Four Days Horizonte
Before I set off on this trip I distinctly remember grabbing a world map, pinning it to my wall and showering it with tacks marking places I wanted to visit. One of those tacks was on the third largest city in Brazil, Belo Horizonte.
While at FAF I met a Canadian who is writing a thesis on the development of the coffee industry in Brazil in order to obtain two masters, one in development and the other in history. He’s been living in Belo Horizonte for the past 7 months and he kindly invited me to stay at his lovely apartment with his beautiful Brazilian girlfriend. They took me out to eat, cooked for me and gave me mini tours of the city.
I wanted to come to Belo Horizonte because in college, I took a course on world hunger; we dedicated a whole unit to Belo Horizonte and their campaign to end hunger in the city. It’s called Fome Zero, Zero Hunger, and it was a nation-wide campaign that the ex-president Lula put in to action. The mayor of Belo Horizonte took the campaign one giant step further; he declared that every citizen of Belo Horizonte has the right to food.
So what did the mayor have to do to ensure that everyone had equal access to food?
With less than 2% of the city government’s budget these were the Fome Zero systems put into action:
- Popular restaurants: community dining halls where anyone can go to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner for R$2 or less (US$1.22). There are 4 scattered throughout Belo Horizonte that together serve 32,000 meals per day.
- Food banks: providing staple foods at subsidized prices.
- Community kitchens
- Meals provided for children: free of charge children can eat 3 meals a day at school, daycare centers and preschool.
- Local farmers markets, organic farmers markets and conventional markets: The government helps pay for the rent for the space the farmers use. The largest markets are on Saturdays, but there are smaller ones open almost every other day of the week.
- Cooking and nutrition classes: free of charge; teach how to boost nutrients in common Brazilian dishes and how to cook new nutritious meals.
Sounds great right? Well, I wanted to see some of these systems in action. So I went to have lunch at a community restaurant and I went to one of the organic markets. I wasn’t all that impressed.
The community restaurant, called Restautante Popular Josue de Castro, was conveniently located in the center of the city and had a very long line out the door. Amazingly, only 25 minutes after arriving I was sitting down with my platter of hot food. The food was not outstanding, but it was filling and only cost R$2. I was given a huge pile of white rice (cooked with garlic, Brazilian style, which I like), a spoonful of mostly bean water and some beans, boiled potatoes, raw cabbage salad, fatty pork in a very salty sauce and an apple.
While I ate my large lunch I chatted with a few of the people sitting next to me on the cafeteria style bench. Some of them said they come almost every day because it’s so close to their work and they can’t beat the price. For others, it was their first time at this particular restaurant, but they had been to others. They all assured me that the menu changes every day and that they always have some sort of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. One lady exclaimed excitedly that the next day they would be serving chicken, which she said was the tastiest. Then another older man gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him if I wanted to tour the city with him! I left partially satisfied, though satiated. I guess I shouldn’t have expected high quality food from the cheapest joint in town…
That very same day, Tuesday, I walked to an organic market just a few blocks away. I got there right as it was commencing, it was 2PM and there were only two stands open. I walked up to the first one and asked how many more vendors there were going to be. The bright, young farmer’s daughter said they were it! Just 2 stands at the “market.” The two organic farms had varied produce to offer, but not much abundance. They had vegetables (cassava, collard greens, lettuce, eggplant etc…) some fruit (kiwis, avocado and bananas) eggs and some prepared sauces, but only a little bit of each product. The prices weren’t that bad so I grabbed some cassavas, eggs and green onions to make fried cassava balls (enyucados) and bread in a minute for my hosts.
When I got back home and told my host how scrawny the organic market was, he promised to take me to the Central Market the next day.
You can find anything you want at the Central Market in Belo Horizonte. It spans a whole square block and ranges in products from dried meats to fresh herbs to live birds. I sampled some of the most popular fast foods, bolo de feijão (cooked white beans with spices, mashed and fried) and empada (a mini tart filled with all sorts of goodies like cheese, corn, chicken or meat). My host offered me a bit of cool coconut water to wash it all down and I had to oblige. I loved that at this market, as opposed to the markets in Costa Rica and Colombia, the vendors did not bark at you offering you their merchandise. They just all sat back calmly waiting for you to begin conversation. When I asked the empada vendor how she made her empadas she gave me the complete recipe and then proceeded to list off many more Brazilian recipes!
There are two typical Brazilian treats that after having been in Brazil for one month both me and my hosts were surprised I hadn’t experimented yet: pão de queijo and aςai. Pão de queijo means cheese bread, and it’s made with cassava flour, cheese and eggs. It is the most delicious, quick hunger fix! Every pão de queijo I’ve tried now has been different. Some are gummy on the inside, some are dry, some are big, some are small, but all have been good.
Aςai is a Brazilian berry grown mostly in the Amazon. It is deep purple and tastes kind of like marrion berry to me. It is usually mashed and frozen into a pulp that is blended with milk and served with bananas and granola. So delicious!!
I was happy to have been able to see my Canadian friend again, to get a taste of Fome Zero and to see another great Brazilian city. I still have to visit the second largest city…Rio de Janeiro, but that won’t be until the end of my Brazil trip I believe. Now I’m off to another farm, this time farther North in the state of Goias (yes, I’m trying to escape the cold winter!).