The government’s austerity measures haven’t stopped officials at one federal agency from dining well on the public purse.
The National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) paid a catering company more than 15 million pesos (US $787,500) to provide gourmet meals for staff even as its scientific research centers face budget cuts that threaten their capacity to pay basic expenses.
According to a contract posted to a government transparency website, Conacyt hired Pigudi Gastronómico to provide daily, mainly organic, low-fat, low-sugar breakfasts and lunches for 120 employees at its Mexico City office from April 22 to December 31.
Meals must be prepared exclusively with “high-quality organic products and/or agro-ecological products without toxins that are purchased from agricultural producers of the region,” the contract said.
Among the authorized ingredients are high-quality red meat; organic pork (not to be served more than once a month); fish including salmon, red snapper and sea bass; organic chicken; wild rice; organic apple vinegar; 100% natural juices; organic whole grains; tortillas made with creole corn; and organic coffee (to be made only with almond or organic milk).
The contract also specifies that the contracted company must cater for vegetarians and people with food allergies by providing a range of salads and gluten-free bread among other options.
The use of canned food in the preparation of meals or products containing high-fructose corn syrup or MSG is strictly off limits.
As part of the lucrative agreement, Pigudi supplies kitchen staff including a head chef, wait staff to serve the meals and a nutritionist who designs the menu to ensure that it is balanced and healthy.
The company was the only bidder in a public tendering process, the newspaper El Universal reported, adding that it also provided 25 million pesos’ worth of catering services to the previous federal government.
Revelations of the science council’s extravagant spending on catering coincide with news that public research centers are struggling to pay basic expenses such as electricity as a result of a 12% – or almost 3-billion peso (US $157.5-million) – cut to the Conacyt budget.
Director María Elena Álvarez-Buylla has pledged that Conacyt will “do more with less” but there is evidence that suggests that outcome is unlikely.
Conacyt’s funding to a range of public organizations, including the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Mexican Society of Mathematics, has been slashed or deferred, and 27 public research centers under the auspices of the science council are implementing their own forced austerity measures in response to cuts.
Starting today, a technology center in Jalisco will enforce a strict 5:00pm closing time for researchers and prohibit the use of air conditioners among a range of measures aimed at cutting electricity costs.
Another Conacyt research center in Ensenada, Baja California, says that maintenance of the northeast earthquake monitoring network in Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit is at risk due to budget cuts.
“. . . With the reduction of travel expenses, we will not have the means to carry out revisions of the 95 monitoring stations,” said researcher Carmen Maya.
Alberto Aziz, a researcher at a social anthropology Conacyt center, said that cutting the funding for health, education, science and research is only something that “neoliberal governments do,” echoing a criticism of President López Obrador’s administration that was made by the chief of the Mexican Social Security Institute when announcing his resignation last week.
López Obrador describes the 36 years before he came to power as the “neoliberal period,” a time during which he says Mexico’s governments were corrupt and caused all manner of problems for the nation and its institutions.
After winning last year’s election on a strong anti-corruption platform, the president vowed to execute a “transformation” of public life in Mexico, which he says includes honest governance, “republican austerity” and a commitment “for the good of all” to attend to the needs of the nation’s poor first.