In Brazil’s presidential election, food is on the ballot

São Paulo

In a flimsy wooden structure in a small favela on the outer edges of São Paulo, a kitchen, a bed and a television occupy the same room.

This is the tiny house of 46-year-old single mother Sandra Silva. It’s all she can afford, and she’s had little time to fix it because caring for her four children and a grandson who lives with her has become a full-time job.

“It hasn’t been easy,” he told CNN. He has struggled to find work and lives on government benefits, rationing what the family eats so they can afford baby formula. Most of the time, she gives the children rice and beans, but she worries they need more nutritious food, she says.

Food is on the ballot for millions of poor Brazilians as they head to the polls to choose their next leader in a runoff on Sunday. Silva’s food insecurity is part of the reason he will vote for former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, he says.

“During the pandemic there were so many deaths and then nothing got better, things are just getting more and more expensive,” he says. “I intend to vote for Lula because (the acting president of Brazil) Bolsonaro has been there for four years. And in four years he has not been able to do much.”

Hundreds of people line up to eat at a soup kitchen in downtown São Paulo.

Although unemployment has been falling in the Latin American nation, its economy has struggled to pick up the pace since the worst days of the pandemic. Now the war in Ukraine is increasing the cost of living, leaving many in precarious conditions. A recent study by a network of NGOs, including Oxfam, found that more than 33 million Brazilians suffer from hunger.

Silva was one of the first to settle in the favela known as the community of Nova Vitoria Esperança six years ago. At the time there were only a handful of houses in a mostly wooded area, but the pandemic has seen their numbers grow. More than 100 families, many driven from other parts of the city by rising costs, have moved here in the past two years. Social workers tell CNN that most need support.

Around the neighborhood, posters cover the walls in support of leftist presidential hopeful Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party. There is little respect for his rival, the right-wing Bolsonaro, who has struggled to reach this area and his electorate.

Although national polls suggest only a five-point difference between the two candidates: 49% for Lula, 45% for Bolsonaro, according to an October report. Poll 20 by the Brazilian institute Datafolha: This gap widens to 57% for Lula and 37% for Bolsonaro when only the poorest are taken into account, according to the institute.

Lula, who previously served as president from 2003 to 2011, is widely remembered for lifting millions of Brazilians out of extreme poverty through the “Bolsa Família” welfare program.

But Bolsonaro has tried to turn the tide, spending billions in subsidies ahead of the election to try to attract poorer voters. His government’s welfare program, called Auxilio Brasil, distributes a monthly allowance of R$600 (about $110) to low-income households that he has promised to continue, though without clearly explaining how it will be paid.

Earlier this month, after a first-round vote was inconclusive, Bolsonaro’s government also announced an accelerated schedule of aid disbursements to the needy, as well as a gas voucher program.

Robson Mendonça runs a soup kitchen in downtown São Paulo and says the situation is getting worse, with more people joining his lines every day.

In central São Paulo, community leader Robson Mendonça tells us he believes Bolsonaro’s efforts to woo the poor have been partly successful.

Mendonça runs an NGO that helps people who sleep rough to recover. Among other things, they operate a soup kitchen in the heart of São Paulo, which serves around 1,400 meals a day.

He says many of the people he helps on a daily basis have been swayed by government policy and told him they intend to vote for the incumbent.

But Mendonça himself fears that Bolsonaro is out of touch with reality, citing public statements that minimized hunger in the country.

“Bolsonaro was even able to lie to the national broadcaster, saying there is no hunger in Brazil,” he explained. “But there are millions who are asking for a plate of food, because they can’t feed themselves.”

Another resident of Nova Vitoria Esperança, Ivanilda Aninha, knows this struggle all too well.

“You can’t buy bread every day. Some days you have it, others you don’t,” explains Aninha, 36. “I don’t always have a formula. There are days I can’t buy meat, so we have to eat beans or rice.”

He opens the fridge and discovers some bottled water and little else.

“We do it. And we continue,” he adds.

The center of rich São Paulo is barely visible from the Community of New Vitoria Esperança, on the eastern edge of the city.

Her home is three hours and three buses from the wealthy center, a world away from the hustle and bustle and pristine skyscrapers of Brazil’s commercial capital. The city center is where Aninha’s husband works as a builder for 14 hours every day. Despite their efforts, they still struggle to feed themselves and their four children.

Aninha, like her neighbor Silva, hopes that if Lula da Silva wins the next election, her situation will improve.

“If Lula wins, I want him to lower food prices and improve schools, transportation for our children. I think he will do well,” he says. “Since I’ve voted for him, he’s always done that, I think he’s going to do good things.”

But her smile does little to hide the fear and uncertainty she faces.

“Despite everything, I’m grateful to God for what I have,” he says before falling on his face. “I just hope to God that Lula wins and things get better.”

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