In Brazil, eating is an act of resistance

After the two worst economic crises in the country's history, millions of Brazilians do not know how they will be able to feed their families

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

Brazil is enduring an epidemic that is even more dangerous than the coronavirus — and which has been around for a lot longer: hunger. Less than ten years since the country successfully managed to scrub its name off the United Nations’ Hunger Map, increasing inequality and pandemic woes have seen Brazil take huge steps backward in its fight to ensure food security for its citizens. In fact, 36 out of every 100 Brazilians currently do not have enough food to eat at least one meal a day.

Doctor and historian Josué de Castro, Brazil’s leading theorist on hunger, argued that the problem is endemic to the country. Unlike in other nations, hunger in Brazil is not linked to war or crisis, it simply occurs, as the result of acute wealth concentration and inaction from the state. Indeed, it is a chronic malady. 

In 1968, at the beginning of the so-called “economic miracle,” when Brazil’s economy began growing in an accelerated (and artificial) manner, hunger was so widespread that magazine Realidade published an experiment on the topic. Reporters ventured into the field on a rural road in Pernambuco state and stopped the first person they came across.

That person was José Juvenal da Silva, a 61-year-old waste-picker. The journalists asked if they could take him to a health center to run some tests on his physical condition. He accepted but warned his new acquaintances that he was in perfect shape and never got sick.

However, the tests showed that Juvenal was severely malnourished. Standing at just over 5 feet 1 inch tall, he weighed just 79 pounds — 61 percent below the ideal body weight for his height. Juvenal was hungry and this made him anemic and caused severe damage to his liver. He also suffered from schistosomiasis and other infections caused by parasitic microorganisms.

Indeed, Juvenal should have been hospitalized immediately, but the health center had no vacant beds. Doctors sent him on his way with a pat on the back and a free sample of medicine. Juvenal died at the end of that year.

Stories such as this one are so common that they almost go unnoticed, rarely making the news. Today, more than half a century since the article, Brazil is still facing the tragic situation of seeing its citizens die of hunger.

At the beginning of 2022, Brazil revolted after the death of Congolese refugee Moïse Kabagambe, murdered at a beachside kiosk in Rio de Janeiro. In the wake of the horrific incident, journalist Caio Barreto Briso — who knew Moïse while he was still alive — took to Twitter to tell the story of one of the murdered refugee’s friends: a man named Luta Espoir Babou, who came to Brazil with the dream of becoming a professional footballer, but ended up unemployed. 

Luta had a son in Brazil, who he named Vencedor — “winner” in Portuguese. Before he even grew to become a toddler, Vencedor died from malnutrition. The family only had enough money to buy a traditional fine corn flour known as fubá, which has little to no nutritional value.

In the 1960s, the mortality rate of children under five was 164 deaths for every 1,000 newborns in Brazil’s Northeast, the country’s poorest region.

As Realidade magazine explained at the time, babies were able to survive their first year of life thanks to breastfeeding and their relative lack of movement or physical exertion. In the second year, they were typically fed with water and cassava flour. “Therefore, they soon died of starvation, or complications in their liver or intestines,” read the article.

A lack of nutrients can stunt childhood development. In 2020, 4,000 died from malnutrition.
A lack of nutrients can stunt childhood development. In 2020, 4,000 died from malnutrition. [Photo: Tiago Rodrigues]

Since then, Brazil appeared to be fixing the problem, with many declaring that high levels of infant mortality were a thing of the past. However, after the country’s recent economic crisis in 2014-2016, the rate of childhood death stopped falling for the first time in decades.

Out of every three Brazilian children, one has iron deficiency anemia, according to a study from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, published in July of last year.

Around 4 percent of Brazilian children are affected by malnutrition. In 2020, this caused the death of 4,000 youngsters under nine years old, according to figures from DataSUS. The majority of cases occurred in Brazil’s North and Northeast regions.

