Case Studies, Systems Thinking

In Brazil, the social gastronomy movement expands to home kitchens

Key Takeaways

  • Challenge deep-seated inequalities: Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and food insecurity is a challenge. Gastromotiva recognized this long before the COVID-19 pandemic started. It pioneered the social gastronomy movement, which uses the power of food and the tools of gastronomy to address social challenges.
  • Harness the passion, skills, and knowledge of chefs: Gastromotiva has trained a network of professional cooks through its education programs. The organization called on their culinary skills and community knowledge for the Solidary Kitchens project.
  • Reimagine how food systems work and who they serve: Gastromotiva’s approach combines capacity building, youth entrepreneurship, and an innovative, decentralized model of food distribution where cooks feed thousands of vulnerable people in the communities they themselves live in and know.
  • Be agile to change: Like the other Beacons of Hope, Gastromotiva demonstrated tremendous resilience and creativity in the face of COVID-19. Solidary Kitchens utilizes the resources of the organization and the skills of its alumni to create an effective, place-based food systems response.

Introduction

There’s nothing quite like sharing a meal with friends and neighbours. For most, the experience of breaking bread has looked different since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Some are able to prepare their meals at home, and ready their cups for a ‘cheers’ shared over video call. But in every city around the world—and as detailed in our analysis piece this month—there are those who are consistently failed by the food systems we have created; those who face food insecurity, rising rates of malnutrition, and empty shelves. 

Brazil is one example of this social inequality and food insecurity. The country has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality and, in cities like Rio de Janeiro, significant gaps exist between the most affluent neighbourhoods in the South Zone and the surrounding favelas (slums). This includes unequal access to nutritious meals.

It’s in this context that the idea of cooking for neighbours has come to be redefined during the pandemic—this time, in a more positive light. Since the end of March, home cooks across Rio de Janeiro have opened their kitchens to prepare food for thousands of their neighbours as part of the Solidary Kitchens project. It’s an innovative example of public food infrastructure in action. 

Unlike traditional top-down approaches that identify ‘beneficiaries,’ the Solidary Kitchens project takes a decentralized, place-based food systems approach, and it’s the cooks themselves who identify where meals are needed the most. This is an important acknowledgement of their unique role and sense of belonging within their communities. 

For many of these professional cooks, social inclusion and food solidarity have been an ingredient in their cooking since they first learned the trade. The home cooks have each been involved with Gastromotiva, a global initiative and non-profit organization headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. 

Gastromotiva and the social gastronomy movement

Founded in 2006 by Brazilian chef and entrepreneur David Hertz, Gastromotiva pioneered the social gastronomy movement, taking aim at the inequalities that exist in Rio de Janeiro and the other cities where it works.

“Social gastronomy is a human-centred solution that uses the power of food and the tools of gastronomy to address some of the most complex issues in our society: poor nutrition, food waste, poverty, and social inequality,” explained David in a 2018 interview

Social gastronomy is connected to the idea of food solidarity—recognizing that our food system needs to fundamentally change so that people worldwide have equitable and universal access to healthy food.

Capacity building and empowerment programs are one of the ways in which Gastromotiva addresses food solidarity. The organization offers free cooking skills training for marginalized youth in low income communities, including an entry-level course for those without previous kitchen experience. A second program focuses on social entrepreneurship, equipping small food entrepreneurs in underprivileged communities with business management skills and support to develop their own culinary idea. Today, these education programs are run in partnership with private universities that generously open their doors to Gastromotiva students.

According to David, food and cooking skills really can be tools for social change. “Social inclusion requires education, because education leads to job opportunities which can help you provide for your family, but it also means you’re known by society, you’re recognized as a citizen,” he told TED Ideas in 2018.

“This education and gastronomy for social change have been part of our DNA for more than 15 years,” adds Winnee Louise, Gastromotiva’s Coordinator of Social Impact. “This is the topic under which all our other programs are connected.”

