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

São Paulo

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

Sandra Silva, a 46-year-old single mother, has a small house. It’s all she can afford, and she’s had little time to improve because caring for her four children and a grandchild who live with her has become a full-time job.

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

Food is on the ballot for millions of poor Brazilians, who go to the polls on Sunday to choose their next leader. He says he will vote for former left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in part because of Silva’s food insecurity.

“During the pandemic there were so many deaths and then nothing got better, things are getting more and more expensive,” he says. “I plan to vote for Lula because Bolsonaro has been there for four years (the current president of Brazil). And he hasn’t done much in four years.”

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

Silva was one of the first to settle in the favela known as the Nova Vitoria Esperança community six years ago. Back then there were only a few houses in a vast forest, but the pandemic has seen their numbers grow. More than 100 families, many driven away from other parts of the city by rising costs, have moved here in the past two years. Social workers tell CNN most need help.

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

While national polls suggest only a five-point gap between the two candidates — 49% for Lula, 45% for Bolsonaro, according to an Oct. 20 poll by Brazil’s Datafolha institute — the gap widens to 57% for Lula and 37% for Bolsonaro. only the poorest are considered, depending on the institute.

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

But Bolsonaro has tried to reverse the situation, spending billions on subsidies before the election in a bid to attract poorer voters. His government’s welfare program, branded as Auxilio Brasil, distributes a monthly benefit of R$600 (about $110) to low-income households, which he has vowed to continue, although it has not been clear how it will be paid.

Earlier this month, after the first round of voting proved inconclusive, Bolsonaro’s government also announced an accelerated timetable for aid to the poor, including a program of gas vouchers.

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 the center of São Paulo, Robson Mendonça, a community leader, told us that, to some extent, Bolsonaro’s efforts have been successful for the poor.

Mendonça runs an NGO that helps rough sleepers get back on their feet. Among other things, they have 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 affected by the government’s policies, and he says they plan to vote for the incumbent.

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

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

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

“He is not able to buy bread every day. Some days you have it, some days you don’t”, explains 36-year-old Aninha. “I don’t always have a formula. Some days I can’t buy meat, so we have to eat beans or rice.’

He opens his fridge, revealing bottled water and little else.

“We do it. And we keep going,” he added.

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

Their home is three hours and three buses from the affluent downtown, a world away from the bustling skyscrapers of Brazil’s commercial capital. In the city center, Aninha’s husband works as a construction worker for 14 hours a day. Despite their efforts, they continue to struggle to feed themselves and their four children.

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

“If Lula wins, I want food prices to drop, and schools, transportation to improve for our children. I think he will do well with us,” he says. “Since I voted for him, he has always delivered, I think he will do good things.”

But his smile does little to hide the fear and uncertainty he faces.

“Still, I thank God for what I have,” he says before falling on his face. “I hope to God Lula wins and things get better.”