A controversial food supplement in Brazil has the strong support of Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the Archbishop of São Paulo.
In an appearance criticized by many in the media and academia, Scherer appeared alongside Mayor João Doria, a member of the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, during a press conference held at the offices of the archdiocese on October 18.
Their common goal was to defend the production and free distribution of a food compound called farinata, made of freeze-dried leftover food, often processed near its expiration date. Critics have been calling it “human ration” or even “human pet food.”
Doria, a businessman and former TV personality who is rumored to be seeking his party’s presidential nomination, originally began promoting the project on his new food program called Alimento para Todos, ‘Food for All,’ in Portuguese.
(Doria’s background and style have led many to dub him Brazil’s Donald Trump.)
“Food that would have been thrown away is freeze-dried and, with all security, becomes a complete and nourishing meal. From this October, it will start being distributed by the Church, other third sector entities and City Hall,” the mayor said during the Oct. 8 internet broadcast.
“This is a blessed product,” he added, while eating a sample in front of the cameras.
The container where he kept the product had a stamp with the image of Our Lady of Aparecida, therefore implying the support of the Church.
It was a fair point, since the Archdiocese of São Paulo has been promoting farinata for the past four years as a way to combat malnutrition.
However, the product has been criticized, both by the mayor’s opponents and some food activists.
Farinata is a product patented by a small non-profit institute, Plataforma Sinergia. According to their founder, Rosana Perrotti, many types of food – like potato, tomato and even meat – can be reduced to this compound.
Foods that would be disposed of by supermarkets, grocery stores, and restaurants because of their approaching expiration date, could be turned into farinata before going bad.
They are turned into a flour-like powder that can last for up to two years, and can be used as a supplement in baking bread and cookies.
“The priority is to fight hunger in catastrophic situations,” Perrotti said.
However, Doria’s video provoked a strong reaction from his political opponents, as well as many others on social media, including some Catholic activists and nutritionists.
Critics have been calling the product a “human ration” and compared it to pet food, arguing eating is much more than just consuming nutrients; it is also an experience of seeing, choosing, tasting, and sharing a meal.
The Regional Nutrition Council, an institution that regulates nutritionists, said in a press release that the mayor’s policy contradicts the principles of the Human Right to Adequate Food.
The statement said it is “in total disrespect to the advances made in the last decades in the field of food safety and with regard to public policies on actions to combat hunger and malnutrition.”
Cardinal against hunger
In the face of such strong criticism, Scherer called the press conference to explain why the Church supports the initiative, and also to clear up misconceptions about the product.
On Wednesday, the cardinal clarified that the Catholic Church was actually the first to promote farinata in the country and has been working with Perrotti since 2013, years before Doria took office in January 2017.
São Paulo has a population of over 12 million people, making it not only the largest city in Brazil, but also the largest city in the southern Hemisphere. Although it is considered a wealthy city, that wealth is very unevenly distributed.
Nearly 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, and it is estimated over one million people live in either the city’s favelas – shantytown slums – or in what are known as cortices – illegally occupied abandoned buildings in the middle of the city.
“Hunger is a scandal, especially when there is so much food available. This is not a project of Doria’s administration. It comes from long before,” the cardinal said.
During the press conference, Doria said that his administration came in “solidarity” to an existing initiative of the Church.
Scherer said Perrotti presented the technology to him saying it was able to “transform food that would be wasted into food that can be easily available to those who need the most.
“Brazilian law does not favor the donation of food by restaurants and grocery stores. It has to be thrown-away if not sold. So we must work together to change the law. Our concern was to put food on the table of those who are starving,” the cardinal said.
He added that more than a year ago the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Caritas and the archdiocese presented a bill that would change Brazilian law on food safety.
“This bill was presented three years ago to Brazilian Parliament. It passed in the House and now it is in the Senate. It makes it easier to donate food ready to consume,” Scherer said, adding that it would help alleviate two problems at once: Food waste and hunger.
“One third of all food produced in Brazil is wasted. Food that is being grown on productive land is now being thrown-away, and this land could be preserved. Also, supermarkets incinerate food they don’t sell, which causes more environmental damage,” Scherer said. “Hunger, waste, and the possibility to do something about it led me to support the project.”
The cardinal said he feels personally displeased by those who name farinata “human ration” or granulate food.
He clarified the product is a “complementary alternative” in terms of food policy, not as a substitution for a normal meal: A food supplement, not a food replacement.
“It is flour. I feel offended when people compare this to animal food, as if we had contempt towards the poor. Contempt is to refuse food to the poor. Starvation is contempt. Contempt is when we politicize the hunger of the poor instead of helping the poor,” he said in answer to his critics.
Scherer has even told Pope Francis about farinata, and the pope had a message sent to Plataforma Sinergia through the Vatican’s Secretariat of State assuring them of his prayers.
Francis, the message said, prays “the initiative will be crowned with the best results.”