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Rio Olympics Brings Feast to the Favelas

For over a week, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have showcased the feats of the world’s top athletes. But on the outskirts of the city, in the neighbourhood of Lapa, something else remarkable is occurring. A new restaurant is using the leftover ingredients from Olympic caterers and other partners to prepare gourmet meals for Brazil’s poor.

Known as Refettorio Gastromotiva, the open-concept restaurant features designer wood tables, over-sized photos, and murals by leading Brazilian artists. Every night, a different famous chef “takes the helm”, turning overripe bananas or “ugly” mangoes into an “epicurean delight”. Then, waiters in “prim orange aprons” serve the 70 guests, selected by local shelters and non-profits. Guests range from homeless mothers to prostitutes to alcoholics.

The idea originated with Lassimo Bottura, a master chef who runs the Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana in Italy. Inspired by Pope Francis’ advocacy work, Bottura built a fancy soup kitchen in an abandoned theatre during the 2015 Milan World Expo. He recruited 65 international chefs, including Brazilian David Hertz. After witnessing the success of the effort, Hertz implored Bottura to partner with him on similar restaurant during the Rio Olympics.

The result – Refettorio Gastromotiva – has already won a gold medal in our books. After all, the restaurant has highlighted “Olympic waste: the more than 230 tons of food supplied daily to prepare 60,000 meals for athletes, coach and staff”. It has also demonstrated how such waste can help feed the world’s 800 million hungry people.

Of further note, the restaurant has employed students of Gastromotiva. Since 2007, the non-profit cooking school has trained 2500 Brazilians from the country’s favelas (urban slums) to be cooks. In doing so, it has used “the power of gastronomy, food, and all its elements to transform society, bring people together, and help reduce social inequality”.

Finally, by feeding Rio’s poor in an upscale setting, Refettorio Gastromotiva has supplied needed nutrition and human dignity. In the words of Bottura, “One of the most important things of this project is we give dignity, rebuild dignity. It’s not just about good food”. Cota e Silva, a fellow chef, adds “We want [the guests] to feel spoiled – for at least one night”.

The feedback speaks for itself. One guest, Valdimir Faria, said “Just sitting here, treated with respect on an equal footing, makes me think I have a chance”. Another, Rene da Conceicao,  called the food “the best he’d had in 40 years” and claimed that he felt “like a boss”.

The timing is ideal. Over the past year, Brazil has “plunged into its deepest recession in decades”. In Rio alone, approximately 25% now live in favelas and 5500 are homeless. To exacerbate matters, Rio’s state government closed or reduced service at 16 meal centers in June. This contrasts the lavish spending ($12 billion) on the Olympic Games, which has “only heightened a sense of abandonment among the homeless”.

Fortunately, Refettorio Gastromotiva will not close with the Olympic Games on August 21. Instead, it will “morph into a lunchtime restaurant” for paying customers. The proceeds will then fund evening meals (made with surplus food) for the homeless. Additionally, the restaurant will continue to train Gastromotiva students. In support, the City of Rio has given the non-profit a free 10 year lease on its current building.

Bottura’s Olympic dream is that the restaurant will flourish and inspire other such projects around the world. Several cities, such as Montreal and Los Angeles, already plan to open ritzy soup kitchens next year. If this dream materializes, Refettorio Gastromotiva will be the true Rio Olympics legacy project.

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Please consider donating to one of our partner food banks: the Central Texas Food Bank, the Friends of St. Joseph Food Pantry, the Gleaner’s Food Bank of Indiana, the Oregon Food Bank, the SF-Marin Food Bank, the Second Harvest Food Bank, and the Vermont Food Bank.

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A “Nation of Second Chances”: Obama Cuts Prison Sentences

President Obama has made history again! On August 3, he reduced the sentences of 214 federal inmates, including 67 life sentences. This marked the largest single-day grant of commutations since at least 1900. It also raised Obama’s total commutations to 562 – more than the past 9 presidents combined.

The commuted inmates included Ronald Evans, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teen for his role in a small drug distribution ring. They included Ramona Brant, who was given a life sentence for failing to report her drug dealing boyfriend. And they included Norman Brown, who was sentenced to life in prison at 22 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Identifying candidates for clemency was a “laborious process”. In 2014, the Obama administration developed expanded eligibility criteria, prioritizing non-violent offenders who: served over 10 years, behaved well in prison, lack close ties to gangs or drug cartels, and “would have received shorter sentences if…convicted a few years later”. At least three levels of lawyers at the Justice Department and White House then reviewed each applicant against these criteria. Successful applicants were sent to the President for approval, while unsuccessful applicants were often given additional drug treatment, educational programming, or counseling.

So what is the motivation behind Obama’s mercy? It is partly philosophical. The president believes that inmates’ sentences should accurately reflect their crimes. Additionally, he feels that inmates who have “demonstrated the potential to turn [their] lives around” and the “capacity to make good choices” deserve a second chance.

But there are also practical considerations. Overly onerous sentencing requirements “have put tens of thousands behind bars for far too long”, resulting in “incarceration rates unseen in other developed countries”.  The cost to the justice and penal systems is immense. Hence, commutations can reduce prison overcrowding and “save taxpayers like you money”. They also reunite families, helping to break the cycle of incarceration.

Still, criticism abounds. Some have accused Obama of being “soft on crime”. They fear recidivism (although most commuted inmates will remain supervised following release). Others believe Obama has not gone far enough. The Clemency Resource Center at NYU says that more than 11,000 petitions are pending and 1,500 meet the administration’s criteria. Attorney Deborah Leff maintains that some inmates deserve pardons, allowing them vote and “apply for jobs without criminal records”.

Even Obama acknowledges the weaknesses of his clemency initiative. “Despite these important efforts,” he says, “only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system”. For this reason, “it is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President’s desk”.

Want to help incarcerated individuals get a “second chance” and become “valued and contributing members of society”? Please contact the American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, or our partner, Rosebud Advocacy.