Some heroes wear chef coats

How one Brazilian is tackling a world-wide issue with community solutions.

At Airfox, we believe that access to financial services should be a basic human right. In our work to build an easy-to-use, low-cost yet high quality digital banking option for the financially underserved, we’ve met some amazing individuals who are making the world a better place. We want to recognize these “Heroes of the Community” for their tireless work to help others in their communities.

Please join us this week in celebrating Regina Techelly from the Morro da Babilônia community in Rio.

Wasted nutrients and wasted space

In her community, Regina Tchelly saw a broken food system: Food that was still edible was being thrown away, people were not getting proper nutrients from their daily meals, and garbage piles were overtaking spaces that could be used for gardens. In September of 2011 Regina decided she could not sit back and be a bystander to these issues, so she launched the “Favela Orgânica” project.

Regina Tchelly, founder of Favela Orgânica.

Favela Orgânica, simply translated to Organic Favela, is located in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro. At its start, the organization taught participants how to not be wasteful and find value in all phases of the food system from planting to consumption to fertilization. In the beginning Regina faced a community that had never prioritized healthy food choices.

“I didn’t ever think about eating fruits or vegetables, they were never appealing to me,” says community member Anita Oliveira. “My quality of life has changed a lot since I started participating in Favela Orgânica’s workshops, I had no idea how much better I would feel eating healthier foods.

Regina wasn’t satisfied with just providing nutrition classes to her community; her goal with Favela Orgânica was to teach people to give back to the Earth. She wanted her community to conduct food-smart activities, including composting food instead of including it in garbage piles, planting gardens in open community spaces, and taking cooking classes to learn how to use food in different ways. The project has grown since the early days to include all these educational initiatives, catering services, community events, and much more.

Gaining community interest

Despite the lack of concern about food waste and healthy eating before the launch of Favela Orgânica, Regina’s community quickly learned to appreciate the lessons and food skills she introduced to them. From the start, local residents purchased the organic food produced from the NGO’s pop-up gardens, and word of her quality products spread quickly in the community.

Interested community members of all ages participate in the NGO’s initiatives from the beginning.

Anita Oliveira was an early participant in the Favela Orgânica initiatives, and she credits Regina’s work for both saving her money and drastically improving her diet and lifestyle. “The project transformed the way I use the food I buy. A lot of what I used to throw away now makes up the main course of my meals,” says Anita. “The classes taught me to make meals with fruits and vegetables that I actually liked, and I started to feel better after eating.”

Regina teaches residents in her community how to use the foods they already are buying and have access to so that nothing in their fridge goes to waste.

Interest in Regina’s classes and nutrition expertise spread outside of her local Morro da Babilônia community, and in 2018 she began a class in neighboring Morro do Chapéu Mangueira. Here, there was interest in Favela Orgânica from people of all ages, and the organization had almost 200 people participate in classes, including children, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens. Regina’s organization was meeting the needs that people didn’t know they had, but desperately wanted to be part of once they started to learn.

An image promoting cooking classes with Favela Orgânica, promoting food waste awareness. “There could be a dish hiding inside your fridge”, reads the caption.

Turning waste into profit

Besides the farming, nutrition, composting, and other initiatives Regina enacted in her community, she also was able to organize a catering business using the fresh food grown by the NGO. The catering services sold by Regina’s team provided healthy food options for attendees at all types of events across her community.

Plated dishes from a recent event the NGO catered.

In an effort to collaborate instead of compete with other fresh food providers in the area, Favela Orgânica partnered with street markets across Rio de Janeiro to help bring diverse food options to their catered events. When the partnership first started, the merchants donated the ingredients that would be cooked and served at these events. In return Regina’s team would promote these merchants and their healthy food options to class attendees.

Regina with one of the merchants partnered with Favela Orgânica. The merchants provide local and fresh ingredients for the NGO to use when catering events, and in turn Regina’s team provides guests and community members with information about her ingredients’ origins.

