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Emerging Governance in the Transition to a Green Economy: A Case Study of Public Sector Food Procurement in Brazil

8 Nov 2011

Emerging Governance in the Transition to a Green Economy: A Case Study of Public Sector Food Procurement in Brazil
This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

Changes in public sector food procurement in Brazil have improved not just the quality of school meals; they have led to a reduced ecological footprint and a more engaged civil society. In this article, Kei Otsuki explores the processes of decentralization and localization that have taken place in Brazil since 1997 through the lens of food procurement. The case demonstrates how an active civil society can lead the charge for better, more sustainable and locally supportive practices.

Kei Otsuki is Research Associate at the United Nations University, Institute for Sustainability and Peace in Tokyo, Japan.

Discussions about green economy are shifting the emphasis of development from quantity to quality: the narrow focus on economic growth is opening up to include concerns with environmental sustainability and social equity. According to May (2010), green economy sheds light on “the deliberative engagement of stakeholders in environmental valuation and management, rather than simply presenting trade-offs among alternative courses of action in terms of discounted monetary benefits and costs”. But what does the banner of green economy really mean for the quality of development? And what institutional arrangements enable the meaningful engagement of various social actors?

Public sector food procurement constitutes a pertinent case to explore answers to these questions. At the end of the 1990s, debates over food safety erupted due to controversies over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and genetically modified (GM) crops. At the same time, the health problems associated with poor diet and eating habits, such as obesity and vitamin deficiency, were becoming increasingly recognized in both developed and developing countries. Thus the quality of produce procured by the public sector, which constitutes meals served at public sites such as schools, hospitals and prisons, attracted the attention of public health workers and policy makers at both national and international levels.

School meals became central to this debate “because the primary consumers of the service, namely children, cannot directly make their own voices heard regarding the safety and quality of their food” (Otsuki 2011). Moreover, according to a recent review of Food for Education (FFE) programmes in developing countries, securing sufficient amounts of good quality food for school meal provision is vital to achieving education for all (Adelman et al. 2008).

Concerns about the quality of food provided at school have led to initiatives that seek to promote the local sourcing of fresh agricultural produce for school meals (World Food Program 2008). Such programmes 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 reduces the ecological footprint associated with food procurement, which contributes to sustainable development (Otsuki 2011).

Brazil’s Public Sector Food Procurement in Schools
From centralization to decentralization
The National School Feeding Programme (Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar) in Brazil started in the 1950s as a highly centralized programme. The central government procured food for schools, mostly non-perishable cereals and powdered milk, and stored it in warehouses located in the state capitals. The food was then shipped to the interior but due to precarious transportation and storage facilities even non-perishable and processed foods were often spoiled before reaching the children. School attendance was low, especially in the poorer North and North-East of the country.

In the 1990s, Brazil began decentralizing (“municipalizing”) various state functions, including the provision of school meals. In 1997, the Cardoso government established the National Fund for the Development of Education (Fundo Nacional de Desenvolvimento da Educação) to allocate public resources to decentralized food procurement programmes. In 1998 the Fund began transferring the budget for school meals from the federal to the municipal governments, enabling local authorities to procure food.

From decentralization to localization
In 2006 under the Lula government, the budget for school food procurement reached its highest ever level, 820 million USD. The government established the National Food Security and Nutrition Policy (Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional, or SAN), based on the idea that secure access to sufficient quantities of good-quality food was a human right to be protected by the government. This was rapidly linked to the concept of “food sovereignty”, underpinned by an appreciation of local food culture and small-scale farming.

In 2009, a new law (11.947, 16/6/2009) came into effect to fully codify the school food procurement programme by obliging every municipality in Brazil to spend at least 30 per cent of the allocated budget on local produce purchased directly from small-scale farmers. Since then, about half of the more than 5,500 municipalities in Brazil have created School Feeding Committees (Conselhos de Alimentação Escolar, or CAEs). These comprise municipal and state secretaries for education, city councilors, and representatives from 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.

With the 2009 law, the decentralized school food procurement programmes were fully localized. Together with the long-standing informal arrangements of school meal provision by churches and rural workers’ organizations in remote areas, this has resulted in significant local variability in Brazil.

Reshaping governance
The local variability in the school food procurement programmes implies that a new form of governance has emerged. When school food procurement was centralized, the governance needed to be normative to direct how local governance should operate. With localization a more flexible form of governance is required to connect local citizens, including producers, consumers and various local organizations, to municipalities and the national authorities.

This reshaped, localized, governance has in turn worked to change ways that the federal government operates in relation to food businesses, farmers and civil society actors in Brazil. 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 local school food procurement committees and their compliance with federal guidelines. On the other hand, committees can place demands on the federal government to improve infrastructure and extend services for small-scale producers and distributors to enable their involvement in supply chains. Federal and state services are then obliged to assist farmers’ associations and cooperatives in each municipality.

Future agenda
The case of school food procurement in Brazil teaches us that in order for local social actors to define quality and input into the structures required to contribute to sustainable development in their local area, a new form of governance must emerge and be institutionalized. The process of engaging civic actors with development concerns can work to change the structures of national institutions such that they can facilitate sustainable, locally driven development.

For future research and discussions we should examine public services in various sectors in order to identify the procedures through which civic demands for improving the quality of life can reshape governance, and to explore how this reshaping process contributes to the promotion of green economy. As a first step, we should strive to disseminate the notion that we all have the right to green economy and the right to envisage forms of governance that guarantee it.

  • Adelman, S. W., D. O. Gilligan, and K. Lehrer, 2008. How effective are food for education programs? A critical assessment of the evidence from developing countries. Food Policy Review 9, Washington DC: IFPRI.
  • May, P. H., 2010. Revaluing the environment. The Broker, 13: 17-20.
  • Otsuki, K., 2011. Sustainable partnerships for a green economy: A case study of public procurement for home-grown school feeding. Natural Resources Forum, 35: 213-222.
  • World Food Programme, 2008. Home-Grown School Feeding: A Framework to Link School Feeding with Local Agricultural Production. Rome: WFP.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.