food and shelter

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By Mirna Wabi-Sabi*

The toxic culture we are forced to swallow is the hardest to face in mutual aid initiatives

The decision to fire Mandetta over social distancing measures is troubling but not surprising. According to the president, letting the population work means taking care of their well-being, something that a centrist Health Minister is not well equipped to oversee. Former bank employee Rodrigo Maia, theoretically more prepared to deal with economic issues, talks about wealth redistribution, while Bolsonaro attacks him for not having a green and yellow heart. A more “patriotic” response to this pandemic would be to end distancing and reduce taxes for companies that hire young people (ages 18-29) and people over 55. In other words, put people to work.

Comparing Brazil with the United States is inevitable. Bolsonaro said we don't have the luxury of not going back to work, because we're not as rich as the US and we can't let our debt rise another billion reais. Maia, on the other hand, said that what we cannot allow is for the US mistakes to be repeated here, and for death rates to reach such a level.

If there's one thing this pandemic has taught us, it's to appreciate the two most essential aspects of life: food and shelter. Work is not synonymous with this, as many people work and still do not have access to these basic needs. 'Developing' countries, which 'have not yet reached a point' where food and shelter are accessible to all, are preparing for when the pandemic hits them hard.

Perhaps it is our 'underdevelopment' that prepares us to deal with a crisis without access to adequate resources or government support, finding creative ways to survive in the most arid landscapes. Perhaps we inevitably develop the ability to do gambiarra, such as improvised solutions for distributing food to homeless people, expanding our network and redirecting our resources.

But there is one aspect of food distribution that has always been inflexible and difficult to resolve — what do people want to eat?

According to the 2014 Food Guide for the Brazilian Population, by the Ministry of Health, nutritional deficiency should be treated alongside diseases caused by excess sodium and animal fats. In other words, the malnutrition caused by poverty cannot be alleviated with an unbalanced diet that revolves around meats and ultra-processed foods. They can cause a whole new set of problems, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. Therefore, the whole 'feed the world' campaign needs to reassess what it means to go hungry today, now that food has become affordable, but it kills.

One of the most emblematic dishes in Brazil is feijoada. It comes from colonial times, when settlers ate the most 'valuable' parts of the animal, while enslaved people received the remains, feet and ears. It was a time when slaveholders didn't want people considered 'property' to die.

Today, feijoada is for everyone, but the poor are still getting leftovers from the rich. The hot dog, for example, served in a salty, processed tomato sauce is very popular. They are leftovers from the pig, cow and chicken industries mixed with preservatives, antibiotics and dyes, then pasteurized, packaged and distributed to low-income families. In these households, social mobility is usually and unconsciously still linked to the colonial model of resource distribution, where tasting a little of the 'good life' means eating the 'good meat'. This means that the 'good parts' of the animal are usually sent abroad, while the remains are offered to us in the guise of The American Dream, an image from Hollywood films, with a name that we cannot even pronounce properly without inventing vowels: ' hotchi-dogui'.

There has been another change in the last few centuries: the über rich people no longer want the poor to survive.

It has become acceptable to allow poor people to die from diabetes, tuberculosis, heart disease, overdose, covid-19 and so on. There are no heartbreaking videos of violently thin people who, with your help, will be saved from the torture of hunger. There are 'poor fat people' who are sick or abuse drugs due to their own 'bad choices' and silently die by the millions without causing the slightest discomfort to the rest of the world.

Now that gyms are closed, what's the point of taking selfies to put on the app if we can't leave the house? Who are we when we're not constantly on the run, trying to survive? 2020 is brimming with existential angst, understandably so, as far more people than usual are feeling hunger and homelessness (and death) closing in on them.

We can bet on mutual support initiatives, organize our community, redistribute resources and feed people in need. If they ask for hotchi-doguis, just reply with a sad and tired emoji.

Changing deeply held ideas about the role inequality plays in our lives is much more difficult than accessing basic resources. We have the means to produce many healthy and diverse foods effectively, what we cannot do is control the growth of monoculture, which is ineffective, directed towards heavy processing and feed. Ultra-processed foods are meant to be cheap and last a bewildering amount of time, and we've known how harmful they are for years. Why do so many people still prefer these foods when given an alternative for the same price?

The knee-jerk response is that additives that enhance flavor and preserve food are addictive, and there is some evidence for that. But I would like to focus on the social side of bad diets, because there is also research to show that “progressive social exclusion and marginalization” is a “common feature of human addiction” (“Time to Connect: Bringing the Social Context to the Neuroscience of Addiction ”, by Heilig, Epstein and Shaham). If the additives put into cheap food are addictive, marginalization makes a poor person more susceptible to that addiction than lack of financial access to healthier foods.

Ultra-processed foods affect our culture, making fresh food uninteresting, especially for young people. On page 45 of the Food Guide, this impact is described as:

“the promotion of the desire to consume more and more so that people have the feeling of belonging to a modern and superior culture.”

This is the consequence of the ideology of consumerism, an American way of life that seeps into our psyches as much as it seeps into our bodies. We ingest new additives in the same way that we regurgitate new sounds. Big Macs, for example, are just as troublesome to eat as they are to pronounce; these open consonants inevitably transform into 'Bigui Méki,' as the meal ritual transforms into quick, individual servings to be consumed 'on the go.' There is no longer a need for a kitchen, the ability to cook, chaperones or time. There is only a quick and individualistic solution for a low price.

Trying to show that foreign processed foods are not as good as local products is more difficult than just offering these local products to the poor. On a national scale, our agricultural production is largely directed towards maintaining the traditional eating habits of the northern hemisphere (and incorporating them as our own), as if we could 'eat' foreign money. What does not consider that our land is conducive to the production of food far more interesting than what tiny and cold European countries have historically been able to produce, and are currently interested in buying. We don't need to live on sausage and white bread like an 18th century German butcher.

This is Brazil, we have fruits that most people in the northern hemisphere don't even know exist. We have at least half a dozen widely available types of bananas, football-sized avocados, and traditional, age-old knowledge about sustainable relationships with the earth and the body. At least in this country, the claim that ultra-processed foods are cheaper than fresh local produce has no basis in reality — yet. The only way for this to become a reality is with more aggressive marketing by these companies, which will increase demand for these products, making other products less available.

One of the Food Guide's main suggestions is: don't see marketing as an educational source. The “function of advertising is essentially to increase the sale of products, not to inform or, even less, to educate people” (page 120). Apparently affordable food sales are seen as a sign of Development, as progress for the country and for marginalized communities. This 'development' does not have the best interest of the population in mind, it has the profits of the stock market in mind.

The toxic culture we are forced to swallow is the hardest thing to deal with in mutual aid initiatives. Harder than raising money, distributing resources, learning a new skill, rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. It's that thing hidden in the dark corners of the psyche, that pattern of behavior that years of therapy may never catch up with. He whispers, “I don't want things to change that much” and allows advertising to continue to change us and destroy our bodies.

* Mirna Wabi-Sabi is a decolonial activist, anarchist, and intersectional feminist. website publisher Gods and Radicals (


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