Through the lens of a new location  (1 of 2)

By Todd Lester

I have just moved from Brooklyn, New York City to the Center (Centro) of São Paulo in order to realize the next stage of, a project I initiated that focuses on daily life in the city’s center and takes the form of a traditional lunch counter (or lanchonete). While the project is a lot about ‘looking’ and observing the ways people join together to claim their rights to a city, there are also the more basic reflections one has when they change their location and start to see things through the perspectives of a new city … and its citizens.

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Image of a São Paulo lanchonete by Pedro Marques

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking about food systems a lot since starting the project in São Paolo these past years. In the same period, a steady stream of stimuli started coming my way. A friend recently told me about the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina and its Food Sovereignty Principles. And more than a year ago, the Vera List Center for Art & Politics presented programming entitled Your Food Is On Its Way. The project focused—in part—on food delivery workers in New York City and how online aggregating services, such as Seamless, can result in longer delivery routes by offering the customer more options yet do not encourage higher tips to the delivery person. So whereas the customer perceives improved services, the delivery people, often informal, immigrant laborers, suffer lower earnings. At the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of resources related to food systems that includes many more projects, organizations, and articles that I’ve come across over the past few years.

One of my first observations from the past few weeks in São Paulo is how active citizen groups, artists, and independent journalists are on issues ranging from the future of the Presidente Costa e Silva Viaduct to the Augusta Park battle to the broad issues of urban development and rights to the city through initiatives such as Arquitetura da Gentrificação and Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for People). The scene that this article, titled Reclaiming the Jungle, attempts to capture is the community setting in which our collective project begins to materialize. is the evolving result of both my artistic practice—one that is research-based and curious about organizational form—and a process of community organizing by a group of diverse stakeholders, that includes artists yet not as a majority. This dual persona is what makes such a dynamic process, and I actually love how it doesn’t have to be understood as art by everyone who encounters it.

When I’m asked how is art by a curator, I often feel like it’s a test to see whether I’ll reference Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, a restaurant the artist/ architect and colleagues started in lower Manhattan in the 1970s. Sometimes I start my response with what differentiates from FOOD, or share the variety of influences—from French cooperative bistros to Welsh pubs, from Fast & French in Charleston, South Carolina made by artists JEMAGWGA to the 70s Lanchonarte project by Brazilian collective Equipe 3—that inform and inspire the making of When folks from outside the art world ask the same question, I’m excited … excited to share these examples but also because the project’s personality and aspirations reach into a range of spaces and co-mingle with everyday life. While we are making the container, what happens in that space, and on the broader platform, can be authored by anyone, artist or not.

Given the topic of urban foodways, nature, and green spaces, I immediately think of the city’s urban sprawl and congestion, and how innovation springs from isolation. For example, Cities Without Hunger, an urban gardening initiative situated in the east part of the city, accesses available green space (under the power lines) held by the municipal electric company, EletroPaulo, in order to build stronger livelihoods among the community members. The ‘east zone’, as it is called, is a portion of the city’s periphery where unemployment rates are the highest. Given the reality and perceptions held of this area, it is not a place that many people go if they don’t have to, even if there is a lot to learn from the work of Cities Without Hunger. One of the goals of the project is to shine a light on such innovative projects and learn from them simultaneously. Over the first two years of the project, our focus is on developing strong partnerships from key sectors and populations, which we feel are foundational. Another example is GastroMotiva, which trains youth from similar backgrounds as those in the ‘east zone’ to cook and become chefs in professional kitchens.

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Image courtesy of Cities Without Hunger







Cities Without Hunger teaches households how to grow produce in urban conditions, providing both a healthy diet and income-generating opportunities. It shares a very similar ethos with GastroMotiva: to improve food preparation and dietary habits at the household level which, in turn, leads to employment opportunities and holistic betterment in families, communities, neighborhoods, business, and the city. We plan to purchase our produce from Cities Without Hunger and hire our restaurant staff from the ranks of GastroMotiva trainees.


Image courtesy of Gastromotiva

The eminent local philosopher and founder of arte/cidade Nelson Brissac Peixoto says that “São Paulo is not anymore a pedestrian city.” However, I believe that mega-cities such as São Paulo are in dialogue with cities in North America—through the human mobility flows that spread families and other relations between different places and offer many lessons from which our cities can learn and benefit.

In Part II of this blog, I’ll show some images of the typical lanchonete (lunch counter) in São Paulo.



Projects by and with Artists
El Matam El Mish-masery (El restaurante no egipcio) (by Asunción Molinos Gordo).
Vacant Acres Symposium (Meeting of land transformation advocates from all over the world by 596Acres)
Taste of Freedom (by Felipe Cidade @ Art in Odd Places)
– El Internacional & Food Cultura Foundation (by Miralda)
Acarajé + Gravura (by Thiago Goncalves)
Doris Criolla (by Amilcar Packer)
– Foodshed (by Smack Mellon)
Eat Art (by Daniel Spoerri)
Urban Gardening (in Aesthetics of Protest)

Places / Place Concepts
Bethlehem XXX (Montreal)
White Dog Café (Philadelphia)
Nowhere Kitchen (Berlin)
Conflict Kitchen (Pittsburgh)
The Sunview (New York City)
Café Reconcile (New Orleans)

Canada Resource Guide
Plant Adoption, a project that relocated city plants from areas with a wealth of fauna to poorer neighbourhoods that are often neglected by the city (by Golboo Amani).
Poster-Pocket Plants, a project that integrates nature into the urban setting by creating pockets in existing posters throughout the city to create spaces for plants to grow (by Shawn Martindale in collaboration with landscape architect named Eric Cheung).
Outside the Planter Boxes, a project that focuses on transforming crumbling city planter boxes (by Shawn Martindale).
A Campus Food Revolution at the University of Guelph (in edible TORONTO)
Cities Feed Cities: Unearthing three unique urban agriculture projects in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver (in SPACING)
Local Food Map – Guelph Wellington (

NYC Resource Guide
Delivery City: New York and its working cyclists (film)
Chinese Staff and Workers Association
National Mobilization Against Sweatshops
New York Communities for Change
Restaurant Opportunities Center
Fast Food Forward

Brazil Resource Guide
Guia san Pablo
Fechado Para Jantar
Cidade sem Fome
Instituto Polis (food security policies)
Green My Favela
Cidades para Pessoas
Cidades para Que(m)? discusses Parque Augusta

Misc / Projects / Organizations / Initiatives / Articles
Sustainable Food Systems (Topos Partnership)
Street Vendor Project (Urban Justice Center)
Pesticide Action Network of North America
Sustainable Development Institute (Liberia)
World Botanical Research Associates
Politics of Food (by Delfina Foundation)
Organic Consumer’s Association
SEED: The Untold Story (film)
Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance
Hudson Valley Seed Library
Seed Savers Exchange
Center for Food Safety
Iroquois Valley Farm
Inspiration Kitchens
Change Food
Slow Food

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He has worked in leadership, advocacy and strategic planning roles at Global Arts Corps, Reporters sans frontiers, and Astraea Lesbian Justice Foundation. He founded freeDimensional and—a new project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo. Todd is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute; a co-curator for the Arts & Society Team of Cities for People in Canada; and serves on the board of arts, rights and literary organizations in India, Mexico, Brazil and the US.
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