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‘Fight waste to fight hunger’: food banks embrace imperfection to feed millions in Brazil

<span>Children at a free daycare centre in Rio de Janeiro eat soup made from discarded imperfect vegetables donated by Sesc Mesa Brasil, 21 February 2024. </span><span>Photograph: Ana Ionova/The Guardian</span>
Children at a free daycare centre in Rio de Janeiro eat soup made from discarded imperfect vegetables donated by Sesc Mesa Brasil, 21 February 2024. Photograph: Ana Ionova/The Guardian

About half a dozen men in hairnets busy themselves with crates of fresh produce outside a food depot in Rio de Janeiro’s northern suburbs. As one reels off a list of products, the others place oddly shaped vegetables into large bags before loading them into a waiting car. The produce will later be cooked and served in soup kitchens, nurseries and other institutions offering free meals to people in need across the city.

The depot is run by Brazil’s biggest network of food banks, Sesc Mesa Brasil. With 95 units all over the country, Mesa – which means table in Portuguese – collects food that would otherwise go to waste from supermarkets, farmers and other suppliers and retailers, sorts it, and then donates it to partner organisations.

We have children who depend on the meals here to eat

Flávia Ramos, Creche Cardeal Câmara

“The programme has two pillars, to fight food waste and to fight hunger,” says Cláudia Roseno, an aid manager at Sesc, a not-for-profit private enterprise providing culture, leisure, education, health and aid services across Brazil.

New research published last week highlights how such efforts to reduce food waste can be bolstered in Brazil and used as a key tool for fighting widespread food insecurity.

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According to the latest figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 10 million people – nearly 5% of the population – are undernourished in Brazil, and about a third of the population suffers from moderate or severe food insecurity. Brazil re-entered the UN’s hunger map in 2021, seven years after first being removed from it, as two punishing recessions and the coronavirus pandemic saw hunger rise again.

Yet there is colossal food waste in the South American country. The numbers need updating, says Roseno, but an estimated 26.3m tonnes of food are lost during production and transportation each year, while at the end of the supply chain Brazilian households waste 60kg of food per capita each year.

“Brazil is one of the world’s largest food producers, but about 42% of all food produced is lost or wasted … So there is a real opportunity to improve food access through redistributing nutritious products to people in need, at this critical moment when [so many] Brazilians face food insecurity,” says Lisa Moon, CEO of the Global FoodBanking Network, which publishes the Global Food Donation Policy Atlas in partnership with Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

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Chayane Martins de Souza, 22, is a kitchen assistant at the Servas dos Pobres Catholic association that runs a free nursery for 200 toddlers in Rio. “Sometimes you see homeless people looking [for food] in rubbish bins. It’s painful to watch when you know lots of places have food but prefer to chuck it in the bin than give it away. Not here. We make extra portions so we can serve them,” she says.

The Creche Cardeal Câmara nursery receives fortnightly donations from Mesa that supplement the children’s meals and go toward lunches for dozens of hungry adults who queue outside the adjacent convent every day.

“We have children who depend on the meals here to eat … You notice it after a bank holiday, in their appearance, in the way that they eat hungrily,” says Flávia Ramos, the director of the association running nursery. “Without the [donations], I don’t know how we’d manage,” she adds.

Sesc Mesa Brasil’s 400 sq metre depot in Rio will soon move to new quarters, with more than 12 times more space. Across Brazil, the organisation helped 2.1 million people each month on average last year and is “one of the strongest networks in the global south”, according to Moon, who has worked on food waste policy in 25 different countries.

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The Mesa programme not only recovers food that supermarkets can no longer sell, but also goes to farmers, where the bulk of food loss takes place – and trains its partner organisations in using less-than-perfect products that might otherwise be thrown out.

Consumer demand for flawless foodstuffs often leads to perfectly good products being discarded by producers, says Cida Pessoa, the programme’s manager in Rio. “People want nature to be completely uniform, for carrots to grow in the same way, for papayas to come without spots, for apples to be identical,” she explains, as a worker passes by with a fragrant crate of wilted basil and overripe bananas.

“We also carry out educational work with the cooks from the institutions. Because we understand that it’s no good us thinking this food product is still edible, if when it gets there they throw it away,” she says.

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Fighting food insecurity is a priority for the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has promised to eradicate hunger during his term. His government is investing heavily in poverty reduction programmes and has put hunger on the agenda of the G20, which Brazil is presiding over this year.

Keeping surplus food out of landfill would also help the country work towards its environmental targets. Globally, wasted food accounts for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

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As well as its zero hunger commitment, Brazil has had a robust strategy for reducing food loss and waste since 2017, says Moon. But the new research suggests where this can be improved, for example through better taxation and labelling policies.

Back at Ramos’s nursery, a nun scurries off to hand out a package of food while toddlers wolf down soup made from discarded vegetables.

“More! More!” the children clamour, unaware that they are saving oversized courgettes from ending up as compost.