As it is in Luta’s home, fubá flour is also the main source of food for the family of Ivânia Sousa, a waste-picker who lived a stone’s throw away from the Planalto Palace, the seat of the Brazilian government in Brasília. Ivânia, her husband, and their three children have gone without anything to eat several times, despite living so close to the richest center in the country.

Half a kilo of fubá costs around BRL 3 (USD 0.64). Before being consumed, it must be steamed, which makes the grains swell. As a result, a plate of fubá will fill a human’s stomach but its lack of nutrients provides a false sense of satiety. Ivânia’s family eats fubá every day. And when there’s no kibble, the family dog Cleitinho will also be served a bowl of the ubiquitous corn flour.

During the pandemic, Ivânia’s family and 30 others set up dwellings made of logs and tarpaulin on a piece of public land that has been out of use for 40 years. The camp is situated on the few kilometers that separate the Planalto Palace and the Alvorada Palace, where President Jair Bolsonaro resides.

Last year, footage of Brazilian inequality made its way onto the front pages of newspapers around the world. Rio de Janeiro outlet Extra published photographs of families scrounging for scraps of bones and flesh on the back of a truck carrying discarded meat. “We clean the bones and put the meat scraps aside. Using the bones, we make soup, we put them in rice, in beans … After frying, we save the fat to use to make our food,” one woman told the newspaper.

Meat consumption in Brazil is going down, even among middle-class families. Indeed, beef consumption is often a de facto gauge of Brazil’s economic activity. In recent years, millions of families have swapped out beef for chicken, and then chicken for eggs. The price of a kilo of beef has tripled over the past decade.

To try and attract the attention of the president and other officials driving by in front of their camp, Ivânia got together with her neighbors to make banners and placards to stage a protest. “He never once stopped his car. I don’t think he even looked at us,” she says.

The camp was dismantled in April of 2021, during one of the most critical points of the Covid pandemic in Brazil. Each family was sent to a different place, and the president’s view on his way to work was once again unobstructed.

Today, Ivânia and her family live in a pokey home in Itapoã, some 20 minutes from the center of Brasília. The house is joined to a series of other low-income dwellings, and privacy is almost non-existent. There are no windows, the ceilings are low, and the interior becomes stiflingly hot in the Brasília sun. The kitchen is so dark that it must be illuminated at all times, even in the middle of the day. Two of Ivânia’s children sleep on an old mattress beside the refrigerator.

Ivânia receives food donations from people who were left moved by the story of their land occupation near the Planalto Palace, and these handouts keep her family going. However, as she depends on the goodwill of others, Ivânia never knows when food is going to arrive, or whether it will be enough to keep her family alive.

The level of insecurity in the Sousa household is common across the country. Roughly 36 percent of Brazilians don’t have enough money to eat three meals a day (which is above the global average of 35 percent), according to a new study published by think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas this week. The rate sat at 17 percent in 2014. 

Among the poor, the rate of people who face some level of food insecurity has reached 75 percent.

Roughly 19 million Brazilians are haunted by severe food insecurity every day. The pandemic went some way toward aggravating the situation, as was shown by the National Inquiry into Food Insecurity in the Context of the Covid Pandemic in Brazil, developed by Rede Penssan, a food security research network.

This translates into a total of 116 million people — just shy of the entire population of Japan — who, like Ivânia, may be forced to go for long periods without food. And, if they are able to eat, they typically have access to food in meager quantities, with no variety, and of poor nutritional value.

Ivânia had to abandon her waste-picking job due to health problems. She suffers from obesity, as well as spinal problems, depression, anxiety disorder, and she recently discovered potentially cancerous tumors on her breasts. One day after The Brazilian Report met with Ivânia, she had an appointment for tests at a public health facility. Each test takes weeks to be scheduled, and as her condition could deteriorate rapidly, this fills her with fear and sadness.

Recent studies have shown that low-income people are up to three times more likely to suffer from mental illness or commit suicide. It is a vicious cycle, by which poverty leads to depression and anxiety, which then affect labor opportunities and quality of life, increasing the chance that the person in question will remain impoverished. In countries with successful programs to fight poverty, rates of mental disorders are generally lower.

