholesale market for the menu development. The farmers thus play a stronger role in the supply chain without relying on intermediaries. At the same time, the wholesale market gathers a large number of small-scale farmers and sufficient quantity of good quality produce is guaranteed.

Yet the success in Campinas has not been matched in municipalities to the North and the Northeast, where poor infrastructure and lack of municipal budget continue to hamper the delivery of quality food. In 2010 half of the children in the state of Pará in the North, for example, did not attend school because the schools did not provide food on a regular basis.4 As the capacity of each municipal government is not as great as the capacity of Campinas, the municipal-oriented promotion of the locally procured school food initiative is often limited. Instead, the school feeding programs in the North tend to be state-oriented and led by the State Secretariats of Education. In Pará, the state is now promoting the regionalization of school food by contracting cooperatives that provide nutritious palm fruits like açaí, acerola, and cupuaçu fruits, which are indigenous to the Amazon region.


fernando Stankuns
The decentralization of food procurement in Brazilian schools, like this one in São Paulo, has allowed citizens to design a local economy while strengthening the relationship between civil society and government.

In order to procure these regional products, logistics and the basic infrastructure need to be improved with regard to small farmers’ cooperatives and associations, which sometimes do not even know how to participate in direct purchasing programs conducted by the government or how to properly package their products for storage and transportation. Addressing the different levels of development within a country continues to be a difficult task for Brazil. Meanwhile, churches and rural workers’ organizations continue to provide alternative foodstuffs as part of the catechist and agricultural educational movement. Parents also often start taking the initiative of private rural schooling, where they take it in turn to cook.

Reshaping Governance

Despite these challenges, Brazil has remained committed to fully localizing food procurement systems. In the process, the country has found itself in the midst of fundamental change in its system of governance. When school food procurement was centralized, the governance needed to be normative to direct how local governance should operate. With localization, even in the isolated North, a more flexible form of governance has developed to connect local citizens, including producers, consumers, and various local organizations, to municipalities and the national authorities.

For example, the School Feeding Committee in each municipality is a largely civic-driven mechanism that places demands on the governments at various levels to improve infrastructure and extend services for small-scale producers and distributors to further facilitate their involvement in supply chains. Federal and state services are then obliged to assist farmers’ associations and cooperatives in each municipality. Such active civic participation in national programs has worked to change ways that the governments operate in relation to food businesses, farmers’ cooperatives, and civil society actors. Because of the widely accepted notion that food is a basic right, the federal government today acts as a duty-bearer who monitors the transparency of the School Feeding Committees and their compliance with federal guidelines. In this way, the entire food procurement operation must become accountable to both producers and consumers and open spaces in which more sustainable and locally supportive practices are generated.

The case of school food procurement in Brazil demonstrates how strengthening the relationship between civil society and government can drive a new type of economy, namely a green economy that focuses on the quality of production and consumption. Decentralization of public services has allowed citizen-consumers to design a local economy centering on quality.

Regional inequality needs to be tackled in Brazil but this can also become a new opportunity to think about sustainability based on local variability. Instead of only focusing on conserving rainforests, for example, we could seriously try to support the Amazonian states in the North to incorporate forest food products such as fruits and nuts into school meals by linking conservationist intervention to the procurement system. The possibility will encourage sustainable forest use and agriculture in Amazonia, thereby curbing deforestation and also reducing carbon emissions. Moreover, children in the Amazon can learn about their valuable forests through school meals and consequently may come to easily engage in conserving the forests as part of their own environment.

After all, as one CEASA official in Campinas commented, the school meal is “not an expense but an investment,” which should give the country and the world significant returns in the future.


This article draws on material originally published by Otsuki, K. in Natural Resources Forum entitled “Sustainable partnerships for a green economy: A case study of public procurement for home-grown school feeding” (2011). An article on a similar subject also appeared in OurWorld 2.0, the publications of the United Nations University. Both of these articles have more extensive reference lists, for the interested reader.


Kei Otsuki

Kei Otsuki is a research associate at United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace. Her work centers on linking social transformation and sustainable development in the global South,...

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