The Crusade Against Hunger and the Persistence of Poverty

SINHAMBRE (National Crusade Against Hunger) continues the historic anti-democratic approaches to anti-poverty policy by taking a charity-based approach that excludes workers, consumers, and campesinos from the decision-making process.

April 29, 2014


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The logos of SEdESOL, SINHAMbRE, and Pepsico, partners in the war against hunger.

As the press reported the latest news about Mexico’s twin scourge of malnutrition and obesity, few discussed the historical and structural causes of this “news.” Instead, the media reports of nearly one in three adults suffering from obesity while at least one in four suffered from malnutrition were framed as though the problem lay in the poor choices made by individuals and not in the acceleration of neoliberal policies that detrimentally impact the working class and the poor. This faulty framing of Mexico’s food problems shapes policy approaches that perpetuate the problems they are meant to resolve.

When President Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) took office he promised to address Mexico’s ills and unite the country behind economic growth and renewed prosperity. Most analysts recognized that this meant combining on a grand scale the well-worn tactics of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI: populism, cronyism, and neoliberalism. Indeed, none of EPN’s policies reflect this political approach better than his National Crusade Against Hunger (SINHAMBRE or CNCH). This seemingly aggressive strategy to address the hunger of millions has been fraught with controversy, and does little to address the root causes of hunger and obesity.

Instead SINHAMBRE continues the historic anti-democratic approaches to anti-poverty policy by taking a charity-based approach that excludes workers, consumers, and campesinos from the decision-making process. The persistence of technocratic solutions may help families in the short-term, but are really aimed at subordinating working communities to political parties and the logic of the market.

On January 22, 2013, just a month after taking office, President Peña Nieto announced his National Crusade Against Hunger. Modeled on Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s Zero Hunger policy, the plan, according to its official decree, “is a strategy of inclusion and social welfare that will be implemented through a broad and far-reaching participatory process to eliminate hunger through adequate nutrition for those considered poor through a multidimensional analysis of poverty, eliminate infant malnutrition and improve height and weight indicators of children, increase production of foods and income of campesinos and small producers, minimize loss of food after harvest, and increase public participation in the eradication of hunger.” With the dynamic and controversial Secretary of Social Development (SEDESOL) Rosario Robles—a one-time president of the center-left PRD—leading the efforts, it aims to be a signature policy of the early years of the Peña Nieto government.

One of the program’s first actions was to mount a public relations campaign through the arts to document and publicize the dimensions of hunger in Mexico. At a concert in Mexico City in March sponsored by SINHAMBRE, Paco Familiar from the popular band DLD shouted to the audience, “To eat is a pleasure but nutrition is a basic need for all of us. It is a universal right so raise your voice and be a part of history, of the evolution of this country. Let’s end hunger.” In Summer 2013, the photo exhibit, “México sin Hambre,” at the National Center of the Arts (Cenart), presented images that document hunger and malnutrition in Mexico. Through the public relations campaign, the government says it hopes to mobilize middle class Mexicans to comprehend the realities of hunger and donate sympathy, time, and food.

Another assumption of SINHAMBRE is that the country’s food does not get to the truly needy because of inefficiency. Therefore SINHAMBRE seeks to address post-harvest food wastage as a way of combating food hunger. In her short documentary film on the Central Market in Mexico City, which won first place at SINHAMBRE’s film festival, Monserrat Vásquez Díaz highlights the fact that 31 million tons of vegetables and fruits are thrown out on a daily basis. In September, the Secretariat of Social Development cited a study that shows “on average 37.44% of the 34 items in Mexico’s basic food basket are wasted in the post-harvest food chain.” A similar point was made by Robles’s predecessor, Heriberto Félix Guerra, who argued that if the 30,000 tons of food that supermarkets and restaurants waste daily could be diverted, it would be “enough to feed Mexico’s 20 million nutrition poor.” Government agencies are working on a plan to recapture the wastage.

