‘A Lack of Respect for Our Culture’: Brazil’s Northeast Rebels Against Veganism in Schools

School Food
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Children in Bahía state, Brazil, began coming home hungry on a regular basis after the school system imposed vegan menus in cafeterias, the brainchild of a government official who had moved to the impoverished northeast state from the nation’s wealthy south, the Washington Post found in a report published Monday.

In an article on public ministry prosecutor Leticia Baird’s crusade against meat-eating in a state over a thousand miles from her native Mato Grosso do Sul, the Post found that many in Brazil were curious about vegetarianism and veganism and, even in Bahía, many seemed interested in participating in efforts to preserve the environment. Brazil is home to most of the Amazon Rainforest, a national treasure that has shaped environmental policy in the country for decades.

Four municipalities in Bahía state agreed to Baird’s experiment: suddenly replacing traditional meat-and-potatoes lunch menus with foreign vegan alternatives. The plan would have ended meat-eating at school lunches by the end of the year in the participating towns and cities.

Environmental and animal rights groups announced the project to much fanfare in March 2018.

“It is the first time in history that a school district commits to exclusively vegetable-based cafeterias,” Humane Society International, a partner in the project, announced. “The change will impact over 23 million meals a year.”

“Offering our school districts vegetable-based foods will help save natural and financial public resources, will allow a future of healthy adults, and the construction of a fairer world for animals,” Baird said at the time.

The “Sustainable Schools” program proposal stated that such a move was necessary because Bahía’s public schools faced a “historic challenge” in offering nutritious food there, in part because of the rampant corruption that has resulted in “numerous scandals involving the misuse of public resources intended for its acquisition.”

The plan proposed turning school lunch into a teachable moment in which a good meal could not only combat “school absence,” but offers a chance to “influence learning capacity” by replacing “processed foods – powdered milk, cookies, and meat – beef jersey, sausage, sardines” with organic vegetable foods sourced locally. Keep the products in the hands of local producers was the plan’s way of respecting the local culture.

Despite growing national interest in veganism, many in Bahía found Baird’s destruction of their children’s diets disrespectful and poorly planned, according to the Post. The children threw their lunches in the garbage, coming home hungry and jeopardizing their health at pivotal ages of physical development:

They found school cooks churning out meals that were barely edible. Trash bins filled with uneaten vegan food. Children refusing to eat and going home hungry. Students bringing meat from their own kitchens. The menus being unilaterally altered back to traditional food.

One local official, Council of School Food director in the town of Serrinha Ariane Souza Santiago Silva, told the Post that Baird’s plan “shows a lack of respect for our culture. She’s not of Bahía. She’s not of the Northeast.”

The Northeast has traditionally been Brazil’s poorest region. The state of Bahía has the highest population of people anywhere in Brazil who identify as black – 22.9 percent, as of 2018. Including people who identify as mulatto (mixed black and white) brings that number to 81.11 percent. It is the only state where black (excluding mixed people) people outnumber white people.

The Washington Post does not address the fact that Baird is white, but hints at the cultural differences: “She spoke with the hard r’s of the wealthier southeast, not the lilting cadence of Bahia, one of the poorest states in Brazil.” Upon arriving in Bahía, Baird found that the traditional diet and culture was “defined by descendants of West African slaves,” foreign to her. She nonetheless chose Bahía – not Mato Grosso do Sul or a wealthier state like Sao Paulo or Distrito Federal – for her experiment.

Baird has been promoting the consumption of peanut butter as a protein source around the country for years, staging events introducing peanut butter to locals and teaching them how to pair it with food.

She told the Washington Post that Bahía was a particularly poor state with high rates of childhood obesity, making it an ideal target for her program.

There is no indication that the local Bahía communities had a voice in approving the vegan project.

“There had been no public debate. No vote. Just an announcement: The old school menu — with its pastas and meats and margarine — would be replaced with one that featured oatmeal, vegan bread and meat-free kibbe,” the Washington Post noted.

Sao Paulo and Distrito Federal, where Brasilia is located, have seen increases in vegetarian diets at schools, but much more gradually and for different reasons.

Students approved the menus implemented in Sao Paulo schools, according to local officials, and cafeterias gradually began to introduce vegan options on the menu in February 2019, unlike the abrupt introduction in Bahía.

Brasilia did see an abrupt absence in meat on school menus in June, but reportedly not because of any plan for schools to become more “sustainable.”

“Federal District public school meals have ceased to include chicken, pork and fresh fish, and eggs, at least since June,” the Globo media network reported. “The situation occurs, according to the [government of Distrito Federal], because food supply contracts have not been renewed.”

The supplier of meat for meatballs had reportedly violated the contract, offering fattier meat than the contract allowed. Other alternatives were out of the question because of “swine flu in Asia,” according to the report.

“Since August 27, students have been drinking water and [eating] cookies,” Globo reported.

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