RIO DE JANEIRO - Rice, black beans, oil, flour, pasta and sugar. It hardly sounds like a feast but without this 12 kilogram food parcel donation, Rita Maria De Souza would not have had enough to eat at Christmas. In Brazil, hunger is affecting ever more families and NGO donations are vital with the holiday season fast approaching. Almost a quarter of Brazilians suffer from food insecurity. “It’s not much but I will be able to share it with my family,” De Souza, 59, told AFP from Duque de Caxias, a poor neighborhood in the north of Rio de Janeiro. Widowed three years ago, she lives alone in a small brick house in the Morro do Garibaldi favela. De Souza walks with a limp due to diabetes and struggles to eat an adequate diet. “I need healthy food but it’s not possible with what I earn,” she said. Unemployed for the last six years, her only income is a monthly 100 reais ($17) government allowance.

She relies almost exclusively on donations to eat.

Her son died five years ago but she has a 38 year-old daughter, granddaughters aged 22 and 24, a great grandson and soon another two as twins are imminent.

Yet since her husband died, she has spent Christmas alone or with her sisters, who live in the same neighborhood.

De Souza welcomed Jeferson Ribeiro, one of the founders of the Amac NGO, with open arms and a sigh of relief when he delivered her Christmas food parcel.

Amac is one of the partners involved in the Natal sem Fome (Christmas without hunger) initiative, which has already distributed 1,500 tons of food this end of year, enough to prepare eight million meals.

Launched by the Acao da Cidadania (Citizenship Action) NGO in 1994, the campaign was halted in 2007 when hunger levels in Brazil had dropped markedly.

At the time, leftist then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) benefitted from a favorable economy that allowed him to implement policies that helped millions of Brazilians out of poverty.

But the Natal sem Fome program had to be restarted a decade later.

  “We relaunched the operation in 2017 because we realized that hunger was on the rise again. And since then it (hunger) has only increased,” said Rodrigo Afonso, Acao da Cidadania’s director.

“With the pandemic we have to make do with one meal a day,” said Maria Elena Huertas Rosales, a Peruvian living in Nova Iguacu, a suburb neighboring Duque de Caxias.

“I only see meat on television and we’re always asking ourselves: ‘what will we eat tomorrow?’” added the 50-year-old, who moved to Brazil with her husband and son in 2009. According to a United Nations report, between 2018 and 2020, close to 50 million Brazilians “had to go without food or suffered a significant reduction in the quantity or quality.”

 Things have got worse in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic and accelerating inflation in the country of 213 million. Brazilians have been shocked by viral social media images of hungry people in Rio fighting over bones in a dumpster.

Things were already worsening before the pandemic, according to Afonso, who blames a “drastic reduction” in policies to fight food shortages.

“If these policies were put in place we wouldn’t have hungry people fighting over bones in the street,” he said.