Environmental and Systemic Racism: Food Deserts and COVID-19 in Brazil’s Favelas

By Nadiyah Fisher

Food is an essential physiological need for humans. Some humans can survive close to two months without food with the presence of water due to differences in size, sex, environment, and health conditions (Silver, 2019). While the time varies among individuals, the impact of starvation is the same: deterioration of organs, decrease in energy, and the possibility of death (Silver, 2019). Even with access to minimal food, the consumption of over processed foods and foods high in fat content can cause the same negative effects to the body (Silver, 2019). In Brazil’s favelas, or slums, favelados, or people living in favelas, lack access to abundant and healthy foods due to severe poverty because of the lack of governmental assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic (Duarte et al., 2020). Their lack of resources makes them susceptible to health disparities which increase the risk of developing COVID-19. While food is a necessity for all, food is also cultural in Brazil. Brazilian cuisine is seen as a mixture of cultures in the country and a symbol of harmony. Food is used to unite people and build relationships (Nes, 2016). If food is such an integral part of Brazilian culture, why are 25% of Brazilians excluded from acquiring this basic human need and cultural entity? Is their exclusion rooted in Brazil’s history of denial? 

Brazil’s favelas are on the outskirts of major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Due to Brazil’s former status as the largest slave port in Latin America, many believe that favelas arose from former enslaved Afro-Brazilians who did not have access to housing. They settled in the steep slopes of Brazil because the land was desolate (Rodrigues, 2020). Due to their population consisting mostly of Africans, some favelas were initially called bairros Africanos or African neighborhoods (Rodrigues, 2020). Another theory suggests that the rise of industrialism from the ‘40s through the ‘70s caused many poor Brazilians to move back into the cities for work (Wallenfeldt, 2019). The favelas are makeshift homes of scraps, metal, and old materials. Many of the homes contain multiple families in one room. The lack of stable foundations on these homes makes proper sewage systems and electricity a challenge (Wallenfeldt, 2019). Many favelados live in unsanitary and disease-ridden conditions. Today, the favelas are disproportionately inhabited by many Black and poor Brazilians, and more than 1.5 million Brazilians live in favelas (Ortiz, 2016). Approximately 70% of all favelados have no savings and over 70% of women living in favelas have children, many conceived before the age of 20 (Rodrigues, 2020). Contrary to the myths of a racial democracy and harmony of the races in Brazil, Black Brazilians are paid less compared to their white counterparts for the same jobs and often are subject to jobs in worse conditions (Rodrigues, 2020). A large majority of favelados work for informal companies that often underpay or deny compensation. These are all instances of systemic racism. Systemic racism is when discrimination is embedded in the laws and regulations of a society and used to negatively impact a group of people in areas such as housing and employment (Slater, 2021). Poverty and systematic racism pose barriers for Afro-Brazilians to escape the favelas despite the lack of resources and unsanitary conditions. How can a community with a history of dormancy adapt to the struggles produced by COVID-19 even when it threatens one of their basic needs? 

In addition to the unsanitary conditions, the economic struggles produced from the COVID-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the food deserts in the favelas. Food deserts are defined as areas that systematically lack access to healthy and minimally processed foods (Duarte et al., 2020). As result of the pandemic, farmers in Brazil were unable to sell fresh foods because school and restaurant closures made their profits dwindle or totally disappear. More than 60% of farmers faced economic troubles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Brazilian farmers destroyed their crops to avoid the cost surrounding harvesting thus affecting the supply of fresh produce in the favelas (Duarte et al., 2020). As a result of the lack of government assistance in favelas, a form of systemic racism, many favelados had to consume processed foods. Processed and non-perishable foods are cheaper and easier to store and distribute. Processed foods are food that is altered to be more accessible and convenient. They have a longer shelf-life and are typically more flavorful. Many foods are processed such as salads, but some are more heavily processed such as chips or cookies (Fox, 2019). Heavily processed foods tend to have more sodium, sugar, and fat. Some of the healthy characteristics of the food, such as fiber and vitamin count, are altered for taste and longevity. Thus, heavily processed foods are easier to digest because they require less energy to break down, which can lead to obesity. Long-term consumption of heavily processed foods increases your risk of cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and now COVID-19. (Fox, 2019). Not only is the lack of governmental assistance racist, but deadly. The poverty experienced in the favelas and the COVID-19 pandemic makes access to healthcare close to impossible. A research study in Brazil has shown that 55% of Black Brazilians hospitalized for severe COVID-19 symptoms died as opposed to 34% of their white counterparts (Caldwell & Araujo, 2020). 

Food is an integral part of Brazilian society. Food is used to share culture and stories and unite each other. Unlike the U.S, Brazil’s largest meal is not dinner, but lunch. This is done to give time for community and fellowship in the middle of the day. Lunch is seen as a sacred time for Brazilians (Nes, 2016). People gather for lunch and provide food for others. A popular meal for lunch is feijoada. Feijoada is a beef, pork and bean stew often served with white rice. Due to the contrast of the rice and beans and African and European influences, some see this food to represent racial harmony (D’Angelo Campos, 2021). Many find this assumption to be a myth. In Aline D’Angelo Campos’ research of racial inequities in food systems, she found that European foods are seen as the standard, and the myth of a “democracy” makes inequities in Brazil seem like issues based on class instead of racism. She found that 12% of large landowners were Black, which makes agriculture a luxury for most Black Brazilians, especially favelados. The access to land gives the opportunity to produce fresh foods, generate income, and escape the physiological effects of food deserts. The inequities surrounding food makes engaging in Brazilian culture difficult. How can you have feijoada without access to rice and poultry? Even if favelados had the opportunity to travel for food and resources, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged it especially to those already at substantial risk. 

 In São Paulo’s favelas, Volunteers of the Paraisopolis Women’s Association prepare up to 6,000 meals daily to deliver to favelados in quarantine (Langlois, 2020). In addition to delivering meals, the women donated funds to rent ambulances for the community. Inspired by the acts of the Women’s Association, Sabesp, a water and waste management company, distributes water tanks to residents (Langlois, 2020). While the increase of community support is inspiring, the lack of governmental involvement prevents a large majority of favelados from receiving assistance. Are Black favelados expected to exist under the guise of a racial democracy without basic governmental assistance? D’ Angelo Campos (2021) also found that “race-specific” mechanisms of change are absent and the “overreliance of socioeconomic status to explain all social inequities” is deeply ingrained in “Brazil’s mestiçagem narrative.” Would the government’s acknowledgement of food deserts and health disparities within favelados dismantle their systems of oppression and the fantasy of a racial democracy? Is their lack of awareness and pursuit to appease their white population through this myth, worth the lives of poor Black Brazilians? While these questions may never be answered, their actions provide sufficient evidence.  



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