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[interview: Regina Tchelly] food and nutritional education as a tool to transform the surrounding community
creator of the Favela Orgânica initiative, the cook multiplies food by teaching autonomy in preparing plant-based dishes at the Babilônia slum in Rio de Janeiro
this issue was translated by Luciane Maesp 📧 firstname.lastname@example.org
If the ideal food public policies were a person, they would very much look like Regina Tchelly: easy communicating, widespread, with practical sense, future vision, and focused on the collective.
Regina started Favela Orgânica1 in 2011 after raising around US$ 30 from her neighbors in the Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira communities and preparing a workshop on full-use cooking techniques. The first group had six students, but the interest escalated and Regina roaded Brazil with her recipes – two years later, I met her in Curitiba when she was in the city teaching her workshop. The practice classes with tasting the recipes are the essence of Favela Orgânica, but Regina knows better than no one else to diversify the application of her knowledge.
For almost 11 years, Favela Orgânica has been working to transform its surrounding community and people's relationship with food. "It's a school about the food cycle," defines Regina. Currently, the initiative has different fronts of action: food and nutritional education for children; online classes of cooking and entrepreneurship for those who want to begin a business; a partnership with nutritionists to assist Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira slums inhabitants free of charge, an educational web series with foods of the basic food basket; the workshops; and a restaurant, which is available by reservations.
Just like Favela Orgânica activities, the recognition of this work also appears diversely, of which prizes are a validation and important milestones to amplify its reach. In 2022, Regina received the Nise da Silveira Award, promoted by the Secretariat of Women of Rio de Janeiro, earning more than 51% of the votes in the Gastronomy and Culinary category. "This time I even got dizzy because about ten people came around me to say they were honored to be near me, that I was the reason they started their initiative with food and sustainability. It's so gratifying!" she said about the award night. "Lula's2 wife, Janja, told me once: 'you have a lot of clones'", she remembered. That's the beauty of Regina's work: the more they copy her, the better it gets for everyone.
The praises received by Regina come from all over the world, since the beginning of her activities. Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of the international movement Slow Food, got to know her in 2012 at a Rio+20 workshop. Since then, he repeated the same statement in interviews: "She's the best chef in Brazil".
Although her philosophy agrees with Slow Food principles – that food must be good, clean, and fair – the basis of Regina's thinking doesn't come from suiting in some famous movement or hot trend. As Sabrina Fernandes, from Tese Onze Youtube channel, well exemplified, Favela Orgânica is praxis.
As an example, Regina has always prepared meatless recipes "Ten years behind, I didn't even know about this vegetarian movement", she replied to me in our most recent conversation. In 2013, when I had the opportunity to interview her face to face, she explained:
"I put myself in the shoes of those who can't afford to buy meat every day. If I can develop simple, budget-friendly, and healthy recipes, people will be satisfied without needing a steak."3
This year, she also starred in the Seu Negócio Tá Na Feira [Your Business is at the Street Market] web series, about entrepreneurship ideas with recipes using food that would be wasted in the street markets. "The marketers are super happy. I've already told the Secretariat [of Natural Environment] that they should be more responsible at the markets, which is a place where there's more food waste. And there are people in hunger!", she says. The web series shows 25 recipes: some using stalks, peels, and vegetable leaves, and other that shows how to use all the parts of squash, banana, and unripened coconut. "After eating the coconut meat, you can make a plant vase with its shell," she teaches. And it all can be sold to generate extra income for those who watch.
Seu Negócio tá na Feira is a synthesis of what Regina learned in practice by starting Favela Orgânica when she had to collect stalks and leaves at the street markets to use in her workshops. "With this partnership, I give back to the market what it gives me. The support of the Secretariat of Natural Environment of Rio de Janeiro on this project of reducing food waste is a mammoth win."
Born in Serraria, in the state of Paraíba, Regina has been living in the city of Rio de Janeiro for 21 years, 20 of them in the Morro da Babilônia, in the Leme neighborhood. "When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro to be a cook, I went to buy ingredients in the street market and I saw how much waste there was. I went nuts, restless. I wanted to do something different". The Babilônia slum has been the headquarters of Favela Orgânica since the beginning. A few years ago they got a dining room, in addition to the kitchen where Regina and 12 other people work between events, orders, and meals on-site. "It seats 40 people to eat or for a lecture, and about 80 if it's a dancing party", she jokes.
It's easy to know when someone is smiling just by listening to his/her voice. That's how Regina sounded during our 40-minute phone conversation on an April morning, while she and her daughter were finishing up their preparations for an event. There wasn't enough time for her to answer all of my questions, so we resumed the conversation a week later for about 15 minutes when Regina handed the phone to nutritionist Gabriela Ribeiro at some point. The main excerpts of the interview are below, edited, and organized for better understanding.
