In Lima alone, community kitchens provide food for half a million people daily. Over 100,000 women
work in the local efforts each day to feed their children, and they do it collectively, seeking mutual
support to overcome poverty.

Up the slope, the sandy ground becomes a gray dune, like the eternally gray sky of Lima. We have left
the center of Villa El Salvador, the most organized peripheral community in Lima, to go to Lomo de Corvina,
a periphery on the periphery, where 13 years ago hundreds of family settled in an area that they called,
for some mysterious reason, "Oasis."

In the middle of the inhospitable desert rise hundreds of straw shacks topped with the Peruvian flag,
a symbol used by the poorest residents try to dissuade police action when they occupy land illegally.
Walking along the haphazard streets of Oasis, you inevitably face the image of desolation, a strange
mixture of loneliness and sadness, and not just because of the precarious state of the houses. The dejected
faces of the children who roam the streets paint the most striking picture of poverty. Humidity seeps
into your bones, enhancing the sensation of despair.

Elvis Mori, a young activist who lived here until he decided to move to Villa El Salvador, just a
few kilometers from Oasis, takes us to the Virgen del Carmen kitchen, one of the thousands of spaces
in Lima where the poorest women come together to work for the benefit of their children and their neighbors’
children. We are met by Nilda, president of the kitchen, and Elvis’s mother, Nelly, who works on a "Glass
of Milk Committee" in this neighborhood.

The kitchen is a small room with a cement floor, counter, a gas and coal stove—on one side, a tiny
room where food is stored, and a patio without plants, a brown floor under the gray sky. "This kitchen
was established during the settlement 12 years back," says Nilda, as she begins telling the story,
interrupted only by cocks crowing and oil sizzling on the stove.

Thirty Years Cooking Collectively

According to several analyses, the common kitchen, as a popular women’s organization, is an experience "without
parallel in Latin America and probably in the world."1 It is
a simple form of collective organization by the poorest people, spaces where survival becomes likely,
and also "a school where many women have gained skills in organizational activities, democratic
practice, conflict resolution, and ways to deal with institutions and government officials."2

The first common kitchens were established in the 1970s, during a period of massive social mobilizations
at the end of the 1968-1980 military regime. The teachers’ union (SUTEP) was pressuring for higher salaries
in 1978 and 1979, and teachers took over schools in the popular neighborhoods. Women began to fix communal
meals in solidarity with the strikers: "For several weeks, the schools became locations for political
discussion, meeting spaces for the neighborhood, the school, and the current social and political conflicts."3

From that point on, many of the mothers began organizing in their neighborhoods, and that experience
led them to create women’s organizations to feed their families. "These collective experiences helped
women shift from isolation in the domestic sphere to participation in actions in the public sphere," according
to Cecilia Blondet and Carmen Montero.

During the same period, María Van del Linde, a religious worker who was also a nurse at a hospital
in the northern periphery, began to work with a group of women who got food from the church. "I
promised to help them with one condition: the food was not to be distributed uncooked but collectively
prepared and given according to the number of people in each family."4 The
experiment was a success, and soon there were imitators in other peripheral neighborhoods to the point
that by 1982 there were 200 collective kitchens in Lima.

One characteristic of the community kitchens promoted by the Church, which differentiates them from
those the State began to support, is the stimulus to self-help and self-provision of services. These
kitchens are considered "self-managed," or "self-sustaining," while those of the
State are called "administered" or "subsidized," because "they sought to enhance
the autonomy of the poor in relation to the State and charitable institutions."

With the economic crisis and the first structural adjustment, between 1988 and 1989, kitchens grew
exponentially, from 1,800 to 3,000. After Alberto Fujimori’s brutal economic adjustment in 1991, they
numbered more than 5,000. Neighborhoods filled up with improvised "popular kettles," and the
demand for food in the kitchens was double that of the previous year. Over the years, and despite a noticeable
improvement in the country’s economic situation, the number of kitchens stayed at the level reached at
the spike of poverty. A poll in 2003 revealed that in metropolitan Lima there were some 5,000 soup kitchens
with 150,000 women members.5

The kitchens feed about 7% of Lima’s population, estimated at around 7.5 million. But those half-million
meals distributed daily imply that almost 20% of the population is in conditions of extreme poverty.

Women, Solidarity, Autonomy

Lima is one of the urban societies where collective social action by poor women is strongly present.
In 1994, there were 15,000 popular organizations registered in the capital city: 7,630 Glass of Milk
Committees, 2,575 mothers clubs, 2,273 popular soup kitchens, and 1,871 neighborhood councils, according
to official sources.6 Many of the organizations are linked to parties,
for example, some mothers clubs have been linked to APRA (Peru’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance)
since 1985, or were co-opted by them. The Glass of Milk Committee originated under leftist mayor Alfonso
Barrantes in 1984, when pressure from poor women convinced the city to implement the Glass of Milk Program,
designed to provide breakfast to children under the age of six and to pregnant and nursing mothers.

By the mid-1990s, mothers clubs, Glass of Milk Committees, and communal kitchens benefited four million
people throughout the country and were run almost exclusively by women. Each kitchen, being an organization
of neighborhood women, has an average of 22 active members, according to the 2003 poll. Ninety percent
of the members have received some sort of training and held positions of responsibility. Only 20% of
the kitchen presidents have finished high school. In Lima, in 2003, there were 2,775 self-sustaining
kitchens and 1,930 subsidized.

Each kitchen produces an average of 100 meals daily, almost half a million each day in Lima. It is
interesting to note who receives the meals: 60% go to members and their families; 12% to the members
who cook as payment for their labor (there is no other pay); and 8% is donated to poor people in the
neighborhood (called "social cases"). Only 18% 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. Members can buy at a lower price than external customers.

