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Engineering food: infrastructure exclusion and 'last mile' delivery in Brazilian favelas

British Academy grant

2019 – 2022

Bringing together an interdisciplinary team, the project aims to understand how food is made available in favelas, adopting a critical look at how supply chains serve these neighbourhoods with some produce and fail to deliver others.
• Também disponível em português

The "Engineering food: infrastructure exclusion and ‘last mile’ delivery in Brazilian favelas" project is supported by a British Academy grant, awarded to Professor Gareth Jones (Director, the LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre), under the Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme.

The project brings together researchers, Dr Aiko Ikemura Amaral (LSE LACC Researcher, Reino Unido) and Dr Mara Nogueira (Lecturer, Birkbeck University) in collaboration with Dr Andre DuarteDr Vinicius RodriguesMichele Martins, and Dr Lars Meyer Sanches at Brazilian research institution Insper

Brazilian favelas are vibrant spaces, where ‘mom and pop’ shops offer a variety of products. Yet, supposedly, these same neighbourhoods are also identified as ‘food deserts’ and ‘food swamps’, where the absence of affordable ‘healthy food’ options is accompanied by a profusion of cheaper ‘unhealthy’ alternatives. Motivated by this apparent contradiction, this project examines the supply chains and social networks that stand behind the availability, accessibility and consumption of fresh food in Brazilian favelas in two cities, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo.

Bringing together an interdisciplinary team from geography, sociology, engineering and management, the project aims to understand how food is made available in favelas, adopting a critical look at how supply chains serve these neighbourhoods with some produce and fail to deliver others, highlighting the main ruptures and obstacles in this process. The overall objective is to develop a new framework that addresses food as an integral and essential part of urban infrastructures.

Food is not commonly thought of in terms of infrastructure and urban planning. Yet, structural and spatial inequalities within cities affect access to affordable good-quality and culturally acceptable fresh produce through regular distribution systems. In Brazilian favelas, established supply chains largely fail to close the ‘last mile’ and the provision of foodstuff generally relies on smaller, and often informal retailers.

Local residents and businesses sustain and reinvent themselves through shifting interactions with government and fluctuations in the private sector, embodying part of the infrastructure of food provision in favelas. Here, street markets and the so-called nanostores build on social and commercial networks within and outside of favelas in order to cater to residents, while also constituting an important source of livelihood.

Understanding that the mix, price and quality of foodstuff is more than a function of the efficiency of supply chains, this research explores how hierarchies based on class, race and gender shape existing infrastructures and frame access to, and demand for, certain produce. It critically engages with the conceptual framework addressing the ‘food gap’ that characterises the provision and consumption of fresh produce in urban areas under neoliberal capitalism.

The research furthermore questions the applicability of concepts such as ‘food deserts’ and ‘food swamps’ to the everyday of Brazilian favelas, also challenging the normative underpinnings of notions such as ‘food (in)secure’, ‘healthy food’ and, even, ‘fresh food.’

In order to do so, the research combines ethnographic and quantitative modelling methods to map the public and private, formal and informal infrastructures, as well as the practical alternatives people engineer to access food. Working with residents, shop owners, grassroots organisations, NGOs and social entrepreneurs, it will discuss the cultural meanings attached to food and the decisions informing consumption choices (or lack thereof).

Through interviews and participant observation, it will explore the gaps in supply chains, while capturing creative forms of bottom-up collaborations and community initiatives through which people themselves become part of the infrastructure providing food to favelas.

Expected outputs have been designed to encourage dialogue with state and non-state actors in the field in order to discuss and propose practice-based solutions to reduce infrastructural exclusion and unequal access to food within favelas. The material will be published in Portuguese and/or in English, and will include blog posts, academic articles, and policy briefs, which will propose ways to strengthen supply chain logistics and social infrastructures contributing to the well-being of low-income urban residents.  

The project's Advisory Board includes Dr Laurie Denyer Willis (Cambridge), Dr Jeanne Firth (LSE), Dr Austin Zeiderman (LSE), and Professor João Tonucci (UFMG).



Our research assistants: 

Rafael Gomes da Silva has a BA in Social Communication, with an emphasis on marketing and advertising, and works as a content analyst for Editora BEI.  

Laryssa Kruger is a public policy manager with a master's in urban planning (social housing specialism). She carries out qualitative and quantitative research in vulnerable and peripheral urban territories.

Lis Blanco is interested in public policies related to food, hunger, and the state. As a PhD candidate at the University of Campinas, she examines the transformation of “hunger” into “food insecurity” and the effects of this process on statecraft. She holds a master's in social anthropology from Unicamp, Brazil, and has been engaged in interdisciplinary ethnographic research on food and inequality for the past ten years. She is also a member of APSA (Laboratory of Symbolic Production and Anthropology) and RBPSSAN (Brazilian Network of Researchers in Food Security and Sovereignty). 

Juliana Moraes Araújo is a doctoral student in the Graduate Programme in Architecture and Urbanism at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, where she was also awarded her Masters. Her research focusses on sustainable urban food systems and collaborative processes. 

Renata Santos de Oliveira is a resident and organiser in Vitória, in the Izidora region (Belo Horizonte). She was educated in the popular struggle for housing. 

Photo credit: Egg-seller in Paraisopolis favela, São Paulo city. Henk W J Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Kingdom of The Netherlands Sherpa to the UN/WB High Level Panel on Water.