The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools in meat-loving rural Brazil went vegan. The community revolted.

Elione Mascarenhas dos Santos, 36, hands out the vegan equivalent of sloppy joes to students in the rural Brazilian town of Teofilandia. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

SERRINHA, Brazil — Squeezed into plastic chairs, hand fans going full tilt, hundreds of parents listened in the summer heat. The planet was in big trouble, they were told, and the time had come for their community in rural Brazil to do something about it.

The messenger wasn’t one of their own. She spoke with the hard r’s of the wealthier southeast, not the lilting cadence of Bahia, one of the poorest states in Brazil. But what Leticia Baird had to tell the parents was even more striking: Here in meat-producing, meat-eating, meat-loving Brazil, the schools were going vegan.

Baird, a prosecutor in the Bahia state public ministry, had persuaded four municipalities anchoring this dusty landscape of cactuses and farmland to swap out animal protein for plant protein at all public schools. By the end of 2019, only plant-based meals would be served to the area’s more than 33,000 students.

“To preserve the environment for the present and for future generations, we need to take additional measures,” she declared. “Including changing our own habits.”

It’s a surprising paradox of life here: Brazil, the world’s No. 1 exporter of beef a country where cows outnumber people, and a party isn’t a party without a barbecue — also has one of the highest rates of vegetarianism.

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In the past decade, amid mounting awareness of the repercussions of humanity’s meat addiction — from growing rates of obesity to the deforestation of the Amazon — the number of Brazilians who consider themselves vegetarian has nearly doubled, from 8 percent of the population to 14 percent in 2018, according to surveys. By some measures, only India, with its cultural and religious traditions of vegetarianism, has a higher rate.

The carnivores and the herbivores mostly coexist harmoniously, if discordantly. Near the churrascaria sits the vegan sushi shop. In Rio de Janeiro, Burger King rents billboards to tout its newest offering: A plant-based patty with the “flavor and texture of meat.”

But the meeting of meat and health food, conservative tradition and liberal environmentalism would play out differently here in the northeastern state of Bahia, where people eat meat because that’s what people have always eaten.

There would be threats. Furious parents. A battle over science. Eventually, the federal government would get involved.

But before all of that, there was Baird, trying to establish the consequences of inaction before hundreds of parents. The health of children was on the line. The planet was facing an ecological crisis.

“How are we going to resolve this?” she asked.

An exotic food had been set out on a table: Jars of organic peanut butter. Parents inspected it with suspicion.

‘This isn’t some fad. It’s happening.’

There’s a question that Baird won’t stop asking.

“Why not? Why not try?” she asked. “The forest is burning, and the water is harder to get to, and the public health — these are very big things. So why not?”

Driving to a nut-butter producer offering an alternative protein source for schools, she shook her head.

In a rural environment, she asked, with little money and even less water, why not remove meat, a product that required a lot of both? In a region where kids suffered from high rates of obesity, why not help them become a bit healthier? Why not save the community some money in medical costs?

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She stared out the window at the desolate expanse of endless brown and tan. She was from Mato Grosso do Sul in southern Brazil, which unfurled like a green blanket, but this was home now. After moving to Bahia in 2011, she met her husband, took a prosecutor job monitoring community health and discovered what she thought was the key to sustainable living.

She’d always eaten like a southern Brazilian — lots of breads, meats and cakes. But after coming to Bahia, where the culture was defined by descendants of West African slaves, she found a completely different cuisine, one based on roots such as yuca and yam. All the nutrients she’d ever need were right there, from vegetables — and she wanted to share the news with others.

“I’m now trying to cut out gluten, too,” she said.

While she navigated a personal journey to a healthier lifestyle, Brazil was in the midst of its own. By 2015 — even as obesity and diabetes surged — it had become the fifth-largest market for healthful food in the world. Surveys showed 3 out of 4 people not only wanted to reduce their animal-product consumption, they also admired those who did. That set Brazil apart from most Western countries, where, among groups that face prejudice, only drug addicts are liked less than vegans and vegetarians, according to at least one study.

