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When Cooking Doesn’t Just Cure Hunger

Brazilian chef Ana Lucia Costa finishes a tasty dish of tenderloin marinated with lemon and ginger for about 100 diners. This is not a restaurant, but the tiny kitchen of her humble dwelling from which she cures hunger in Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela.

His is one of the 52 solidarity kitchens in Brazil promoted by Gastromotiva, an association that trains people without resources in the kitchen with the mission not only to fill stomachs but also to rejoice palates and bring a dose of joy to those who need it most.

“Why shouldn’t the poor eat well?” asks this 45-year-old black woman as she mixes meat with pasta and a tomato sauce seasoned with oriental zatar.

Her little house at the top of the Rocinha favela is accessed by rudimentary stone stairs. She barely has a small space to sleep with her teenage son; she devotes the rest to the kitchen, where appliances and food donated by the association, which launched the initiative in 2020, are piled up.

With very little, this chef trained online during the pandemic prepares some 400 meals a week for families with children who “only eat” on school days, homeless people and anyone who knocks on her door moved by hunger.

Where’s the food?

“In a radius of 100 meters around, in every direction,” there is someone with an empty stomach, deplores Costa, wiry but with a vibrant energy that drives her to cook seven days a week with the help of a handful of volunteers.

If Brazil is the breadbasket of the world, “where is the food, why is everything so expensive?” she says, alluding to the almost 59% of Brazilians who live in a situation of food insecurity, according to data from the Penssan Network.

For this reason, he “takes advantage of everything from any food,” such as the skins of beets, carrots and lemons to make juices.

Without infrastructure, Costa manages to distribute the food. Once the little biodegradable Gastromotiva boxes are filled with the still-warm dish, he activates his extensive network of contacts in the neighborhood for transport, either on foot or motorized.

Who is crazy?

Under a bridge taken by the bustle of merchants in the lower part of Rocinha, Anderson, as he identifies himself, is one of the homeless who gratefully receives lunch, tasted by some with a piece of cardboard as a spoon.

This man with a crack in his torso has only words for what he considers the main ingredient: “Ana has a heart that does not fit in her chest”.

The cook reacts: “Some people say I’m crazy for dedicating my time to others. What’s crazy is to stand idly by!

Her occupation, which is paid for by social assistance, is also a source of support for her. She previously worked as a member of the council for the protection of minors in Rocinha. But she collapsed: “I have witnessed so many lurid stories… cooking is a therapy”.

Gastronomy vs. drugs

Life also hit solidarity chef Carlos Alberto da Silva very hard: he lost his 20-year-old son in a police operation in the favela and relapsed into drugs.

Gastronomy “is what keeps me away” from addictions, admits this black man from the Chapeu Mangueira favela, built on a hill bordering the luxurious neighborhood of Leme.

This 52-year-old cook got up at three in the morning to prepare a saffron and black sesame rice with vegetable “panaché” that he and his team of volunteers will distribute to the needy in Lapa, in downtown Rio.

He does this in the kitchen of his small restaurant, which he set up on the upper floor of a sports field and to which he dedicates the rest of the week. He recognizes that customers are scarce in this popular neighborhood and running his business is a challenge. But he doesn’t give up.

“I’m going to go out, knock on all the doors to look for financing”, says this man who also dreams of entering a reputable French gastronomy school in the “Cidade Maravilhosa”.

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