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The colourful favelas of Brazil, stacked, busy and squeezed. It’s predicted they house well over 10 million of the country’s inhabitants, some like small villages, others large enough to constitute cities.
They are buzzing places. Bikes, cars and people weave through the roads, in and out of tight passes and up and down the zagging steps that run top to bottom across the favelas. Step back from the hustle and you see large buildings placed on top of each other, a sort of game of concrete Jenga, pilled high, built against the tide - on hills, strange angles, nothing straight - a human patchwork of collective construction. They’re simply beautiful.
Someone who certainly agrees with this is the Brazilian born chef Regina Tchelly who for the past four years has been taking her culinary skills into the favelas of Rio and transforming them one garden at a time.
This is because Tchelly is the founder of Favela Organica, a unique company that aims to help educate the people living in favelas about great food, storage, growing, management and most importantly, reducing waste. As she explains: “I developed Favela Organica because I wanted to do something to reduce food waste in Rio. When I came here from Paraiba, where I was born, I saw a lot of waste in the street markets, in the community I live and in the house I used to work at. In Paraiba, we had a different perspective on food; we always used it completely. So, I brought this experience to my reality in Rio, mixed with my dream of becoming a different cook – a cook of love - and created the project.”
For years before Tchelly had worked as a private maid but saw an opportunity in using the skills she learned to help teach others. She began by planting food in small organic gardens across her own favela, planting in whatever spare land she could use and before long not only did she find herself using the ingredients for her cooking classes, she was also picking up other people who wanted to garden, grow their own and get involved with spreading the message.
“The goal of the project is to unite people through food, respect the circle of life and the food cycle, value the producer, know where our food comes from, value and improve people’s relation with food, bring back the pleasure of cooking, reflect on our consumption, realize that without the producer and without a clean and fair food for everyone we will not have what to eat in a few years from now.”
Tchelly does this by offering free classes to a number of people in the favelas of Rio, with a strong focus on “cooking with parts that have a lot of nutrients but that we usually throw away, such as seeds, peels and stalks. Cooking with the ingredients that many people would normally throw in the bin.”
She demonstrated this style of cooking recently at the World Cuisine Summit in Lyon, France, where crowds were wowed by a tasty dish of chopped kale, leak and pumpkin skin cream and she says the idea is spreading well at home. “Only in the communities of Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira, where I live, 200 people have benefited from our workshops, plus 40 homemade food gardens we distributed and 1 community food garden we built.”
More community gardens will be one of the next big pushes as Tchelly also spends time educating people about the organisation and generating continued support for their projects around the world, something that’s going to be a humble project started in a small community, driven by one woman’s need to have some fresh produce to cook with, is going to have a real impact on food culture in Brazil.
Tchelly is confident and, like all good chess players, already has her next move in mind, “one of the projects I have for the future is fighting for public schools in Brazil to incorporate discipline and awareness over the food cycle in its routine. Once it exists, a lot of things will change in education, in nourishment, in information, in knowledge and it the world in general. Another personal dream is to have a sustainability school in the community of Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira that can be replicated anywhere in the world, specially in communities in need.”