“At first I couldn’t believe [the numbers] because there wasn’t any public policy promoting vegans,” said Mônica Buava, campaign manager at the Brazilian Vegetarian Society. “But this isn’t some fad. It’s happening.”

It’s happening in the business community: “There is still unmet demand,” the Good Food Institute reported recently.

It’s happening in the country’s urban enclaves: “There is a growing perception,” said Semiramis Domene, a professor of public policy and health at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, “that food choices are a political act — as in, ‘I can influence food product chains.’ ”

And it was happening in the rural northeast, where Baird was puttering down dusty roads outside Serrinha, closing in on the home-run operation of an organic peanut butter producer.

“Why not?” she repeated.

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Ariane Souza Santiago Silva could think of a few reasons why not. An intense 32-year-old woman, she directs the Serrinha chapter of the Council of School Food, and from the start, Baird’s sustainable eating program had irritated her. To Santiago, it hadn’t been a choice, but “an imposition.”

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.

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It wasn’t that Santiago didn’t want children to eat more healthfully, or to save public money. It was a question of identity. What Serrinha is and what it is not. And this food, with its exotic ingredients and protein alternatives, wasn’t Serrinha.

“It’s a culture here,” Santiago said. “And this shows a lack of respect for our culture. [Baird] isn’t of Bahia. She’s not of the Northeast.”

Santiago started to investigate. As vegan food overtook the schools — first one, then two, then three days a week — she and four other women fanned out across the region. They visited 48 schools and day-care centers, she says, snapping photographs and interviewing 55 students, 25 parents and numerous lunchroom cooks.

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.

“It’s an absurdity!” said Jucineide Santos, 42, a chicken and sheep farmer. She says her 12-year-old daughter often returned home from school hungry, having refused to eat.

“Most of the products are peanuts! They make milk with peanuts. What is that?”

Food wasted, kids hungry: An attempt to save public resources, Santiago said, seemed only to be wasting more of them. She typed out a report declaring the new food hadn’t been “accepted by the school community.”

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By then, she’d alerted the local Regional Council of Nutritionists in the state capital of Salvador, which also came down hard on the program. “Risky,” it called the initiative. “Not compatible with the regional reality.”

The Federal Council of Nutritionists took it even further: “It could compromise the development of schoolchildren.”

Baird produced a lengthy rebuttal to the criticisms, enumerating the benefits of a vegan diet, listing the dozens of studies that she believed would prove her points. But it was too late. The National Fund for Educational Development, the agency that oversees school meals, was threatening to suspend funding if local mayors removed animal products every day of the week.

The battle of vegan food had reached a stalemate.

'A good fight is a good one'

Was it too much, too soon? Was it the flavor of the food?

Baird drove deep into the countryside one recent day to inspect the quality of the vegan meals at a rural school. Until recently, the cafeteria had been serving vegan food three days a week. But it scaled back to two days after the federal threat.

On the menu were soy-based sloppy joes and oranges, and students were lining up to get their share. The children tore into the food, eating all of the sandwiches, laughing and joking. It wasn’t the hellish experience that the program’s critics described.

But it still wasn’t ideal, some young food critics said.

“It doesn’t have much flavor, soy,” said one student, Alan Delon.

“It’s good,” insisted Leticia Silva Santos, a schoolmate. “It’s healthy, and I eat everything. It’s better for nature, too.”

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Baird walked past the throng of students eating, proud of what she saw. The teachers had told her they were on her side. So were the school’s administrators. And the mayors. Even the students seemed to be coming around.

People here — they wanted kids to be healthy. They wanted to do what they could to save nature. She just knew it.

Even if the rollout had been delayed, vegan food was the way forward. By the end of next year, she vowed, the students would be eating vegan food four out of five school days. She hoped that would keep the feds happy.

It wasn’t over yet.

“A good fight is a good one,” she said.

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Percentage of Brazilians who consider themselves vegetarian in 2018, which has nearly doubled, from 8 percent, according to surveys