SINHAMBRE also has targeted 400 of Mexico’s most isolated and poor municipalities in the fight against hunger and nutritional poverty. SINHAMBRE seeks to address the problems of isolation through better integration of government policies and the market in these communities. It also seeks, through the coordination of the various government programs in the crusade, to ensure that services are provided. In addition, these communities receive attention of other programs carried out in collaboration with the private sector. As of November, the CNCH reports having distributed cards to 250,000 families that entitle them to receive a package of 13 food items at the reduced cost of 638 pesos (about $60) at DICONSA stores. The CNCH reports that nearly 600 new stores have been opened as well as nearly 600 community kitchens. After 10 months, SINHAMBRE proclaimed its actions an unqualified success.1

But while SINHAMBRE is publicizing the existence of hunger and food waste in Mexico and providing services to selected communities, it is not attacking the causes and is, in fact, reinforcing structural inequalities. The government’s broader neoliberal reforms that have ravaged the countryside continue unabated. Peasants continue being forced from the land through the government policies of promoting export crops and cutting subsidies to campesinos. SINHAMBRE does not address these issues in a manner that strengthens local production and consumption of healthy foods. Critics point to the fact that there are no attempts to use locally sourced food for government programs and that DICONSA’s subsidized food basket for 2014 does not include any fresh fruits or vegetables. These policies have been devastating to rural communities and Mexico’s working classes. 

For many, the motives of SINHAMBRE became apparent when, in April, SEDESOL contracted with PepsiCo and Nestlé to join the SINHAMBRE campaign. PepsiCo agreed to “help develop products to combat malnutrition, help develop sustainable projects in the areas SINHAMBRE is working, and support the donation of Quaker products for the well-being of people in these communities.” Nestlé was to make fortified puddings and provide recipes using Nestlé products. Needless to say, many have pointed out the bitter irony of the fact that the government was enlisting the very same transnational companies that have been seen as part of the problem.

After EPN announced SINHAMBRE, EZLN spokesman Subcomandante Marcos sent a public communiqué “to Alí Baba and his 40 thieves (governors, heads of government, and boot lickers) stating that we do not find the words to express our feeling about your Crusade against Hunger, here it is without words…” A drawing of a middle finger followed. In his postscript Marcos referred to the crusade as a repetition of Salinas de Gortari’s infamous PRONASOL that consolidated government social programs and was used by the PRI to win elections. 


SINHAMBRE’s politicized and corporate approach to anti-poverty policy has deep roots. Emiliano Zapata’s cry of “Tierra y Libertad” was never fully embraced by governments ruling in the name of the revolution. During the more progressive Cárdenas administration (1934-40), the state set up a network of programs to help small producers and members of cooperative farming collectives, or ejidos; however these fell into the control of local party bosses who used them for political patronage. The result was a set of policies that spurred a protected capitalist agriculture and industrial food and marketing systems that enriched a few and left the many behind.

With the economic crisis of the 1980s and World Bank and IMF prescriptions for economic growth, policymakers shunned subsidizing small farmers and campesinos. Instead they urged the privatization of the ejido and fostered the growth of private export-oriented enterprises without much thought to the social costs. The result was a growth in food dependency in Mexico’s basic grains. According to Laura Carlson, “Before NAFTA, the country spent 1.8 billion dollars on food imports, it now spends a whopping 24 billion dollars.” This amounts to approximately 80% of Mexico’s rice, 95% of its soybeans, 40% of its corn, 33% of its beans, and 56% of its wheat coming from imports, a significant increase from the previous decade.2 At the same time the export-oriented agriculture, dominated by larger private interests, boomed. For example, between 1990 and 2010, the value of tomatoes and avocados as a share of national agricultural production doubled to nearly 10% of total production.3 These shifts towards export-oriented agriculture have had detrimental consequences for rural Mexicans.

At the same time, economic liberalization and Mexico’s deepening integration into the world economy led to the cutting of social programs, which were consolidated and targeted to the “truly needy.” The result was a leaner social sector that could not adequately address the fallout from Mexico’s economic restructuring, including the decline of higher-wage unionized and public-sector jobs in exchange for lower-wage maquiladora factory work. Consequently, growing economic inequality and a decline in real wages has wreaked havoc with workers’ diets. According to government figures, 27.4 million Mexicans suffer from nutritional poverty, roughly the same amount as in 2000.4 Real wages plummeted in the 1980s by nearly 50% and continued to fall over the next two decades. By 2010, Mexico’s real minimum wage was 30% of its 1980 amount, 47% for federal employees, and 80% for industrial workers.5 By the end of 2011, nearly two-thirds of Mexico’s formal employees earned less than 180 pesos a day ($13.25), with wages even worse for that majority of the Mexican workforce unable to find employment in the formal sector and who therefore must work in informal jobs.