Favela Orgânica started in 2011 with practical classes, but it got many other fronts of action through the years. A meaningful milestone, I imagine, is the Seu Negócio Tá Na Feira web series, in partnership with the Secretariat of Natural Environment. What are you working on right now?
I'm making events, giving lectures and training in companies, and also finishing some other projects. At the training, people call me to teach full-use and conscious consumption of food for their employees. It's a program to motivate and talk about the quality of life for the teams. In the pandemic, I developed four things. One of them was the Cesta Básica Educativa [Educative Basic Food Basket] web series, teaching the better use of each basket ingredient to multiply the amount of food.
I teach how to make yield for 15 or 20 days a basic food basket that would last 10 days. When something [bad] happens, everyone mobilizes to donate basic food baskets. In this country, the basic food basket is pure lip service, it's given without tools, without recipes.
I saw that people would take the basic basket and only think about the immediate. Some people took more than one, forgetting that the other would need it too. It bothered me, and people were complaining that the basic food baskets were running out. That's how the idea of guiding people on how to save and have autonomy came up, because no one knew when they would receive [the basic basket] again.
The second initiative was the Nutrindo o Favela Orgânica [Nousiring the Organic Favela] program, in partnership with eight nutritionists who voluntarily attended 35 patients in Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira slums. We combined the nutritional consultation with my recipes based on the basic food basket, street market ingredients, and wild edible plants that we can find in the community. Every week people have nutritional accompaniment, and we see how to improve their eating. We work on their self-esteem, showing that they can make it different. We got basic food basket donations, and also some organic ingredients donated by a French woman. There wasn't a penny invested, only partnerships. Now we're looking for investors to be able to serve more people, we have a demand of 200 patients.
I also launched Faça e Venda Sem Desperdício [Make It and Sell It Without Waste], an online course aimed at empowering 200 people to build their businesses from what they had. If they had a pound of beans, I'd teach them how to plant some of it, make bean hamburgers to sell, and cook it for themselves. With one kilo of beans, one can eat, grow and sell five hamburgers. It's a course with four simple online classes that change peoples' views of food.
The fourth project is the Favela Orgânica nas Escolas [Organic Favela at the Schools], for 200 children from Rio de Janeiro slums, based in a philanthropic school in the South Zone. It's focused on changing the kitchen, the classroom, and the surroundings – and it's having such an awesome impact! We talk about eating, about the food cycle. We've been modifying the menu with the school cooks as the kids work on science, geography, and other subjects. For now, this is the pilot. Everything I do at the school, I've already been doing here in my space.
You have always proposed to use fresh foods and to use them fully, with all the parts – peels, leaves, stalks. What are your bases to cook as you do? What or who inspired you in the beginning?
I love eating, especially my grandma's food. I started cooking out of necessity, I had to learn it because I went living on my own. I created the recipes myself and cooked some things from what I remembered my grandmother making. Some things I learned to do after people asked me. I learn when people explain, but I also do my research and read when I need to.
I cook everything by heart, I don't write it down. The nutritionists go crazy because I end up making it hard to pass on the recipes. I tease them: "is it my fault that I'm organic?" [laughs].
[You should] Talk to Gabriela, and she'll tell you how it is [she hands the phone to the nutritionist Gabriela Ribeiro, coordinator of Nutrindo o Favela Orgânica]
Gabriela Ribeiro, nutritionist:
In the course, she cooks and we take on writing all the measures, watching how she prepares the ingredients to have a written recipe in the end. It's not a piece of cake. Nutrindo o Favela Orgânica is going online now. There was the consulting for the Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira slums combined with Regina's recipes, and it was a success. Many patients are asking for more, so this year we'll open 200 free-of-cost vacancies for the residents, plus an online paid version to help cover the consultation costs and have some percentage directed for the Favela Orgânica initiative. There are a lot of wild edible plants here, and people do not always know [how to use them]. We give them quality nutritional education with accessible language and follow their reality. We're currently chasing sponsorship for these 200 free vacancies for the dwellers, and we already have the pilot's experience. The idea is that this project spreads to other communities over time.
How did you choose Favela Orgânica's name?
The word "favela" is because I live in the favela and because there are a lot of good projects and good people making things happen here. And "orgânica" is in the meaning of organization, of organizing my life and my consumption, about this movement of rethinking our consumption from the inside out.
The project has the word "organic" in its name. But most of your suppliers and your recipes don't only use certified organic ingredients, right?
