HomeMay 2024Brazilian chef David Hertz is using food to bring about social change

Brazilian chef David Hertz is using food to bring about social change

During the pandemic, chef and social entrepreneur David Hertz started Solidarity Kitchens, a project to enable chefs to use their own kitchens to prepare meals for Brazil’s most vulnerable. (Edipo Ferraz)

David Hertz’s entire adult life has been focused on food.

But what interests this Jewish chef from Brazil isn’t so much creating signature dishes that will land him on the pages of magazines (though he’s had that honor). It’s using food as a tool to alleviate poverty and address social injustice.

“Food is central to our daily lives, not only in terms of eating but also in understanding the bigger systems around us,” Hertz said.

Over the last 20 years, Hertz has created a cooking school, Gastromotiva, to help underprivileged Brazilians learn a trade. He opened a chic restaurant in Rio de Janiero staffed by Gastromotiva alumni that salvages all its ingredients from donations and distributes free meals to poor people.

During the pandemic, when restaurants were closed, Hertz started Solidarity Kitchens, a project to enable chefs to use their own kitchens to prepare meals for Brazil’s most vulnerable. Some 130 quickly went operational.

In 2018, Hertz used the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to launch his biggest project yet: an interconnected global support network of communities using food to create social change. Called the Social Gastronomy Movement, it now works with more than 400 nonprofits and activists across over 70 countries spanning five continents.

“Social gastronomy is an idea that uses nutrition to address broader issues like social inequality, inclusive society, human rights and climate change,” Hertz said.

Along the way Hertz, 50, has picked up numerous accolades both for his food and social entrepreneurship.

It all started on a stint living on a kibbutz in Israel as a young man.

Hertz had grown up in Brazil in a household with strong Jewish values, and after he came out as gay in his early 20s tensions with his traditional parents were running high.

“I left and went to Israel for two years, searching for my path in life and trying to find a sense of freedom,” Hertz recalled. “That opened my eyes to the world, and I continued my journey for several more years, traveling all over the world. What I learned through those experiences was that my passion and purpose was in food — not just eating but understanding how it sits at the center of our lives and the systems we live in.”

In 2001, after returning to Brazil, Hertz completed culinary training and got a job as a restaurant head chef. But Brazil’s deep poverty weighed heavily on him.

About one-third of the Brazil’s 217 million people struggle with severe or moderate food insecurity, according to U.N. figures. More than 70 million people are forced to eat less than their nutritional needs and 33 million frequently go hungry. Many live in the favelas — slums and shantytowns all over the country where drugs, gangs and violence are part of everyday life.

“You can see the inequality everywhere in Brazil,” Hertz said. “We have the ninth-largest economy in the world, but many people don’t have money for health or education. I grew up in a middle-class community where I learned that Jews always support each other, and I was deeply moved by the lack of justice in the favelas.”

In 2006, Hertz opened Gastromotiva with the idea of using a cooking school to give underprivileged Brazilians a profession that could lift them out of poverty. Gastromotiva ended up having a multiplier effect, with graduates going on to create their own businesses and employ others in their communities.

The concept spread quickly. Gastromotiva now offers classes across Brazil as well as in El Salvador, South Africa, Mexico, and other countries. Of the 9,000 students who have completed Gastromotiva’s courses, about 70%-80% work in the food business.

Among those trained in the program is an indigenous woman who is a food scientist and chef, and a student currently developing a restaurant for indigenous foods as part of a sustainable tourism project in her city of Manaus, Brazil.

“These are all the products of investing in the right people and giving them back their freedom and power,” Hertz said. “Empowering people to act with freedom is one of the most important Jewish values that guides me through this work.”

When Brazil hosted the 2016 Olympic Games, Gastromotiva opened with Michelin-starred Italian chef Massimo Bottura a social gastronomic restaurant to distribute free meals to Rio de Janeiro’s poor, Refettorio Gastromotiva. It’s staffed by Gastromotiva students and alumni and cooks with donated food that otherwise would have been thrown out.

“For me it’s been an amazing opportunity,” said Rodrigo Sardinha, a Gastromotiva alumnus who has worked at the restaurant for the last seven years. “David is an inspiration in the way he thinks about using food to help the community. The work requires me to be creative constantly, because we only cook with food that is donated, so we constantly have to think about how to work with whatever we have that day.”

The outbreak of the Covid pandemic brought new challenges. While the coronavirus forced Gastromotiva to shutter its restaurant and classes, poverty and food insecurity soared in Brazil. Hertz again tapped his network of Gastromotiva students and alumni to create Solidarity Kitchens, a communal cooking model that would allow them to use their own kitchens to prepare meals for Brazil’s poorest.

Within a short time, nearly 130 Solidarity Kitchens were operating throughout all regions in Brazil, covering nine states, including at Hertz’s synagogue in Sao Paulo, Comunidade Shalom. Each serves about 1,500 free meals per month.

Today, Refettorio Gastromotiva operates as a social business during the day and as a Solidarity Kitchen at night — serving the same food at both.

“We have a rule at the restaurant: We serve everyone the same menu, whether they can pay or not,” Sardinha explained. “This is the way to feed people and also give them a human experience.”

Hertz has received countless awards. He has been named a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum, Man of the Year by GQ Brazil, and Social Entrepreneur of the Future by the Schwab Foundation. He also serves as a TED Senior Fellow.

But winning The Charles Bronfman Prize, which Hertz received in 2019, stands out from all of his accolades, he said. The annual award — celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — is given to a humanitarian under 50 whose work is informed by Jewish values and has made a significant impact in the world

“For me, the Charles Bronfman Prize was my most beautiful award because it recognized and validated my life’s journey,” Hertz said. “After I came out as gay, it was important for me that my parents wouldn’t see me fail. Winning this prize, a Jewish prize, was very healing, and helped them see that what I’d dedicated my life to was for a higher purpose.”

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with The Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual prize presented to a humanitarian whose innovative work fueled by their Jewish values has significantly improved the world. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team. 

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