When stomachs go hungry, the women of Lima, Peru, find themselves cooking for half a million of its residents in one of the thousands of community kitchens spread across the city.
Known as comedores populares, community kitchens started in the 1970s have been part of a collective social movement led by poor women across Lima to combat food insecurity in a country where 40 percent of its population of 28 million people live below the poverty line. Its members pool together their limited resources and take turns cooking for themselves and the community at large, preparing some 100 meals a day.
An article by Upside Down World, an online magazine covering activism and politics in Latin America, provided insight as to how these self-sustaining organizations work:
Sixty percent go to members and their families; 12 percent to the members who cook as payment for their labor (there is no other pay); and 8 percent is donated to poor people in the neighborhood (called "social cases"). Only 18 percent of the meals are sold, half to people in the community, usually the same individuals, and the other half to people who happen to be in the area, such as service people and others.
With food inflation rising twice as fast as other goods in Peru, these community kitchens continue to be a lifeline to those who would otherwise go hungry. Not surprisingly, the women "now cook 10 times as much as they used to before prices spiked," according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. With only 19 percent of their food subsidized by the government, community kitchens rely primarily on their members and donations for support.
But the rewards of being part of a community kitchen go beyond alleviating hunger by giving these women a sense of solidarity, collectivity, and respect. Participating in a community kitchen means that they become members of the Federation of Women Organized in Committees of Self-Sustaining Kitchens, an organization that oversees 1,300 kitchens in Lima.
Most importantly, the organization offers lifelong skills by providing “leadership training courses for the women, information about health care, training in establishing micro-enterprises to generate additional family income, help and advice in obtaining credit.”
The women are also actively engaged in Peru’s public policy, particularly the country’s food production and distribution system. According to The Christian Science Monitor, community kitchens “have risen as one of the most significant women's organizations in Latin America, and today are on the forefront of protests demanding solutions to a cost of living that many say is reversing recent progress in reducing poverty.”
Filling in where the government falls short, and acting as a source of hope for the poorest of the poor, it appears that community kitchens in Peru are also inspiring other parts of the world to follow suit. Community kitchens can be found in places like India and the United States, where restaurants, such as One World Cafe in Utah, depend on the kindness of the rich and poor to survive.