Could Olympic food waste help Rio's residents?

A project launched by two chefs – one Italian, one Brazilian – aims to take wasted food from the Olympic Village and turn it into a long-term meal program for local residents.

Jeremy Lee/Reuters
The Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, photographed during a media tour on Aug. 4. A initiative started by two chefs aims to take wasted food from the Olympic Village and turn it into meals for Rio's hungry population, with the city providing space for the project for the next ten years.

When athletes sit down to a meal at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro this week, they may be unknowingly aiding an effort to help local residents, long after the glitz and glamour of the Olympics have vanished. 

In an effort to reduce food waste, RefettoRio Gastromotiva, a project begun by two chefs, will turn excess food from the catering company that feeds the Olympic Village into meals for Rio’s hungry population, prepared by a team of international chefs.

The project aims to strike at a wealth divide highlighted by Rio’s hosting of the Olympic Games, raising questions about whether the longterm benefits of the event, such as improved public transit in some parts of the city, will trickle down to residents in neighborhoods who continue to struggle with high crime rates, rising rents, and increasing evictions.

These are the exclusion Games,” Cosme Vinícius Felippsen, a sweets seller and tour guide in Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest favela, told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week. Providência overlooks Rio’s port, recently overhauled for the Olympics, including the addition of a cable car along the cliff-side neighborhood.

While city officials have often cited increased public transit use as a victory, Mr. Felippsen says that residents’ needs were even more basic. “We wanted schools and basic sanitation,” he said.

The food waste project, begun by Italian chef Massimo Bottura and Brazilian chef David Hertz, aims to “offer food and dignity to people in situations of social vulnerability,” says a statement released by the City of Rio, which is providing a building the group will use in the city center.

The project mirrors several efforts around the globe, including in Italy, Kenya, and the United States, by nonprofits that aim to turn wasted food from restaurants, homes, and supermarkets into usable meals and raw ingredients for families often unable to afford them.

Concerns that between 30 and 40 percent of all food produced around the world is wasted because it is thrown away or spoils during transportation have sparked a slew of policies to combat food waste. Meanwhile, about 800 million people across the globe go hungry every night, according to United Nations figures.

Combining national standards to reduce food waste – such as one recently approved in Italy – with efforts such as the RefettoRio reuse initiative could have a large impact, some hope. 

“Maybe the impact from one of these nonprofits that are picking up some excess food and donating it is small on its own, but it's really one of the only ways to go about addressing this sort of waste right now," Brian Lipinski, a food program associate at the World Resources Initiative, told the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

The city of Rio is providing the building to RefettoRio Gastromotiva for the next ten years in the hopes that its impact could be longer-lasting. RefettoRio is modeled on Mr. Bottura’s Refetterio Ambrosiano, a program where 65 international chefs made meals using food that would have gone to waste during the Milan World Expo last year, ABC reports.

Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, has staunchly defended the economic impact of the games as benefiting all residents. "It's crazy to say there is no investment in poor areas," he told The Guardian. "If people say this, then they don’t know the geography [of the city]."

But members of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA), a coalition of human rights advocates and nongovernmental organizations, say that future Olympics cities need to better prioritize human rights to avoid the missed opportunities like Rio's.

“The Olympic values and ideals ... need to be implemented in the structure of the IOC contracts so that they do no harm,” Andrea Florence, a lawyer for SRA member Terre des Hommes, told the Monitor. “It is time they move it forward and really implement those principles.”

This report includes material from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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