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In São Paulo’s cityscape, community gardens prompt a new food paradigm

  • The NGO Cidades sem Fome (Cities Without Hunger) has established more than 80 urban and school gardens across São Paulo, turning vacant lots that were once breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes into sources of income, health and food security.
  • The project’s largest garden, beneath transmission lines run by power utility Enel, measures nearly 1 hectare (2.5 acres) and produces up to 6 metric tons of 33 different types of leafy and root vegetables per month.
  • One-third of São Paulo territory is zoned as rural, with more than 700 commercial agricultural units registered on the city’s Sampa+Rural platform, contribute to food security and helping fight climate change impacts.

“This here is really great. I feel so good! I’m not stressed, and I’m not sad. When I’m here in the garden, everything is good,” says Waldir Francisco de Almeida, planting a long row of lettuce at Professora Maria de Lourdes Rosário Negreiros State School in São Paulo.

Almeida used to work in the food industry, but he saw neither soil nor sunlight there, as he puts it. For 17 years, he managed a production line of ultraprocessed salty snack foods, working nights at a factory. “It was like being inside a prison, in a dark place, and I had no way of knowing how marvelous things could be outside.”

But night turned into day for Almeida in 2013 when he began planting seeds in the gardens of the NGO Cidades sem Fome. “After I started working with the soil, my health improved. My heart is full when I come to work in the morning, I’m excited to get here as soon as I can.”

Cidades sem Fome, or Cities Without Hunger, has created agricultural projects in more than 80 urban spaces and school gardens across São Paulo. The largest of them is the one at the Maria de Lourdes Rosário Negreiros school, where it has thrived beneath transmission lines run by power utility Enel since 2018, covering nearly 1 hectare (2.5 acres) in the eastern borough of São Mateus.

The NGO Cidades sem Fome’s largest vegetable garden lies beneath power lines in the borough of São Mateus, eastern São Paulo. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

“Cidades sem Fome’s purpose is to transform unutilized spaces inside large cities like São Paulo into places to grow food like we have done here,” says project creator Hans Dieter Temp.

“We have hundreds or even thousands of unutilized or underutilized spaces — spaces that become liabilities not only for the surrounding communities, but also for the city and the people who own the properties. It’s a problem for everybody,” Temp says. “When we started here, it was just a field full of dengue-carrying mosquitoes. We had an outbreak of chikungunya in the region because these are closed areas, walled in. The grass grows high, people toss away plastic cups, bottles — all sorts of trash that ends up filling with water” and becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Fátima Nascimento dos Santos, who lives next to the garden, has taken part in the project since it started. “The land was completely abandoned — full of garbage, construction waste, abandoned horses — people were always getting robbed here … it was a no-man’s land.”

After signing a contract with Enel, Temp’s team set to work clearing the land under the transmission lines and treating the soil many times over with organic compost to make it fertile again. “Today we have about 33 different types of crops ranging from salad greens to herbs, root vegetables, cauliflower to broccoli. In the best months, from April to December, we manage to harvest 5 to 6 [metric] tons of vegetables every month,” he says.

The idea of urban gardens came to him while he was doing his postgraduate work in Germany, Temp says. “When you live there, you see how community organizations can make a difference. I learned a lot from that. Oftentimes, it’s the organized collective that makes things better, that improves life for the people inside a community.”


A nurturing city

Cidades sem Fome’s gardens are among the 700 commercial gardens registered on the Sampa+Rural platform created by the city of São Paulo to bring together local agricultural and health food projects.

According to the platform, about one-third of the land in the municipality of São Paulo is zoned as rural. Small family farms produce fruit and vegetables, some of them using organic farming and agroecology. These farms are credited with slowing the urbanization process and contributing to food security, health and income. They also revitalize urban areas and offer relief from islands of intense heat.

Hans Dieter Temp, creator of the NGO Cidades sem Fome. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Besides commercial farms, there are several community gardens on public and private land throughout São Paulo. According to one study, in addition to improving food security, these gardens strengthen the communities where people participate, generating positive change in land management.

