Meet Regina Tchelly, the Brazilian Transforming the Way We Eat

Photo of Sarah Brown
8 June 2018

Today, there are several major problems with the way we consume food: over-consumption, unnecessary waste, long supply chains where the consumer has no idea where the food came from, and environmental damage. Regina Tchelly’s solution? A holistic approach to food, starting in her favela community in Rio de Janeiro.

Regina Tchelly is the founder of Favela Orgânica, which she began in September 2011 with little more than $140 BRL ($38 USD) and a clear vision. The project aims to change the relationship people have with food by encouraging a conscious approach to consumption and the avoidance of excess by showing how food that may otherwise become “waste” can be transformed into healthy and nutritious recipes. It all started in Babilonia, a community in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro in the Leme neighborhood, and since then, Favela Orgânica has conducted workshops and lectures in several states across Brazil as well as abroad in Uruguay, France, and Italy.

Favela Orgânica offers an accessible approach to sustainable food consumption and demonstrates a possible way of addressing global issues, such as worldwide hunger in the face of a rapidly growing population. Using seeds, stems, and fruit skins, Tchelly creates recipes that help promote the Favela Orgânica culture of buying less, making your own food whenever possible, and using the parts of the food that we typically throw away. One of her key workshops, titled “Food Cycle,” makes people aware of each step of the food chain from planning purchases or growing produce to the preparation and throwing out unwanted food.

What started as a project between six mothers in a southern favela in Rio de Janeiro is now setting international standards for sustainable food consumption. Culture Trip spoke with Regina Tchelly to find out more about Favela Orgânica and her future plans.

Can you tell us who you are and what is your project?

I’m a delightful person—I’m Regina Tchelly, founder of the Favela Orgânica project. It’s a project that works with the life cycle and the food cycle here in Babilonia in Rio de Janeiro.

Tell us about your childhood.

My childhood in Paraíba [a state in the Northeast of Brazil] was the same as all the other children, but I think I was different—I think I was born an entrepreneur. When I was 12 years old, I was the manicurist of Serraria [a town in Paraíba]. I came to Rio de Janeiro because I wanted to have better conditions to raise my oldest daughter and it was then in 2011 that I developed Favela Orgânica.

Tell us about your project. What is Favela Orgânica?

It’s a project that works with the food cycle and the life cycle. What’s its purpose? To give back to the earth what the earth gives to us. We change the relationship between people and food, to value food, to value the producer, to give back to the earth exactly what the earth gave to us.

How did the project start?

It started in my house with $140 BRL ($38 USD) with six stay-at-home moms, beautiful like me. In one way or the other, we wanted to bring a new approach to the food inside our houses. It was from this [that] Favela Orgânica grew. With these six moms, it became ten, then it became 15, then it was 50, and then the world welcomed the project.

How has your personal experience inspired you to develop this project?

I was born for a cause, I was born to make a difference. I didn’t come here for the ride, but to leave something here forever. I have two daughters, I live in the community in Babilonia and here there was always certain food that people are prejudiced towards. It’s these discriminated foods, like a banana skin, a broccoli stem, a corn leaf, that I believe people can start to look at as food and not as a waste product.

How was your experience abroad?

The first time I thought about developing Favela Orgânica, I knew that the world was too small for Regina Tchelly. As I’ve already said to everyone, I was born a star, I turned into a constellation, and now I’m a galaxy and next, a universe. It’s a business that people value and they believe in everything that I did and that I’m doing. Food is for everyone, it’s universal. Food for me, [this] is an act of love, it’s a political act. Food for me unites and transforms.

Did you imagine this project going so far?

Of course! Who doesn’t eat and who doesn’t waste food? It’s a way of waking up and realizing our planet is there, available and in our backyards. We value food, the producers, the seeds. I’m really visionary, I see things from far away and so I was sure that the day I put this idea in my home, the world would know about it.

How is the relationship between the people in the community and Favela Orgânica?

Now we have a course in the Babilonia garden space together with Favela Orgânica that’s here in Babilonia. It accepts children as well as everyone of all ages, everyone mixed together. Right now, it’s a critical moment, living here with so much violence and [so], all the projects stopped in the favela. We are here though and food continues to transform us. The project shows people in the community that food is uniting, especially in this moment of violence, and food transforms how we eat. Food isn’t inside a packet and only to be eaten to feed us, food is also a political act and a way for people to live.

How does the project help break preconceptions?

The first things to do is to show people in the community how important the relationship with food is, how important food is, and that we can do these things together. Favela Orgânica, for me, is a blanket project that includes other developing projects that involve everyone, including the workshops that we give. It’s a way to participate and be a part of Favela Orgânica.

What is healthy food to you?

Healthy eating for me is food that transforms. We seek out the producer, we plant our own food, we cook our own meals and food. What pains me the most is when I see food being thrown out, simply because of a lack of knowledge of how to enjoy food completely and make several different dishes from all the different parts of food.

Why do you think it’s important to love yourself?

It’s fundamental. If we don’t love ourselves, how can we love those around us? How can we move forward? How can we make a difference? Love yourself, value yourself, excite yourself. Make a difference, embrace yourself, say that you are a delightful person. Do something worthwhile and do what you know how to do the best.

How are you different from other chefs?

I like to know where my food came from and I like to know where my food will go. I like to know what I can do with the food in my hands and this makes all the difference. I pick up the food and I know exactly what I can do with it. I’m not a chef that only uses sugar and flour; I’m a chef that makes a difference for everybody, whether it’s children or adults.

Why do you think there is such a gap between people and their food?

The big industries dictate what we have to buy and what we should eat. Society is greatly manipulated in this sense. The producers are here, the food is here, your hands are here, all ready to plant your own food. So, let’s make a difference and not bow down to industry demands.

What are your next plans?

To make a school to teach the Favela Orgânica cycle of food. To get these children to eat better and encourage their parents to eat better too.