From the plate to politics: the case of solidarity kitchens

Published on 13 June 2024

Isis Domingues

FGV researcher

Camila Colombo

FGV EAESP researcher

Juliana Bruno

MTST Solidarity Kitchens coordinator

In times of global adversity social inequalities become even more evident, especially in urban peripheries. Across the city of São Paulo different civil society organisations, such as social movements, were busy helping and welcoming the most vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

People preparing food

In this blog we focus on the creation of Solidarity Kitchens as a social innovation by one of those movements, the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST). This innovation was also decisive in the process of legitimation of MTST itself within society, helping in the election of councillors.

Part of a series: read the first blog here

On Cozinha Solidária’s poster: “Half of humanity doesn’t eat – and the other half doesn’t sleep, afraid of the ones that don’t eat” – Josué de Castro

Homeless workers’ movement and solidarity kitchens

MTST emerged in the late 1990s with the growing dissatisfaction and need to fight for decent housing in Brazil’s large urban centres. Inspired by the tradition of social movements fighting for land, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), MTST organises low-income families living in precarious housing conditions, mobilising them around the struggle for housing and social rights. The movement grew rapidly, expanding its operations to several regions of the country, with occupations both in the peripheries and metropolitan regions and in the centre of the city of São Paulo, where there are many empty buildings.

With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, MTST was faced with a new and urgent challenge: hunger and social vulnerability aggravated by the health and economic crisis. The urban peripheries were severely impacted by the lockdown, which reverberated in unemployment and a drop in the income of informal workers. MTST mobilised to create a solidarity network, collecting, and distributing basic food baskets, hygiene products, and other essential items to families. The deepening of the crisis, a reflection of the Bolsonaro government’s policies, made families unable to access cooking gas and consequently the basic food baskets became useless. Several families had to partially sell the items in the basket to buy cooking gas and then cook what was left.

From this latent need arose the idea of the solidarity kitchens. The objective was to create permanent spaces, managed and operated by MTST members where it was possible to prepare and distribute hot and balanced meals to the population in situations of social vulnerability. MTST also saw the potential of the physical space of the kitchen as a place of training and political engagement. The traditional occupations of the movement – encampments – have the kitchen as a meeting point for militancy, the place for political discussions and strategizing, besides the place where food is provided. Their previous experience was key for the success of the Solidarity Kitchens.

Solidarity kitchens as a social innovation within the social movement

Solidarity kitchens seek to distance themselves from the idea of charity, positioning themselves firmly in the struggle for the right to food, precisely because of the character of its political formation. MTS’s thinking is that each lunchbox distributed carries with it an act of resistance and the assertion that hunger cannot be normalised. At the same time, the project aims to empower communities by actively involving them in the process and management of the kitchens.

Today, there are more than 45 solidarity kitchens spread throughout Brazil, with a strong presence in the state of São Paulo. These spaces have become reference points in local communities where people can find food, support, and solidarity. They serve balanced meals every day of the week (6,000/day), contributing to the food security of the regions served – but they go beyond the role of food suppliers. They have become spaces for coexistence, learning and welcoming. In several locations, the Kitchens promote conversation circles, workshops and other activities that strengthen the social fabric of the community. In addition, some Kitchens have community gardens, which provide fresh ingredients for meals and contribute to environmental and food education.

Over time, Solidarity Kitchens gained notoriety, drawing the attention of the national political scene. The initiative was associated with political figures such as Guilherme Boulos, former presidential candidate and MTST founder, whose political trajectory was strengthened with the success and social impact of the project. Solidarity Kitchens, promoted as an example of effective community action, became a valuable political asset used to strengthen discourses in favour of social policies and the fight against inequality. Their visibility and recognition also paved the way for their transformation into public policy, culminating in the creation of a draft bill proposing the inclusion of solidarity kitchens in national public policies to fight hunger and guaranteeing resources for this type of initiative.

Solidarity kitchens seem similar to another grassroots initiative known to Brazilians, the Action for Citizenship. Initiated in the early 90s by sociologist and activist Herbert de Souza, it aimed to mobilise all segments of Brazilian society to fight against hunger. However, as it started questioning society and proposing large structural changes such as agrarian reforms, it lost strength and engagement. Not just because of a lack of political will, but also due to the resistance of civil society to alter the status quo, a tacit complicity in the maintenance of existing social structures. Solidarity Kitchens also come from a social movement arguing for decent housing and inequalities, but through ‘fight against hunger’ as a discourse MTST manages to disentangle itself from the ‘subversive’ and ‘criminal’ character that and society and media have attributed to the movement since its creation.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


About this opinion

Programmes and centres
Brazil IDS Initiative

Related content