In São Paulo’s south, where a significant number of these farms are located, Indigenous Guarani practice their traditional farming methods inside two Indigenous territories, with a focus on recovering traditional seeds and establishing food sovereignty.

“Sampa+Rural program’s approach is based on sustainable agriculture with agroecology, providing technical support and a multidimensional view of farming,” says Lia Palm, the São Paulo municipal coordinator for agriculture and food security. “This ranges from understanding farming’s role in the environment as a source of water, in mitigation and adaption to climate change, to its role in sovereignty and food and nutritional security.”

She says there are more than 1,000 farming sites along the city limits. “So those are places where food is produced, where there is knowledge about food, of traditional culture. They are places where people meet.”

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees urban and semiurban farming as a food security strategy and a way to combat climate change impacts.

A herb bed in the Cidades sem Fome garden in São Mateus, eastern São Paulo. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

“If it weren’t for these rural farms in São Paulo, which we could call semiurban agriculture, located near or just beyond the city limits, we would have serious supply problems,” says Gustavo Nagib, from the University of São Paulo’s Urban Agriculture Study Group (GEAU/USP). “One example is the Parelheiros region, which concentrates a large number of small farms that are currently transitioning to organic and agroecology-based farming.”

An analysis carried out by the Escolhas Institute, a sustainable development think tank, suggests it’s possible to feed all 20 million inhabitants of the São Paulo metropolitan area with locally grown produce. This would significantly reduce the waste generated by food logistics involving transportation over long distances.

From garden to school lunch table

Logistics and production flow are concerns for Cidades sem Fome. Across the street from its main garden, the NGO has set up a grocery stand to sell the produce it grows to the local community. Early in the morning, a wheelbarrow full of freshly picked broccoli crosses the street to a waiting buyer: a restaurateur preparing a large batch of broccoli-stuffed pastries. Cidades sem Fome has similar supply contracts with other local restaurants, bars, diners, cultural centers and public schools.

Many public schools have their own gardens, set up and managed by the organization together with students and the school community. “The biggest focus is to fight food insecurity, either by growing food for school lunches, or increasing the amount of food grown in the backyard at home,” Temp says. “Urban living takes away people’s contact with nature. We are raising people in a sterile environment. School gardens give children an opportufnity for some contact with nature, especially with the soil.”

At the Maria de Lourdes Rosário Negreiros school in São Mateus, it’s time for planting lettuce and picking collard greens. Groups of children potter around the garden, each child planting one small head of lettuce and picking a few collard leaves to take home. The rest of the greens are put away to make their school lunch. “I like to be able to smell the plants: the collard greens, the lettuce, the food in the garden,” says Kadar Leon Ficiel from the fifth grade.

A student harvesting collard greens at the Professora Maria de Lourdes Rosário Negreiros State School in São Mateus, eastern São Paulo. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Waldir Francisco de Almeida supervises the activity with Beatriz de Lima Médici, a nutritionist who used to work in restaurant kitchens but, like Almeida, chose to work with the soil instead. “I think that when we care for a living being we are also taking better care of ourselves and of our environment. So, gardening can teach us a lot,” Médici says.

Another fifth-grader, Miguel Carvalho da Costa, says he’s now started to eat salad. “Last year we planted little lettuce plants and it was really cool, especially because there are a lot of people who don’t eat very healthy food. So this is a project that can help kids from around here to have better eating habits.”

At the schools, Cidades sem Fome builds the garden beds, improves the soil, and visits three times a week to maintain the garden and train managers to care for it: to know when to harvest the food and how to manage planting days with students. The NGO’s involvement continues with treating the soil and providing plant sprouts.

“The NGO intends to create a legacy because creating dependence makes no sense to us,” Médici says. “We want people to learn and grow their own gardens just like this one.”


Banner image: A vegetable garden run by the NGO Cidades sem Fome (Cities Without Hunger) in the São Mateus area of eastern São Paulo. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 11, 2023.


Biazoti, A. R., & Sorrentino, M. (2022). Political engagement in urban agriculture: Power to act in community gardens of São Paulo. Ambiente & Sociedade25. doi:10.1590/1809-4422asoc20210056vu2022l1ao

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