Moreover, the lack of essential nutrients on a regular basis can cause medium- and long-term health problems. Ivânia is all too aware of this, and weeps when describing the difficulty in ensuring varied meals for her children, who are still in the growing phase. Choking back tears, she says she thinks of herself as a bad mother.

Diets that lack nutrients can lead to physical and cognitive malformation, anemia, poor bone development, and mental illness, according to Brazil’s Health Ministry. A typical Brazilian meal of rice, beans, salad, and meat would be enough to meet almost all of a person’s basic nutritional needs for a single day — but such a dish is currently out of reach for the household budget of families like Ivânia’s.

“A kilo of tomatoes costs BRL 7 [USD 1.50], so I’m not going to buy salad. I’ll prioritize a kilo of beans, which my family can eat for four days,” she says. Ivânia adds that her children only eat fruit and vegetables when they arrive via donations. “It’s hard for a mother to admit this. I think that’s why I developed anxiety, I feel like I’m to blame.”

A few days before The Brazilian Report met with Ivânia, she had received a donation of BRL 250. The money was enough to buy three packs of biscuits, laundry detergent, chlorine, two kilos of beans, ten kilos of rice, a chicken, a kilo of ground coffee, toilet paper, five kilos of sugar, two bottles of soybean oil, and six bags of fubá. These supplies lasted a week.

One grocery shop of BRL 250 feeds Ivânia Sousa's family for a week. She lives on benefits of BRL 400 a month.
One grocery shop of BRL 250 feeds Ivânia Sousa's family for a week. She lives on benefits of BRL 400 a month. [Photo: Tiago Rodrigues]

The family’s diet is hypercaloric, based on processed foods rich in sodium, sugars, and saturated fats. “I know that it could cause obesity [in her children], like I have,” Ivânia says. 

This is the new reality of hunger in Brazil, where gaunt, skeletal bodies are being replaced with obesity — while the level of malnourishment stays the same.

Currently, Ivânia’s only source of income comes from the Auxílio Brasil welfare program, which pays BRL 400 (around USD 86) a month to vulnerable families.

The government in Brazil’s Federal District should also be paying Ivânia’s rent, but transfers have been delayed since September. Surviving only on Auxílio Brasil stipends, she is unable to pay for housing (BRL 600 a month) or buy essential items such as food, medicine, or hygiene products. Ivânia is forced to borrow money every month in order to scrape together the bare minimum to ensure her family’s survival.

Indeed, 71 percent of Brazilian families ended 2021 in debt — a record since the National Commerce Confederation (CNC) began its measurements 11 years ago. The confederation found that the country’s poorest families were forced into debt to pay for basic items that saw huge price spikes last year, such as food, medicine, and housing.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the price of food rose by an average of 28 percent last year, the highest spike in a decade. Furthermore, general inflation in Brazil closed out 2021 at 10.06 percent — the highest in six years. In the Federal District, the price of the basic basket of necessities hit BRL 631.95, over half of the BRL 1,200 minimum wage.

[Photo: André Chiavassa]

Simultaneously, Brazil’s inequality rates also reached their worst levels in two decades during the pandemic. In 2020, according to a Credit Suisse report, almost half of all wealth produced in the country ended up in the hands of the richest 1 percent — the worst result in Latin America. The top 1 percent retain 35 percent of the entire wealth in the U.S., and 18 percent in Japan.

The closure of schools as a result of social distancing measures went on to cause serious consequences for millions of children and teenagers kept out of education for at least two school years. However, in a country like Brazil, school is not just a place for learning — for many children, it is one of the few reliable sources of a square meal. School lunches remain the leading source of nutrition for millions of children, unable to enjoy the same diet at home. 

