Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Celebrity chefs are piloting a program to donate surplus food to local communities during the competition in Rio de Janeiro.
To fuel sprints, swims, and gravity-defying hurdles, athletes need to feast. During the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the dining hall catered to 16,000 competitors and officials from 200 countries. The dining facilities in Rio de Janeiro are similarly prepared to dish out mountainous quantities of food—a kitchen the size of two football fields will cook 60,000 meals a day, CBC reported. Buffets will be heaped with acai, starfruits, rice and beans, and cuisines from around the world.
But even the hungriest athlete isn’t a bottomless pit, and there’s bound to be food left over. It’s not destined for the trash: a handful of celebrity chefs are pitching in to redirect the cast-offs from the waste stream.
Led by the chefs and activists Massimo Bottura and David Hertz, they’ll salvage waste from the Olympic Village catering services beginning August 9. The team forecasts that they’ll get their hands on about 12 tons of recovered kitchen scraps—enough to prepare 100 dinners each night throughout the competition.
The meals will be cooked, free of charge, for needy residents of the Lapa neighborhood. The city of Rio donated a space for the project, a collaboration between the Olympic committee’s sustainable food initiative, Hertz’s Gastromotiva organization, and Bottura’s Food for Soul non-profit. Construction crews have spent the last month rehabilitating an empty storefront; after the Games, it will serve as a community hub with food-related programming and cooking classes.
The organizers say they will tap local social workers and charities to spread the word to residents. Organizers hope that ongoing programming will spur longitudinal tweaks in wasteful behaviors. “We need to empower people on the ground,” Hertz said in a statement. “They can make the change happen.”
The Olympics have not been uniformly well-received by the residents of Brazil’s numerous shanty towns. In the lead-up to the games, there have been reports of skirmishes between local gangs trying to carve out territory; armed police have established a presence some residents find discomfiting. Residents of other favelas were evicted to make room for stadiums and other facilities that have racked up the country’s debt. It remains to be seen whether meals could serve as a salve for tensions that are still quite raw.
The Olympic food and beverage team is tackling food waste from multiple fronts. They told Eater that the facilities are committed to sustainable sourcing, and that meals will be served on eco-friendly, biodegradable plates.
Food waste is also galvanizing community organizations and politicians elsewhere in Brazil. Uneaten food is a global crisis; across the country, 35 percent of produce is trashed even before it reaches the table, and more is lost afterwards. In São Paulo, the city council is reviewing a bill that would require companies to donate any unused food still fit for consumption.
This project may or may not initiate a shift in the landscape of food consumption and waste. But, in Rio, it’s surely a splashy start.