Yeah, it's all-embracing. Teaching these preparations with what's available at the street markets, which is conventional, is already a step taken. Even though it's conventional, we have a method of sanitizing with activated charcoal and baking soda, to clean up the skins so we can eat the peels. Favela Orgânica's role is working with the food cycle. It's better to work with what's already available than going all the way around just for eating organics only, which is expensive. With the savings one makes by fully using the food, one can buy organic sugar, coconut oil.
When I started, I noticed that I could give back the seeds to the earth. Then you realize the economy you're making, your mind starts to change, and money starts yielding.It encompasses several things, like cultivating gardens in small spaces and making this alternative cuisine [of stalks, leaves, and peels]. For some recipes, I didn't need almost anything [from the supermarket], [I'd buy] everything on the street market.
If I don't have money to buy more squash, but I have its skin, I may sanitize it to make it safer to eat. That's people's reality: the lack of food. Or is it better to eat rotten meat, and search for bones in trucks? We must raise awareness of what's available and the best way to take advantage of this food, enabling people to choose what they want to eat.
The reality of eating only organics is distant, but there's a great possibility. In this hectic consumption ecosystem, we need to use accessible vocabulary to be able to explain the importance of eating food without poison.
Which were the biggest difficulties at the beginning of Favela Orgânica? Do you believe that, nowadays, after your trajectory, it will be easier for similar initiatives to establish themselves?
Favela Orgânica started in a very genuine way. I readily started asking for the market vendors, warning them that all of that [stalks and leaves thrown away when putting vegetables for sale] was food – while the street marketers kept saying that none of that would be eaten.
The street marketer's reality is deeply different from what we imagine. He leaves his home at 2 am. How will he keep the leaves and stems if the customer himself asks to take them off? How is the vendor supposed to store all of it after trimming the vegetables for the client?
They start trimming the vegetables as soon as they arrive, during the market assembly, and trim again halfway and another time in the end. It's a lot of waste in the same place on the same day. The street market lasts around 6 hours, but for the vendors, it's 10, 12 hours of work.
What do you consider to be your main contribution?
The courage to believe in me. I was going to receive around US$ 2,000 (R$ 10,000) at the beginning, but they denied it because my project was considered too complex. Then, I started with US$ 30.
You're a reference for many vegetarian cooks. How do you see your influence on vegetarian eating?
My food has always been all animal-free ingredients. I made it this way because people think that food is only good if there's meat in it. In Paraíba, if the bean stew only had vegetables, if there was some salad on the table, but no meat, people would say it was a weakling meal.
Daring as I am, I wanted to do something different, and so I did. All meatless! There are recipes using banana peels, watermelon rinds, to make it taste like chicken or shrimp. Same for squash. Making bananas taste like tuna or beef: that's what I wanted to show. Ten years behind, I didn't even know about this vegetarian movement. What I do is real food that's accessible to everyone.
Now that the Seu Negócio Tá Ná Feira web series has ended, how would you continue this initiative if you could choose to keep it? What would you put into practice if it depended just on you?
I would do a gastronomic festival on the food markets, with live tasting so everyone could try the recipes.
What is your long-term plan for Favela Orgânica?
[The plan is] that we can be self-sustainable, that our projects finance themselves. We're open for projects, selling our services, or being sponsored. But until becoming self-sustainable, we need investments for us to develop our initiatives. I wish we had a bigger space with a gastronomy school to teach about the entire food cycle.
On the night of April 6th, I went to the Federation of Industries of the State of Paraná (FIEP) Journalism Award, because the report I made on yerba mate (Yerba mate's second wave bulks up in South Brazil) was an award finalist. I was very happy to have my article published in the food section of the Pinó magazine and portal competing with economy articles. I received the first place in the internet category, and I couldn't hide my amazement stepping on stage [minute 25 onwards].
A few minutes later, I also got the Regional Distinction award [minute 51 onwards]. It's fulfilling having this investigation recognized! Thank you to Roberta Braga, of Literato Comunicação, who was the editor that trusted my topic suggestion – and she, on top of that, is a paid supporter of this humble newsletter. 💖
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NT: Favela Orgânica literally translates to Organic Favela. Favelas are a Brazilian type of slum which grew on the outskirts of larger cities right after the slavery abolition act. Usually settled in hills and without urban planning, favela homes are craft-built as the terrain and budget allow. There's a stigma of pure crime and violence, but they are mostly occupied by low-income proletarians, who cannot pay for the high rents in town and get to live in a space with little government assistance, and a high sense of community. Most of the violence in these spaces is a side effect of racist policies that use the drug war to criminalize poverty. These people face segregation daily in their basic needs such as health, education, housing, eating, transport, and leisure.
NT: Lula was the president of Brazil between 2003 and 2010, whose government had, among other platforms, the ambition of eradicating hunger and extreme poverty with social programs such as Fome Zero [Zero Hunger] and Bolsa Família [Family Allowance].