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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.