Coupled with persistent hunger, one-third of Mexicans suffer from a modern junk food diet. The combination of “free” trade, food dependency, and the rise of cheap, nutritionally poor foods have transformed the diets of poor and working class Mexicans as traditional food consumption declines. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food concluded that Mexico’s “trade policies…favor an increased reliance on heavily processed and refined foods, with a long shelf life, which does not favor the consumption of fresh and more perishable foods, particularly fruits and vegetables.”6 Consequently, obesity is at epidemic proportions and diabetes-related diseases are Mexico’s top cause of death at the same time that a quarter of the population does not have enough to eat. 

SINHAMBRE emerges at a time of significant social upheaval and popular calls for deep structural changes to address inequality. Thus far it seems to be a more aggressive version of traditional neoliberal social programs that seek to co-opt critics while avoiding deeper structural changes and continuing to exclude workers and campesinos from the discussion. These voices are difficult to ignore as they have been mobilizing to address historic inequities. Many Mexicans are increasingly questioning the quality of the food they eat and some even refuse to call it food, as the cartoonist Rius indicates in The Trash we Eat.

The “Sin Maíz no Hay País” (Without Corn There is no Country) movement, comprising numerous campesino, indigenous, and consumer groups are at the forefront of the fight against hunger and for nutritious food. Among its guiding principles is the concept of food sovereignty, or in the words of food activist Peter Rosset, “the right of the people to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant.” Over a period of several months in 2007 and 2008, the movement demonstrated in the nation’s capital, often recovering public spaces and planting corn in the middle of roads, parks, and public gardens. They called on the government to make food sovereignty the central column of a new agricultural policy that would both ensure the right of all Mexicans to food and that would value and stimulate campesino agriculture.

In response to these campaigns and to international pressure, Mexico amended its Constitution in August 2011 to explicitly recognize the right to food. The amendment states, “Every person has the right to adequate food to maintain his or her wellbeing and physical, emotional and intellectual development. The state must guarantee this right.” In addition, Article 27 of the Constitution was amended to strengthen sustainable and integrated rural development by making sure that “the state guarantees sufficient and timely supply of basic foods.” Such changes recognize the long struggle of peasants and grassroots organizations. However, without implementation strategies these are laws without teeth. The campesino organization, UNORCA, drafted a proposal calling for the right of food to be a top priority of the government budget “with the aim of recovering food sovereignty.” This would include the establishment of a Mexican food institute as an autonomous public agency charged with “guaranteeing a healthy, adequate, and quality diet that fills the nutritional needs of the population.”

Enrique Peña Nieto’s SINHAMBRE crusade effectively ignores these efforts and the voices of working people throughout Mexico. Government programs are focused on providing food to the poor from large companies without efforts to systematically source a minimum proportion of food from local small-scale farmers at a minimum guaranteed price. Instead, government policies reinforce the historic structural inequalities and exclude workers and campesinos from the decision-making process.



1. “Informativo Sin Hambre no. 2,” Secretaría de Desarrollo Social, (November 2013)

2. Laura Carlson, “NAFTA is Starving Mexico,” Americas Program (Center for International Policy, October 10, 2011),

3. Data compiled and calculated from the Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera (SIAP) of the Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganaderia, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca, y Alimentación (SAGARPA),

4. Ruben Aguilar Valenzuela, “La pobreza extrema en México,” El Economista (Mar 5, 2010)

5. Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui, “The Fragile Rise of Bourgeois Hegemony and the Neoliberal State in Mexico,” Socialist Studies/Éstudes socialistes 7(1/2) (Spring/Fall 2011): 238-258.

6. Olivier De Schutter, “End of Mission in Mexico,” Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food,” (June 20, 2011).



Enrique C. Ochoa is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. His publications include Feeding Mexico: The Political Uses of Food Since 1910 (2000), and Latina/o Los Angeles: Migrations, Communities, and Political Activism (co-editor, 2005). 



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