At the same time, the suspension of classes came as a hammer blow for many family farmers, who rely on agriculture to put food on the table. With schools closed, municipal governments scrapped purchase orders from small producers, who tend to get priority for school lunch supply deals in rural Brazilian cities.

Lidenilson Silva, from the small town of Igarapé-Açu in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, has experienced this trend first-hand. A farmer, he is part of a cooperative of small-scale producers who supply organic fruit and vegetables for street markets, food banks, and school lunches. Now, even with access to food, many of them are going hungry.

“Our living conditions worsened substantially. The price of inputs rose a lot, mainly for those who work on a smaller scale. Two years ago, chemical fertilizer cost BRL 160. Now, it’s over BRL 400,” he explains. Furthermore, such products are likely to become even more expensive in the coming months, as a ripple effect of the war in Ukraine.

Lidenilson has noticed that his lifestyle and that of his neighbors is beginning to look a lot like it did in the 1980s, when many left the field in search of work in big cities and ended up living in overcrowded and precarious favelas. “There is pressure from big cattle ranchers and soy producers who buy land for cheap, and the farmers, who are penniless, have no option but to accept.”

“We are seeing significant investment in agribusiness and nothing for family farming, which produces 70 percent of the country’s food. Today, with patents and the genetic modification of seeds, you need to buy the seeds, the fertilizer, specific pesticides, and that’s really expensive.”

Thus is the paradox of Brazil’s rural areas: while the Agriculture Ministry celebrates record grain production levels year after year, these rural areas are precisely where 75 percent of the country’s families suffering from food insecurity are located. In other words, three out of four rural households face some form of food deprivation.

This situation was caused by the dismantling of government programs to purchase produce from family farmers, such as the Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and the National Program to Strengthen Family Farming (Pronaf), which have suffered cuts of up to 90 percent in recent years.

Its priority for healthy and varied produce from small farmers was one of the reasons Brazil’s school lunches program was considered a blueprint by the FAO, which has recommended other developing countries adopt the same model. 

“Even with allegations of corruption and overbilling in school lunch budgets, we believe that the food provided in school is essential to ensure the minimum conditions for children to continue their studies and have their nutritional levels provided for,” says Daniel Balaban, head of the Center for Excellence Against Hunger of the UN’s World Food Program. 

Mr. Balaban highlights that Brazil has programs that could be more effective in the fight against hunger, but that these have been put on the back burner in recent years. In his view, distributing food is not enough — mechanisms must be created to effectively reduce wealth concentration in the country.

Created in 2003, the Bolsa Família cash-transfer program managed to lift millions of families out of poverty. The initiative was given a name change and a makeover at the end of last year, now going by the name of Auxílio Brasil. While still giving out monthly aid payments to needy families, the program has completely scrapped prior conditions for handouts, such as the requirement for recipient parents to keep their children in school and stay up to date with mandatory vaccinations.

“The fight against hunger is a continuous effort. If a country like Norway, for instance, were to interrupt its social policies, we will see people living on the street and going hungry in the space of a few years. In Brazil, there is a mentality that action from the state leaves people lazy, unwilling to work, and leeching off social benefits, but that’s a lie. If you do come across a case like this, it’s an exception, not the rule,” says Mr. Balaban.

Brazil’s lowest rate of hunger among its population was 4.2 percent, reached in 2013 — when the FAO removed the country from its Hunger Map. 

It was also around this time that Ivânia Sousa’s family migrated from the northeastern state of Bahia to the Federal District, believing that being close to the country’s political center would offer them more opportunities for work and income. Brazil was growing and there was a real belief that things would get better.

But that dream did not come true.

Ivânia has three kids, but also takes care of the children of her neighbors, who spend the day at work. And that involves feeding them, too.
Ivânia has three kids, but also takes care of the children of her neighbors, who spend the day at work. And that involves feeding them, too. [Photo: Tiago Rodrigues]

Soon after, came the two worst economic recessions in Brazil’s history, the first of which led the country to institutionalize austerity measures, throttling public spending on health and education.

