The urgency of hunger and the importance of a healthy diet

In Argentina, more than 750 thousand households do not have the capacity to feed their children and adolescents. Faced with this reality, Asignación Universal, Tarjeta Alimentar, IFE, school food programs, food, merchandise modules, donations and community kitchens are intertwined in the territory of hunger.

It is not a coordinated network, but rather a swarm interwoven by hand and sustained by the State in its various manifestations.

Gravity and urgency have long prevailed over institutional articulation.

Although aggravated by the pandemic, this scenario is neither new nor circumstantial. The set of policies that the State implements on the matter has expanded in its coverage and extended in its time. A paradigmatic case is the school feeding programs (PAE).

During the last year, Fundeps, with the support of Unicef ​​Argentina, has studied the operation of the PAE in the Argentine provinces seeking to determine the nutritional quality and its economic cost. A preliminary description allowed us to identify some salient aspects: universality and continuity in the provision; and contradictions in the problem to be solved.

In all Argentine provinces there is some type of school feeding policy administered by the subnational government or its municipalities, and financed by themselves or through national transfers.

Even with its local peculiarities, it is a universalized social policy.

The continuity of the PAE is given not only by its antiquity (some, like the Cordovan Paicor, go back almost to the dawn of the democratic recovery) but also by its persistence. They have been maintained in times of crisis or economic boom, and survived the tightening wave of the minimum state. They even work when their natural space, the school, is closed. The periodic vacations and this unthinkable pandemic show it.

The paradox emerges when peering into the nutritional reality of girls, boys and adolescents. The inability to ensure three meals a day coexists with a worrying increase in childhood overweight and obesity. According to the World School Health Survey (EMSE) carried out in 2012, Argentina registered a growth of excess weight from 24.5% in 2007 to 28.6% in 2012.

One of the main determinants of these conditions is exposure to an obesogenic environment, to which, in part, ECPs contribute.

The pre-pandemic dining rooms

Until 2019, school canteens served food prepared in the same institution or provided by catering companies for breakfast, lunch or snack.

A detailed review of the composition of the menus in Córdoba, Corrientes, Jujuy and La Rioja showed that the nutritional recommendations of the ECPs in each province are ambivalent.

On the one hand, they respond to the objective aligned with the “paradigm of malnutrition” of the National Food Security Program, which focuses on the coverage of energy and nutrients in deficit. On the other hand, the new “obesity paradigm”, according to the current epidemiological scenario, incorporates critical nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium, in addition to fiber and vitamins in the recommendations, based on the Healthy School Environment Guidelines.

In general terms, it was observed that breakfasts and snacks incorporate milk, yogurt or cheeses, as suggested by the regulations, accompanied by a solid of low nutritional value or with an inadequate nutrient profile (high content of sugars, fats and sodium and little fiber content).

At lunches, the practice was even less uniform, with cross-cutting aspects in most of the cases analyzed such as the low quantity and variety of legumes, vegetables and fruits, and the little diversity in cereals (especially whole varieties) and meats (especially absence of fish).

Transformation after school closings

As in so many other aspects, here too 2020 is an asterisk year. The closure of schools due to the pandemic activated the forced mutation of the PAE, which went from a menu served in a dining room to a delivered lunch or food module distributed, depending on each province.

In the first weeks the emphasis was on the speed of the transition. The State resorted to the well-trained muscle of the distribution of pockets, in which non-perishable and ultra-processed foods predominated and fruits or vegetables were scarce.

They quickly sought to replace the dining room and contain the growing demand triggered by a fierce economic crisis. But at the same time the quality of the food declined significantly. To make matters worse, sometimes these foods reached homes where there was no one to prepare them (mothers and fathers who continued to work) or the minimum conditions such as drinking water or a gas stove did not exist.

Thus, gradually, the new normal for girls and boys was built between naturalized exceptionalities and community solidarity.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about the timing and modality of returning to school threatens to galvanize this deterioration in nutritional quality.

The future of school feeding

For years, the State has produced universal public goods that extend the coverage of containment, but do not reverse the structural conditions that give rise to the intervention. It is almost understandable, since the former may be technically-administratively simpler and -in some cases- politically more profitable than the latter.

Specifically, social policies do not escape the deficits that mark the actions of the State. There is no comprehensiveness: social problems are addressed in a segmented manner. The intergovernmental disarticulation becomes evident: the three levels of government can overlap with equivalent actions on the same beneficiary, or leave those who need it without coverage, all three at the same time.

On the other hand, there is a disconnection with the actors of the social fabric, since rarely does the work with the organizations of the territory transcend the transfer of resources.

Reversing each of these aspects should be a course to take on the near horizon. SAPs may be the policy that materializes these aspirations. A first step would be to improve the nutritional quality of the modules that are delivered in replacement of the dining room: eliminate foods with excess fat, sugar and sodium; incorporate fresh foods (fruits and vegetables); guarantee access to safe water; and increase the frequency of delivery.

This could be complemented with a greater articulation with community kitchens and social organizations working in the territory: training for the safe preparation of healthy foods and organizing balanced menu sequences; promote the self-production of vegetables and legumes; and complement the food instances with playful spaces for integration and learning.

We cannot forget that even when school activity is resumed and the PAEs return to normal, thousands of students will continue to complement the school cafeteria with the community picnic area.

Many of these actions are already part of specific policies. The challenge is that they become a norm that is extended and internalized by the actors involved. And here the State has two challenges, to articulate and particularize at the same time. Connect and coordinate not only their work with organizations but fundamentally between departments and levels of government, to avoid duplication and make resources more efficient. The next move is to fine tune. Better calibrate their interventions, adjusting the effort and resources invested to the magnitude of the problem and the true needs of the beneficiary population.

The right to adequate and quality food for girls and boys is materialized in a healthy menu, but it originates in a comprehensive and participatory social policy.

* Political scientist, Magister Social Policies and Development. Member of Fundeps.

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