Creating a communal canteen

Education met outreach in 2016 when the organization launched Refettorio Gastromotiva. Opened just months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the canteen brings food, culture, and dignity to the city’s vulnerable residents. 

Refettorio Gastromotiva is part of a global network of communal canteens. The premise was conceived by Food for Soul, an Italian NGO that has teamed up with social organizations in Paris, Milan, London, and Bologna to operate similar social gastronomy ventures. 

Part communal restaurant, part cooking school, Refettorio Gastromotiva’s canteen is staffed by students enrolled in Gastromotiva’s professional culinary course. It’s also a place where community members can dine for free each lunch hour and dinnertime. “The population that is served includes people who live on the streets or who take refuge in any of the social institutions from the municipality of Rio de Janeiro,” expands Winnee. 

Demand for Gastromotiva’s nutritious meals remained high when COVID-19 began, though the communal dining experience had to be paused and reimagined. Gastromotiva launched its latest project in response: Solidary Kitchens.

Food for one, food for all

The Solidary Kitchens are a creative remix of Gastromotiva’s 14 years of social impact efforts. Harnessing the culinary skills and social networks of its students and alumni—and building on the social inclusion values of the organization—the project encourages chefs to transform their home kitchens into communal canteens. 

“It’s really a guerrilla home kitchen,” explains Ellen Gonzalez, the Solidary Kitchens coordinator. “There were some colleagues who knew very little about being in a professional kitchen, but still decided to enlist in the war.” 

With just three home cooks involved at the end of March, Ellen joined the organization in May and brought that number to 50 operating kitchens by July. Now, around 87,000 meals are served each month, with more than 500,000 meals served as of December 2020. The canteens offer a successful example of public food infrastructure and decentralization at a time when access to nutritious meals can be concentrated among socio-economic lines. 

Each cook prepares an average of 300 meals per week, but sometimes their contributions go well beyond. “Some go crazy and prepare 600 meals and ask us for more ingredients. It happens because they’re cooking seven days a week and are seeing how many people are dependent on this,” says Ellen. 

Gastromotiva offers a range of support for its Solidary Kitchens: everything from helping cooks buy larger pots and pans to working with a nutritionist to develop recipe suggestions. The organization covers the cost of ingredients and sustainable packaging, which chefs pick up on a weekly basis. Home chefs also receive a monthly aid from Gastromotiva and are reimbursed for their transportation costs. A dynamic WhatsApp group serves as a platform to exchange ideas and hints, such as how to reduce food waste by using the peels, roots, and leaves of vegetables. 

While Gastromotiva provides these inputs, each cook brings their own skills and motivations for opening their home as a Solidary Kitchen. 

“These people were seeing the community they live in getting more and more fragile because people were losing jobs, and they saw critical increases in food insecurity,” says Ellen. Most cooks live outside the affluent districts of Rio de Janeiro and witnessed the crisis unfold before their eyes. 

Importantly, the alumni themselves decide where and how to distribute the prepared meals. This is a testament to the diversity of favelas and other underprivileged neighbourhoods, where, although many struggle with poverty, there are always those willing to lend a helping hand and share a nourishing meal.

A couple of alumni cook in Maré, a well known favela in Rio; others go to Cracolândia, a neighbourhood associated with high levels of drug activity and homelessness. Others distribute in churches or orphanages, despite not having a formal relationship with those establishments. Anywhere in the city where they see a need. 

Keeping food solidarity on the menu

The Solidary Kitchens started in response to the pandemic, but Gastromotiva intends for the approach to continue alongside Refettorio Gastromotiva in the future. 

Ellen, the project coordinator, says 30 cooks have been selected for phase two of the project, where they will be given additional support and mentorship to operate their kitchen as a social enterprise and determine who is dependent on the meals. It all connects back to Gastromotiva’s long-standing values: using education and the power of food to create a more inclusive and equitable society.