Misery increased on an annual basis. Now, there are at least 40 million families living below the poverty line, earning less than USD 1.90 a day.

The FAO’s Hunger Map no longer exists under the same terms as it did in the early 2010s, having changed its measurement criteria. However, if we were to consider the previous parameters, Brazil would certainly be back on the list. Less than ten years after celebrating its removal from the Map, the rate of hungry people has more than doubled.

“We’re not going to get anywhere while the state refuses to distribute wealth and while people don’t have the minimum conditions to demand their rights. A hungry person will simply not be interested in politics, being unaware that it is the only mechanism possible to achieve their human dignity. They are simply concerned with finding food to eat, which is a lot to deal with in itself,” says Mr. Balaban.

Vilma Reis lives 200 meters from a water treatment station, but she had to renovate her home to avoid it from being flooded by contaminated water.
Vilma Reis lives 200 meters from a water treatment station, but she had to renovate her home to avoid it from being flooded by contaminated water. [Photo: Tiago Rodrigues]

Vilma Reis is fully aware of this reality. A resident of Santa Maria, one of the poorest areas of the Federal District, she lives on a street that floods whenever it rains. There are landfills and recycling sites near her home, and rains often carry this waste through Vilma’s street. On the day The Brazilian Report visited Vilma, children could be seen playing barefoot on the street beside foul-smelling water — a veritable invitation for the spreading of diseases. 

Coincidentally, Vilma’s home is less than 200 meters from a water treatment station, which supplies households in the Federal District.

To protect her belongings from the constant floods, Vilma built a concrete wall in front of her house. Visitors have to jump the wall — which stands roughly 1 meter high — to enter her home. After years working as a waste-picker, Vilma now volunteers at a project that teaches sustainable development to people living in favelas. 

“I’d like to improve my street, but I want all streets to be improved. What use is it living in a good place and having food to eat if the people around me don’t?” she asks. “That’s why I think this work is important, baby steps, so that everyone can develop a bit of awareness and take a step forward.”

She showed The Brazilian Report the half-dozen books she received from donations, which have pride of place on display in her single room — which doubles up as a living room and kitchen. She is currently reading “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, which tells the story of a boy born with a facial deformity who is singled out by the people around him. 

“I identify with him. I feel like people don’t see me, and when they do, I bother them,” she says.

While containing some of the most celebrated literary characters in Brazil’s history, perhaps the lead protagonist is hunger itself, appearing in the book’s opening lines: “On the reddened plain, the juazeiro trees formed two green blemishes. The wretches had walked the whole day, they were tired and famished.”

Successive waves of drought led to an exodus of workers to other regions of the country in the last century. For those who stayed, they faced long periods of misery and hunger. While the situation is now more controlled — as the local economy is no longer exclusively reliant on agriculture — the Northeast of Brazil is still the region of the country hit hardest by hunger.

According to a report from Rede Penssan, the region was home to 7.7 million people living in food insecurity in 2020, more than any other part of the country. Currently, 47.9 percent of Brazilian residents living below the poverty line are found in the Northeast, according to data from the National Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Indeed, drought is one of the main factors standing in the way of the region’s development. During colonial times, some parts of the Northeast stood out for their ideal conditions for growing sugarcane and raising livestock, as was the case in Salvador — now the capital of Bahia state. However, as the colonizers began venturing inland, they realized that the long rainless spells in the so-called Caatinga region would be an impediment to agriculture.

When the Portuguese royal family moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, the money migrated with them to the Southeast. Today, the region remains the center of the country’s wealth.

The city of Maceió, in the northeastern state of Alagoas, is a typical example of Brazil’s inequality. Known fondly as the “Brazilian Caribbean” for its idyllic beaches with warm, turquoise waters, the city is home to luxury high-rise buildings, hotels, and restaurants for those who have money.

