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Research itineraries

Fighting against hunger

As well as researching the topic, historian Adriana Salay runs the “Quebrada alimentada” project on the outskirts of São Paulo

Adriana Salay at Mocotó restaurant, where takeaway lunch boxes are prepared for the “Quebrada alimentada” project

Léo Ramos Chaves / Pesquisa Fapesp

I was born in 1984. I am the second of four children and I lived most of my childhood in the ABC region of São Paulo, including a period in a favela in Diadema. My parents separated when I was two years old and my mother put great effort into raising us. We never went hungry, but we lived a difficult life with little money. I experienced that daily desire that was never satiated, as described by writer Helena Silvestre in the book Notas sobre a fome [Notes on hunger; Editora Expressão Popular, 2019]. In other words, we had enough food on the table, but the media and society constantly bombarded us with other things that we could not have.

I studied at Lauro Gomes State Technical School [ETEC] in São Bernardo do Campo in the mornings and did a technical course at an industrial laboratory in the afternoons. When I was about 16, I started practicing ballroom dancing and eventually I taught it to others. When I finished high school, I did a one-year course in bodily communication at PUC-SP [Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo], but I had to stop dancing because of a spinal injury. That was when I started thinking about other job possibilities. My experience teaching dance showed me that I liked being a teacher, so I decided to try history. Furthermore, my family has always liked to talk about social issues in Brazil. My mother, Maria Cristina, and my father, Alexandre, are both very politically minded.

In 2004, I started studying history at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Humanities at the University of São Paulo [FFLCH-USP]. When I joined, there was no affirmative action system yet and I felt like an alien at the university. There were very few students from public schools. I remember a friend from college said she was going to do an undergraduate research project and I thought, “What is that? I’ll do it too!” In 2007, I studied Brazil’s independence processes, supervised by professor João Paulo Garrido Pimenta. That was when I began to understand what it was like to do research in history—it is hard work that includes visiting archives and knowing how to read documents.

When I finished my degree in 2010, I decided to research food in Brazil. I had taken a course on this topic, taught by Professor Henrique Carneiro, and it really sparked my interest. I started my master’s degree two years later, also in the Department of History at FFLCH-USP. I investigated the role that beans play in the country’s national identity and the difference between this discourse and their actual consumption in recent decades. Beans were a part of the Indigenous diet before it gradually arrived in colonial homes, but it was in the nineteenth century that they began to become an indispensable item on the Brazilian dinner table. So much so that in the twentieth century, the legume came to be seen as an icon of Brazilianness by modernists. In my research, I used data from the IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics] to show that domestic consumption of beans, however, fell by 49% between 1973 and 2009. At the same time, other items grew in popularity, such as processed foods, which increased by a total of 400%.

At around that time I also started participating in the Câmara Cascudo Culinary Culture Center, a discussion group founded by sociologist Carlos Alberto Doria and composed of researchers, cooks, and other people interested in food. It was there, discussing beans and other food items, that I met my husband, Rodrigo Oliveira, a chef at a restaurant called Mocotó. The meetings took place in the restaurant itself, located in Vila Medeiros in the north of São Paulo. In 2015, I defended my master’s thesis while pregnant with my first son, Pedro. After dedicating two years exclusively to motherhood, I started my PhD in 2017, also in the Department of History at FFLCH-USP, while pregnant with my daughter, Maria Alice.

Ofício da Imagem / Aguinaldo Pedro The historian (in a white t-shirt) helps distribute meals to residents of Vila Medeiros, in the north of São Paulo, in 2021Ofício da Imagem / Aguinaldo Pedro

My doctoral research was on Josué de Castro [1908–1973], a doctor from Pernambuco who also worked as a geographer and sociologist, as well as fighting against hunger in Brazil [see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 324]. I had grown interested in his work during my master’s degree. For my PhD, I sought to understand how hunger came to be discussed as a public and political issue in the country and the role Castro played in this debate. While researching newspapers from the time, I noticed a catastrophic situation. The Brazilian region most affected by hunger was the semiarid region, which suffered from major droughts and social inequality. But Castro showed that this everyday problem did not spare other parts of the country. And international events, such as the Second World War [1939–1945], further aggravated the situation. My supervisor was Miguel Palmeira, a professor of the methodology and theory of history and an incredible person who played a massive role in building my self-confidence as a researcher.

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, I had just submitted my thesis and had the topic of war fresh in my mind. I knew the world would face a battle against hunger. Rodrigo and I were very worried not only about our own family, because we knew the restaurant market would be greatly affected by the health crisis, but also about the community of Vila Medeiros, which is a poor neighborhood with many vulnerable areas. We closed Mocotó in compliance with the emergency measures, and the next day we started serving takeaway lunch boxes from the restaurant’s front door. This is how the “Quebrada alimentada” (“Feed the needy”) project was born. In the beginning, we served families registered at a center for children and teenagers in the neighborhood, but after a photo taken by a neighbor went viral on social media, demand increased. At the same time, other restaurants started helping out by giving us stock that they couldn’t use because of the pandemic. The result was that we served more than 100,000 meals between 2020 and 2023.

Today, in addition to the daily lunch boxes, we distribute monthly basic food hampers to around 260 families in the region. In 2021, the project won the Macallan Icon Award, part of the “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards. The prize is given to gastronomy initiatives that generate positive changes in society and the food industry. Another form of recognition that makes me very proud was an honorable mention in the USP Researcher Mothers 2023 award, which honors women who split their time between motherhood and research. As we know, this is not an easy thing to do. In my case, in addition to Pedro and Maria Alice, I have three stepdaughters—Nina, Flor, and Cora—who spend a few days a week at our house.

I defended my thesis in June. Professor Deisy de Freitas Ventura then invited me to do a postdoctoral fellowship at USP’s School of Public Health in 2024. The idea is to study the role of kitchen collectives in health crises. As a researcher, I have always followed the path of history, but I am very excited about this new direction opening up for my academic career.