Rio urban parks produce healthy food for the poor

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – Armed young men watch a street in a poor neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro hit hard by drug smuggling, but they walk a little further and this rugged area also boasts the largest urban vegetable garden in Latin America.

Unfolding in a favela called Manguinhos in northern Rio, this success story is thriving at a time when the rest of the country is concerned about rampant inflation and concerns about Russian fertilizers, a major concern of Brazil’s robust agricultural sector.

The first seed was planted in late 2013 on a plot of land that was then known as “cracolandia” because it was home to many drug addicts.

Little by little, she established herself and is respected in a neighborhood where drug dealers are in charge.

These days, the garden feeds about 800 families a month with affordable and pesticide-free produce, two advantages that don’t always go hand in hand.

Julio Cesar Barros, one of the park’s directors, told AFP, referring to the high-priced fruits and vegetables being sold in affluent neighborhoods such as Copacabana and Ipanema.

Manguinhos Park is one of 56 parks in Rio that Barros launched with city authorities in 2006. An international agreement called the Milan Urban Food Policy Charter hailed it as one of the best in the world.

This private garden has an area of ​​four football fields and each month produces 2.5 tons of yucca, carrots, onions, cabbage and other vegetables.

Half is sold to families for an average of 2 riyals (40 US cents) per kilogram, and the rest is donated to orphanages and shelters.

A way out of drugs and crime

Dion Enedina da Silva, 73, wears a hat to fend off the scorching sun, bending over and cutting weeds growing between the rows of vegetable plants.

An aerial view of an urban park at Manguinhos favela, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 4, 2022 Carlos Fabal AFP

“The garden changed everything for me: the way I lived, the way I ate,” said this woman who has 10 grandchildren and many great grandchildren. “Before, I could hardly have the money to buy carrots and onions.”

Da Silva is one of 25 employees at the park, who get paid from sales proceeds. Barros said she was cleaning up hospitals, but other workers in the park were involved in drug and crime in the slums and had a bleak future.

Such is the case of a 40-year-old employee who prefers not to reveal his name or details about his past.

“Working here is a cure,” he said. “I come every day, rain or sunny. I won’t leave.”

He is now proud of what he does and says his work means his 11-year-old daughter is eating good, healthy food.

Obesity versus education

“The food education here is horrible,” Barros said. Indeed, the obesity rate among people over the age of 20 increased from 12.2% to 26.8% from 2002 to 2019, according to government statistics.

A worker carries vegetables harvested from an urban garden to a stall to sell them at the Manguinhos favela, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 6, 2022
A worker carries vegetables harvested from an urban garden to a stall to sell them at the Manguinhos favela, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 6, 2022 Andre Borges, AFP

“What happens if a child comes home with a plant he planted at school? The education changes and the child begins to influence the parents to eat better,” said Barros, whose projects also feature gardens in schools.

“Eating healthy is important but food is not always affordable,” said Alessandra Almira, 39, a slum dweller who shops in Manguinhos Park every week.

Barros said the quality of produce from these gardens has caught the attention of health-oriented restaurants in Rio, who have begun buying into community projects.

“I have a problem: Is food no longer available to those who need it and returning to the rich? We have to find a way to solve this.”

In the meantime, the Barros project is moving forward in full force.

The Rio city government has announced plans to expand a park in the city’s Parque de Madurera area to make it four times the size of Manguinhos. Officials said that would make it the largest urban park in the world.

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