However, a short walk inland sees the backdrop change drastically. Despite being the 14th largest state capital in terms of population, Maceió has the eighth largest number of favelas, according to the IBGE. Roughly 17 percent of the city is made up of urban areas categorized as “subnormal agglomerations.” Some neighborhoods, such as Vergel do Lago and Vale do Reginaldo, are controlled by national criminal organizations such as the PCC and Comando Vermelho.

Singer Karine Lais Caldas Belo, 35, has lived in Vila Emater — to the northeast of the city center — for the last 12 years. The neighborhood began life as a cluster of shacks built around an old landfill, home to waste-pickers who often had to feed themselves with food sourced from the trash.

“As soon as I moved to live here, I saw real hunger,” she tells The Brazilian Report. “The people who lived around the landfill would come down here to ask for food and money. Their desire to eat was explicit.”

As the years went by, both the community and the landfill expanded. In 2010, the municipal government decided to transfer the collection center to a location further away from the city. Soon after, Vila Emater’s privileged view of the sea attracted property investors to the area. Now, it is home to mansions and one of the city’s most popular shopping malls.

The original residents of Vila Emater, however, were plunged into a profound crisis. With the landfill decommissioned, they couldn’t even rely on sourcing expired scraps to fill their stomachs.

It was around this time that Karine decided to set up a social project to help her neighbors. Today, the Santa Cecilia Choir helps 100 children with educational activities, donations of school materials, and, above all, food.

“I’ve always been concerned about food (…) And not about biscuits or popcorn, about food that really provides sustenance. Because the children come here as a refuge from home, to have moments of joy, and it’s also a time to eat, to have the pleasure of filling your stomach,” she explains.

Karine knows that many of the children are only enrolled in the program because she gives out food every Wednesday after choir practice. The menu changes every week, with hot dogs, soup, cake, and fruits.

“They don’t always have [food at home]. When they come to choir, their focus is the food. At home, they get the basics, rice, beans,” says Maria de Fátima da Silva, the mother of two children enrolled in the Santa Cecilia Choir.

The food in question is typically donated by individuals or small businesses, but it’s not always easy to find people willing to cover the food costs, which becomes a recurring source of stress for the project’s volunteers.

Besides government negligence, support networks are also lacking in needy Maceió communities. A large part of social work is carried out by volunteer projects, such as Karine’s choir. And many of these activities were brought to a standstill during the pandemic.

“There are still lots of volunteers afraid of leaving home to take part in social work, afraid they might contract or spread the virus. Before, we used to demand that any volunteers must be participative, now we don’t bother,” explains Pedro Henrique Da Silva Santos, a journalist and social activist.

Mr. Santos is one of the coordinators of Seja Luz, a project which has more than 100 volunteers and works in Maceió’s biggest favelas. He says that, before the pandemic, volunteers went along to creches, retirement homes, and hospitals — but now they can only help the homeless. The number of donations has fallen, despite them being more necessary than ever.

“Many people lost their jobs, were fired, [or] had their own company and went bankrupt,” he says. “Many people who weren’t going hungry before are now.”

And there was plenty of kale to be chopped. Matilde was in charge of preparing enough greens to fill the 350 lunchboxes to be distributed later that day. “We can’t waste time, we don’t want to delay the people in the kitchen. And the people sometimes take a bit longer,” she says. 

Indeed, it is rare that volunteers at Projeto Mistura are not in a race against the clock. Created in 2021 by chef Matheus Oliveira, the project provides food donations in poor neighborhoods of Mogi das Cruzes, a city with a population of just under half a million people, located roughly 40 kilometers from São Paulo.

Seeing a dramatic increase in hunger around the region, Matheus abandoned his work at restaurants in the state capital and sought to attract funding and labor to get the project off the ground. It was during this time that he met Dona Inês, a representative of the Catholic church of São Pedro, located just outside Mogi das Cruzes. Together, they created Projeto Mistura.

For Dona Inês, the project is an “emergency,” not a charity. Accustomed to receiving requests from people living in vulnerable conditions, she tells The Brazilian Report that the pandemic created a different situation: instead of people asking for small amounts of money to help pay utility bills, the needy population began asking for food. 