Now some of the merchants are no longer able to donate ingredients to Favela Orgânica and instead sell it to the group at a discount. Regina still appreciates their contributions, but it proves to her that more needs to be done to both support farmers and help create demand for fresh food.

The team behind the NGO

There are many organizations run by motivated individuals with great ideas, but Regina has found unusual success with her team of volunteers who share a dedication to her mission. Everyone who plays a role in the success of a project — whether they’re chefs for the catering division, teachers of community classes, or nutritionists working with community members — are “transformative partners” in Regina’s eyes.

The transformative partners at Favela Orgânica are willing to put in the time to help the NGO even with the less glamorous parts of running an organization.

Regina with two of Favela Orgânica’s transformative partners.

“When ‘volunteers’ see a sink full of dishes to wash, they run. Those of us here are dedicated to the mission and willing to contribute however the organization needs,” says Regina.

Whenever Regina can pay the monthly bills with money to spare, she splits the remaining funds with her 12 consistent transformative partners. She knows they don’t ever expect to be paid and appreciate the gesture when the organization sees a good month of food and catering sales.

Favela Orgânica’s transformative partners perform tasks like working in community gardens, knowing that they are not guaranteed to make any money from working with the group.

By treating every volunteer like a partner, Regina has created a dedicated network of individuals who have the freedom to work on whatever part of the organization that interests them. Vanessa Hervé is one of the transformative partners who has been with Regina since the beginning, moving from section to section of the organization and leaving an impact everywhere she goes.

Vanessa started with Favela Orgânica as a management consultant. Even after she left her job with the consulting company, she still dedicates her time to guiding Regina through the ups and downs of business. Joining the organization right when the demand for the catering services started to pick up, Vanessa saw the impact the organization could have and knew she could fill in the gaps in their strategy.

Regina’s compassion and welcoming persona have attracted many partners to join the NGO’s purpose.

“Regina is bringing completely new ideas surrounding food to our community and creating business opportunities along the way,” says Vanessa. “The organization’s mission matched well with my skills in nutrition and management. Regina will always be welcome to whatever contributions I am able to give.”

Transitioning away from her management consulting role, Vanessa now participates in the NGO as an education nutritionist, helping train community members on hygienic practices, obtaining healthy food options, and understanding nutrition labels and ingredients in food. Vanessa’s experience as a transformative partner at Favela Orgânica represents the experience Regina wants every volunteer to have with her organization. At every level, her goal is to have a positive impact on the lives of members in her community, including those who help her run the organization.

Threats to the group’s future

Regina aims to change people’s relationship with food so that they can not only enjoy eating, but also appreciate the effort involved in bringing healthy food to the plate. One of the biggest challenges Regina initially faced in her food production process was removing the unhealthy and potentially dangerous chemicals hiding in much of the food across Brazil. In a country where over 250 pesticides are commonly used, Regina’s team had to ensure the ingredients used in their classes and catering services avoided these chemicals.

Favela Orgânica has already impacted countless lives in Morro da Babilônia and beyond with classes, full-body health events, and workshops with children.

Regina has also faced difficulties sustaining financial backing for Favela Orgânica. After almost eight years of operation without steady funding, Regina’s still worries how she will keep her various initiatives afloat day to day. She doesn’t see this lack of money as a reason to end her work, but wants to do more including improving her staff’s working conditions, reaching more people with her classes, and expanding to other communities.

“The project has had a hard time gathering monetary support, and I would really like to change that,” says Regina. “I’m definitely mentally drained at the end of the week, but still holding out hope that we will receive more and more donations and that our work can continue to make a difference.”

If you’re interested in helping support Favela Orgânica’s work, please visit their benfeitoria page and see how your donation can make a difference. You can also visit their Facebook page to stay up to date on their catering events and food cycle initiatives.

Airfox continues to raise awareness and support life-changing initiatives run by community heroes in Brazil. To keep up to date on organizations we highlight and work we are doing with Brazilian communities, follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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