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‘Lunch Money Mafia’ Case Cracks Down on Students, Not Corruption

'Lunch Money Mafia' Case Cracks Down on Students, Not Corruption

Among the social benefits that Brazilian children can expect are provisions for their health and their schooling. Brazil’s constitution guarantees healthcare and education to its citizens. Furthermore, Brazilian law grants students the right to school meals. But it appears that the food benefits owed to children have been compromised as school administrators in São Paulo stand accused of shortchanging student meals for personal gain.

The alleged wrongdoers have been dubbed by locals as the “Máfia da Merenda,” or the “Lunch Money Mafia.” Investigations from state police and prosecutors have found that this so-called mafia overpaid food providers in exchange for bribes, according to the Los Angeles Times. So far, no criminal charges have been filed, but the graft is believed to have cost the schools millions of dollars, the Times reports. In addition to the increased costs, students have reported missing or insufficient food. According to news reports, there was “overwhelming evidence” that the food portions provided to students were smaller than standard.

This alleged corruption at the local level has sparked student protests. Students have taken turns occupying schools and other government buildings at all hours of the day. These protests have overtaken at least 14 schools. “They just can’t get away with robbing our education anymore,” 15-year-old student occupier Gabriel Rodrigo dos Santos told the Times. “All I have to eat at my school is crackers.”

Students, seeking to have their complaints heard, are demanding a special parliamentary inquiry. However, an investigation would need to be opened by the legislature, and any steps toward that process are complicated by the position of the lawmakers themselves. The Times notes that the state legislators needed to support such an inquiry may be involved in the corruption.

The student protests have led to state action, but against the students, not school officials. Police forcibly removed students from the buildings, executing a judicial order to reestablish the state’s control over the public buildings. Children as young as 13 years old were dragged from schools by police officers wearing riot gear. While the government has the right to ensure government property is clear of protesters, the steps taken to clear schools puts authorities in the unsympathetic position of treating hungry children like criminals.

The government now finds itself caught between two legal obligations that under normal circumstances should not be in conflict: the right that children have to school-provided meals and the social need to maintain order in government buildings. There is more at stake than missed school meals. The manner in which the government chooses to ultimately resolve this matter could affect the public’s perception of legal actions taken in future matters.