By Chris Arsenault
BRASILIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At an elementary school in Brazil's capital, students are not too concerned about who has produced their food as they tuck into an afternoon snack of pineapple and watermelon.
Nevertheless, they are among 45 million students benefiting from the world's biggest universal school feeding programme, whose meals are helping keep Brazil's small farmers on the land.
Family farmers and cooperatives have seen their fortunes rise as a result of the programme, which guarantees them a local market and has helped to expand formal land rights nationwide.
"Incomes have increased significantly because of it," Amanda Venturim, agricultural adviser to a cooperative of 56 small farmers outside Brasilia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The government makes a contract with us beforehand so farmers know how much food they need to produce and how much they will receive," said Venturim, standing beside vast grain elevators on the dry savannah land that surrounds the capital.
The cooperative has been selling food to the government for school meals for three years, she said, enabling farmers to invest in new equipment and to retain control of their land.
First developed in the 1950s, Brazil's school feeding initiative has expanded rapidly over the past decade as part of a successful push for "zero hunger" in Latin America's most populous country.
About a quarter of Brazilians receive free meals under the programme as it provides food to all of the country's students enrolled in government schools.
Brazil has about five million small farms, according to the U.N.'s Centre of Excellence Against Hunger in Brasilia. These farmers are some of the prime beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars of government spending on school meals.
A 2009 law stipulates that authorities must spend at least 30 percent of their school meal budget on produce from smallholder farmers.
At the elementary school in south Brasilia, nutritionist Sumara de Oliveira Santana said the law is helping farmers to stay on the land because it encourages local production.
"Smallholder farmers and local producers have priority when we buy food for the schools," Santana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as she supervised several dozen rowdy students during snack break.
For their part, the kids were not too concerned with the details of land politics.
"Pineapple is my favourite fruit for a snack," said seven-year-old Anderson Souza. "For lunch I like meat, but I don't know where all the food comes from."
Most of Brazil's food - about 70 percent of what's consumed in the country - comes from small farmers, according to the U.N.
About three-quarters of these small farms are owned by farmers who have official land title deeds, according to government data.
Access to a guaranteed market through the feeding programme allows small farmers to keep control of their land, Venturim said.
Farmers say they now know roughly how much they will be earning each year and can apply for credit and other government support due to their participation in the initiative.
It means they don't have to migrate to cities in search of work, unlike many farmers in the developing world who leave their land in the hopes of earning more in the city.
The programme also helps farmers make decisions on investing in new seeds or technology because they can plan ahead on what crops they will grow by liaising with nutritionists like Santana.
Across Brazil, more than one million small farms have no formal land title deeds, according to official data. These farmers simply occupy the land where they produce or live in settlements with no formal title, but even they benefit from the programme.
Having a direct relationships with the state through the school feeding programme helps small farmers and cooperatives to gain formal ownership over their land.
Many farmers who work with Venturim on the cooperative farm lease public land from the state, but they use their earnings from school meal contracts as a springboard to gain title deeds.
"We have a process going to receive final land titles," Venturim said. "Now, we have a concession, but we would rather be owners."
Formal title deeds can be difficult for small farmers to obtain; the process for formalising land claims has been criticised as expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic.
As Brazil is mired in political crisis and suffers its worst recession since the 1930s, analysts see the school feeding programme and its support for small farmers' land rights as a rare public policy bright spot.
"We believe this is an excellent example for other countries," Isadora Ferreira, a U.N. official who monitors the programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The link with smallholder farmers in unique."
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)