This February, Junta Local is our feature member! Read the guest post below, written by their Co-Founder and CEO, Thiago Nasser.
Everyday around town in Rio de Janeiro, markets are set up and for a few hours many streets spring into life. Fresh produce, fruit, often seasonal, flowers, fish, eggs, coconuts, tapioca flour. Vendors are experts at arranging dazzling makeshift displays, they chatter and bargain with patrons they know by name. A veritable spectacle that provides temporary relief from the sanitized and character-deprived supermarkets that abound.
Yet, there is something amiss. Perhaps it has to do with the lack of actual farmers. There are no curtains to be pulled, the truth is usually only one question away: Where was this grown? The answer is usually. “I have no idea, I get this at the CEASA.”
CEASA is the produce wholesale center located on the outskirts of town. As such, whether grown locally or two states away, all gets mixed up and sold as commodities.
It was not always that way. Rio de Janeiro has a rich history of market halls and street markets. These were the true nodes of a local food system. Farmers, fishermen, butchers, food vendors jostled side by side and served as important gateways into the labor market (and hence into society) for rural workers and the descendants of slaves.
Since the centrally located Mercado Municipal was razed down in the 1960s to make way for a highway and the ecosystem of local farmers and producers was upended as big-Ag became big in Brazil, street markets lost their ties to rural environs of Rio and the produce, albeit colorful and fresh, is more than likely laced with pesticides and part of long food chains. Supermarkets and the like replaced markets as the main source of groceries. The fact these markets still exist must be celebrated, but the sad truth is that they are a colorful yet pale ghost of the past.
So in 2014, when Junta Local began, going to a farmers’ market in the city of Rio meant not going to a farmers’ market. (Organic produce, luckily, can still be found in the streets, as organic farmers joined to organize their own markets. They are a huge inspiration.)
Meanwhile, also in 2014, fancy restaurants in the city were proudly touting the local provenance of their produce. Some could even claim farming their own and display carrots in glass cases. Needless to say, a taste of the menu might cost as much as the monthly pay of most Brazilian workers.
The double anguish caused by the lack of actual farmers in markets and the local produce as the preserve of the elite were the drivers behind Junta Local. Inspired by a bygone past and caught up in the foodie frenzy of the 2010s in which chefs, farmers, blogs promised a new hopefully more democratically delicious new world.
The first market was held in August 2014. After a few personal invitations and a Facebook announcement that drew some producers, we set up shop. Beer bottle crates and slabs of wood were good enough. The costs were covered based on a pay what it’s worth scheme.
We also set up a website with the commitment that the same principles that shape a market would hold online. Order pick-ups would occur in tandem with markets. Since we were at it, we did our best as well to produce content to tell the stories of our community
In the first year, the markets were monthly events. By 2017, we were holding weekly markets all over town with (some) support from the city. Each Junta Local market congregated farmers, bakers, artisans, coffee roasters, kombucha makers, cheesemongers, aspiring young chefs. We became a tightly knit community, who has supported each other and spawned a keen sense of identity – we are the “ajuntados”. More than providing a platform for direct sales, Junta Local, at its best, has conferred self-esteem, motivation, and a sense of fulfillment and purpose: we are here to bring good, local and just food to Rio de Janeiro.
More than community, Junta Local has become a system of governance. Our Charter, criteria of participation and rules for the markets and website have been elaborated collectively.
On the other side of the stalls, a marveled crowd that flocked to the streets interpreted these markets to their liking. “This is reminiscent of the markets I used to go to 30 years ago”, “I feel like I am not in Rio but in _________ (fill in the blank with Brooklyn, Berlin, or whatever neighborhood / city where hipsters have done their thing). Fresh produce, heirloom varieties, crackling bread, top-notch coffee, great bear and wine, great cheese, honey and jams, bean-to-bar chocolate, pastries, kimchi, pizza topped with local ingredients. This is just a short list of what they find at the markets (and on the website!). Junta Local markets also mean thematic events (we have held markets focused on fermentation, local fishermen, food for kids), great music, on the side activities such as tastings, book launches, recipe demonstrations and the occasional salad dressing poured from varying heights over the salads chopped up to avoid waste.
The tale of Junta Local, however, is not just one wonder and delight. There has been hardship and struggle. Whether dealing with the loss of a week’s worth of toil because of a downpour or simply digging in our heels to make ends meet.
The pandemic was a huge blow. For almost two years our markets were suspended. At the start because the city prohibited markets and then out of a sense of responsibility. More than just cutting off financial input, we lost our weekly meeting.
To weather the COVID storm, we bolstered our online platform and started making doorstep deliveries, a huge logistical, especially for the financially and technologically challenged.
Yet we somehow managed to get by. We were able to provide many with a lifeline. As much as the joy of our encounters entered hiatus, we found solace in knowing that many jobs were preserved and that our community was resilient.
During this time, we moved into a warehouse in the neighborhood of Gamboa, right next to the port zone and smack in the middle of Rio’s Little Africa, as this area, where hundreds of thousands of the enslaved touched land after crossing the Atlantic.
Borne of the necessity of providing an adequate distribution center for our community, a roof over our heads spurred other dreams. A fixed venue for markets, a local food hub, a garden, programs to increase food access.
For the last two years we have taken piecemeal steps in these different directions, although our bread and butter (in Brazil, saying “our rice and beans” would be more appropriate) remains the same: connecting people who make and people who eat through local food. Our markets are back and our website (which now also features a CSA-style subscription system) is still making do.
In December 2022 our warehouse contract expired and was not renovated and we set out to find a new home. After a bit of a scramble, we are set to move into a historic building in Rio’s old city center, a stone’s throw away from the hallowed ground of its old markets. Our new address is Rua do Mercado, Market Street. An omen, perhaps?
As part of this move, we also want to take a step further in terms of our community. We are launching a program so that supporters can help fund Junta Local and also participate in its activities. Financial independence and participation are key in our quest. This is called the Ajuntados de Carteirinha initiative and your support is more than welcome through our crowdfunding campaign. Here is the link: benfeitoria.com/ajuntadosdecarteirinha.
Junta Local is also a channel for collective activism. Eating is a political act and food is a tool for change. We have been part of food drives, are a member of local food councils and discussion groups and even international ones, such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Forums. We are not afraid to stick it up to the powers that be who do not acknowledge the importance of good food.
In 2022, we became proud members of the World Farmers’ Market Coalition.
Featured Photo Credit: Samuel Antonini