“It’s a hunger epidemic,” she says.

The location selected to distribute hot meals on that Sunday morning would be impossible to find on a map. A half-built house, it was surrounded by patchy mud that alternated between pools of standing water and wild tufts of grass.

Mosquitos swarmed in abundance, only shooed away once the steam from a gigantic pot of boiling white rice began billowing out of the poorly ventilated kitchen — which had itself become a veritable sauna of sauteed onions and garlic.

Matheus oversaw the cooking operation, stirring pots of beans and sausage, and seasoning the concoctions at an impressive pace. “It’s not only about feeding people, it’s about giving them dignity and a good nutritious meal. Eating is an act of resistance,” the chef says.

“We know that a lot of these people depend on what we do. Luckily, the donations pay for the delivery, but we are looking for new partnerships. The pandemic has left a trail of hunger and our idea is to create a cafeteria, a low-cost kitchen, occupying a space where the state is absent,” he tells The Brazilian Report.

Volunteers of Projeto Mistura work.
Volunteers of Projeto Mistura work. [Photo: Pedro Chavedar]

The need for emergency measures during the pandemic is not exclusive to Brazil. On January 27, the World Food Program and the FAO released a report entitled “Hunger Hotspots,” casting light on developing countries that are on the brink of widespread hunger crises.

Among the countries mentioned are Colombia, Haiti, and Honduras, where political, climate, and economic crises have come together to create a scenario in which the number of hungry individuals is likely to shoot upwards in 2022. While the three nations in question are at particularly high risk, international organizations say that the entire continent is facing a systemic crisis after two years of poor economic performance.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published a report on the socio-economic situation in the region, highlighting that 5 million Latin Americans fell below the extreme poverty line in 2021.

The morning's main event, shortly before being delivered to the project's beneficiaries.
The morning's main event, shortly before being delivered to the project's beneficiaries. [Photo: Pedro Chavedar]

One of the biggest efforts to distribute food during the pandemic was led by the Central Única de Favelas (Cufa), NGO Gerando Falcões, and the National Anti-Racism Front, which together donated over 2 million lunches. The food was distributed to black female heads of household, predominantly in countryside cities.

“If you give food to a mother, you’re giving food to more people,” says Tamires Sampaio, from the National Anti-Racism Front. A 2019 study showed that 57 percent of Brazilian families led by single mothers live under the poverty line.

Iconic Brazilian singer Elza Soares — awarded Voice of the Millennium by the BBC — once found herself in a similar situation. As a poor black woman from Rio de Janeiro, Elza began singing as a way to save the life of her two-year-old son, who was dying of malnourishment.

Elza had already seen two of her children die of hunger before they were even given names.

According to many of the neighborhood's residents, the food provided by the project is the most complete meal they will eat all week.
According to many of the neighborhood's residents, the food provided by the project is the most complete meal they will eat all week. [Photo: Pedro Chavedar]

At 23 years old, she heard about a TV talent show that offered a cash prize to the winner. “I’d already lost two children and didn’t want to see another go,” she said, in an interview shortly before her death in January of this year. “I don’t know how, but I had to win that prize.”

Elza weighed just 70 pounds at the time. She borrowed a dress from her mother to wear to the talent show, which she attempted to adjust to fit using safety pins. The audience laughed at her appearance.

Bemused, TV presenter Ary Barroso asked her which planet she had come from. “Planet Hunger,” she replied, and the laughter quickly stopped. Elza Soares won the prize and saved her child’s life.

Elza’s last album before her death was entitled “Planeta Fome,” or Planet Hunger. It talks about the struggle of women who, like her, watch their children get sick from hunger but — unlike Elza — were powerless to help. “I came from planet hunger and I’m still on planet hunger. [Brazil] is an unequal country, it’s a horrible thing, we live here,” she said, at the time.

Indeed, in Brazil, the tragedies of the past and present are one and the same.