AlterBanc, agroecology and social spending in Catalonia

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FAO and WFP(World Food Programme), in their report 17.7.20, reported the emergence of acute malnutrition in at least 27 countries around the world. But an unprecedented social crisis is also looming in Europe, where the weaker sections of the population are struggling to receive the aid they need.

AlterBanc is the Catalan project of cooperation between families afflicted by food shortages and peasant agriculture. According to a model, alternative to the Food Bank model, that aggregates on the territories the protagonists of solidarity with those of agroecology and traditional distribution. (1) Aid, food sovereignty, social spending.

The Grand Recapte of Catalonia

The Gran Recapte d’Aliments de Catalunya is the campaign carried out in recent years by the region’s four food banks, through the
Fundació Banc dels Aliments
. A colossal organization that collects direct donations of non-perishable food and €3 ‘vouchers’ intended for the purchase of meat, fish and eggs. In addition to public grants, including under European programs to aid and support surplus recovery in agriculture.

The Food Bank Foundation’s network collects donated goods, purchases others in bulk, and distributes them to the needy through social organizations on the ground. In 2019 it distributed 25 thousand tons of food in Catalonia alone. 5.2 thousand tons in March-May 2020 alone (+35% compared to the same period last year).

Food poverty and ‘hidden hunger’

The food poverty that already characterized European society, due to unacceptable inequalities and scarcity of subsidies to the weaker classes, reached the level of a generalized crisis in the Covid-19 era. Not only in the 27 Low-Middle Income Countries(LMICs) but also in old Europe. Starting with the countries hardest hit by the recession, such as Spain and Italy, where social safety nets are often still waiting to reach the pockets of those entitled to them.

The emerging health risk, for a growing cohort of citizens, goes by the name of ‘hidden hunger.’ That is, malnutrition, child and otherwise. Reduced spending capacity causes families to rely on the cheapest products for nourishment, often ultra-processed foods and junk food.

Giving up fresh foods–starting with vegetables and fruits, essential health ingredients at every stage of life–is unfortunately only partly compensated for by food banks. Which predominantly handle preserved foods, also for logistical needs.

‘We had to choose where to cut. Paying rent, supplies or meals. Because we cannot be without home, water or electricity, we cut our diet’ (Fabiola López, mother of two on sick leave. Following the loss of her partner’s job due to the pandemic, she benefits from and participates in the Congrés-Indians neighborhood neighborhood solidarity network in Barcelona).

Local solidarity, the model of AlterBanc


AlterBanc
grew out of the experience of EcoCentral, an agro-ecological purchasing center that supplies school canteens with local and organic produce from about 50 local farmers. Which, during the lockdown, began distributing the products to battered women and solidarity networks in poorer neighborhoods. Like Nou Barris and Congrés-Indians, in Barcelona. With support from entities such as the Arran de Terra and El Pa Sencer cooperatives. And aid from the Ana Bella and Carasso foundations.

‘The compulsion to malnourish oneself is one of the many forms of violence suffered by poor people. (With AlterBanc) we distribute lots that, because of their quality, could be as much for a billionaire as for a poor person’ (Alejandro Guzmán, one of the founders of AlterBanc).

The farmers’ business was kept alive through a model that simultaneously allowed for the distribution of fresh, organic, quality food to vulnerable people. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products and eggs have been distributed regularly over the past two months to more than 250 people.

Neighborhood stores are also used as collection points for the other food items, with the aim of encouraging donors to make purchases at small local stores instead of large supermarkets. And beneficiary families are in turn involved in collecting donated food from neighborhood stores, transporting it to network centers and distributing it to families.

‘We provide quality food, which enables a varied and sustainable diet, to people in the neighborhood affected by the crisis in the system. We try to escape from a welfare logic and organize independently among neighbors’ (Berta Carreras, Barcelona Neighborhood Support Network Porta).

Agroecology, short supply chain and mutual aid

The protagonists of AlterBanc offer brilliant examples of how ecological peasant agriculture can reach consumers through short, disintermediated supply chains that eschew the classical capitalist model. Realizing, rather, a paradigm of mutual aid:

EcoCentral distributes local organic products to 80 school canteens. Without charging any fees to farmers or charging commissions on their sales. Customers arrange orders with farmers and pay them directly. Acknowledging EcoCentral’s contribution to logistics. A formula that could work just as well in Italy, where the debate over school food is red-hot as we have seen.

‘Feeding schools with agro-ecological products at public prices was a challenge and we succeeded. Now the model could be replicated to respond to food poverty’,

l’Hort de l’Eriçó is an agroecological project supported through orders from three consumer cooperatives, direct farm sales and collaboration with other organic farmers in the network in the area. Consumers, organized into cooperatives and neighborhood networks, make it possible to plan crops, agree on fair prices and efficient transportation. Again, without speculation beyond covering living costs.

Green procurement, food sovereignty, equity?

‘Agroecological public purchasing e armarked for social services (kitchens, home delivery and food aid) can make it possible to maintain a good portion of Catalonia’s small farmers with dignity. It is time for administrations and consumers to take clear positions on the agriculture we want to support.

By what arguments does the administration create awareness campaigns for the population to buy local and organic products, allocating millions of dollars to companies such as (…) in public bids, such as school cafeterias or prison cafeterias?

We should not accept local food produced using pesticides or exploiting the rights of women workers, just as we cannot accept organic products that come thousands of miles away. Not even in the purchase of food for social assistance. Now that administrations are talking about food sovereignty, they need to understand that this paradigm can only go hand in hand with agroecological practices’.

The words of Gustavo Duch, a member of the El Pa Sencer cooperative that participates in AlterBanc, apply in Catalonia as they do throughout Europe. Where Green Public Procurement (GPP) often remains on paper, to give way to the behemoths with their own lobbyists who get tenders tailored to their needs. There is no shortage of examples, including in measures taken in recent months in Italy. We will return to this topic soon.

Dario Dongo

Cover photo David Aguinaga

Notes

(1) Laura Solé Martín. Resposta agroecòlogica a la pobresa alimentària. Directa. 29.7.20

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.