It seems evident that the kitchens were set up to attend to the needs of members and their families,
not to make sales or profits. The kitchens do not have savings or distribute benefits to members, and "it
is most likely that the members themselves are subsidizing the kitchen directly (donating ingredients,
providing labor, etc.) beyond the normal cooking duties."7 Women
who work in the kitchens operate with the logic of economic solidarity, not the market, and are not guided
by commercial criteria.

The kitchens have been defined as "a system of popular subsidies that channels resources from
the poor to the poorest," since each kitchen earmarks 10% of its meals for indigents who cannot
pay for food.

Most of the kitchens organize parties and raffles to generate other income, since State-provided rations
barely cover 20% of the cost of a meal. A 2006 study by the Federation of Women Organized in Committees
of Self-Sustaining Kitchens (FEMOCCPAAL), representing some 1,800 kitchens, states that "kitchens
are no longer a supplement to a salary, because that salary no longer exists, and for many families,
they are the only means for access to food."8

This is happening in a period of strong economic growth. A detailed study by that organization reveals
that, in quantifying the cost of each meal, the State contributes 19%, but 81% is provided by kitchen
organizations: members buy food that accounts for 33%, free labor is another 32%, and the remaining 16%
is administrative costs, transportation to pick up State-donated food, and other services compensated
by work or meals.

For this reason, I postulate that these soup kitchens have little to do with charity or clientelism.
Both exist, of course. But women like Nilda and Nelly are very clear that they could be doing other things,
such as focusing on self-promotion and advancement as individuals, but they have decided to dedicate
a good part of their day to supporting their poorest neighbors.

Poverty, Loneliness, Marginalization

By 7 a.m., the three women in charge of cooking arrive at the kitchen. They check the food on hand
and see what they have to buy. Before eight, they shop for food and fuel. Around 10, they begin to cook
to have the meals ready by noon. At about 3 p.m., they finish cleaning the kitchen, the treasurer counts
the money, and they say goodbye until the next morning. This is the routine every day of the month, except
Saturdays and Sundays.

No one does this sort of work without some benefit, besides the strictly material one. In talking
with Nelly and Nilda, it was obvious that they do this hard work with love and an enormous dose of tenderness.
For sociologists Blondet and Moreno, free labor offered in solidarity, like at the kitchens, "gives
participants the opportunity to get out of the house and overcome the situation of isolation that characterizes
their lives."9 This activity increases their self-esteem and
their identification with popular sectors in the neighborhood, in addition to the training that projects
offer them.

All that they have, though it may appear to be little and poor, they created themselves, overcoming
differences and unavoidable jealousies, and feelings of resentment. This is the value of collective work.
Nilda says, "We had a president, Marta, who worked very hard at first. The rest of us women were
busy taking over land, to see if they would evict us, and we weren’t paying attention to what was happening
in the kitchen. That lady began to take over all the positions, treasurer, president, everything, and
the people started to complain, and the neighborhood women started to demand more control."

It was a question of democratizing the running of the kitchen. Some agencies, for example, USAID (United
States Agency for International Development), which is the largest food donor, know of kitchen presidents
who pocket the money, but they tolerate it. "Fifty of us women got together, organized a meeting,
and we won. We started from scratch, with no pots or even a location, because the kitchen was in her
home, and she threw us out and turned over nothing. We loaned pots, each woman provided something—a ladle,
a knife, and we went to the industrial park to get sawdust and wood to cook with. We began cooking at
my house with sawdust that we kept in oil cans, because we didn’t have enough money to buy gas."

Nilda speaks, and the women cooking add a few points. She had to step down due to family problems,
and the presidency was assumed by a woman who was also "head of an NGO, and they gave her money
to buy a place for us, and she spent the money on a piece of land for herself." After a long struggle,
they managed to get the land turned over, and that is where the kitchen now operates. "We built
it with money we raised through activities like roasted chicken parties, selling chicken soup, and raffles,
and each member agreed to help buy food and sell, and that’s the money we used to start the kitchen."

Now they have a gas stove and a coal stove that needs to be replaced, and they are going to hold a
party or sell special food to raise the money. The meetings? "We sit in a circle, and each one offers
her opinion. It’s like a large family gathering. We’re becoming modernized, because now each of us asks
for the floor to speak [laughter], because before, we would all talk at the same time. Now, we even keep
minutes," says Nilda.

How do they operate? In shifts and rotations: two or three women cook for a week at a time. They prepare
some 100 meals a day and sell them for 1.5 soles (about 50 cents). Since they are not paid for their
labor, the cooks get between five and ten meals, depending on the number of children they have. Nilda
is in charge of finances, and other members are on the Oversight Committee that makes sure food is available
and no abuses occur.

In addition to kitchen activities, several women participate in workshops against domestic violence
and in meetings on topics such as alcoholism and drugs. "There is a lot of violence at home," says
Nilda. "My husband was an alcoholic, and I learn a lot at the meetings. I have also been abused,
but participating in the workshops helps me change. I used to mistreat my son because he didn’t want
to do his work. We learn to treat children with love."

Nelly works on the Glass of Milk Committee that operates much the same way as the kitchen. She goes
to meetings of the Federation of Women and says that she is happy to be able to participate in social
organizations. "It allows us to meet other people and understand situations that are worse than
ours and allows us to reach others. It’s good to know you are helping, that you are doing something for
your people."

Nilda says what she does is one of the most important things in her life: "It gives me food for
my children and allows me to help others. It makes me happy to be here, not just to receive, but also
to be able to give. What I like most is to be here …" The water truck’s horn interrupts her. "The
women on the Glass of Milk Committee and in the kitchens are the most active in the community, the first
to come and help when there is a problem. They are the ones in greatest solidarity," Nelly affirms.

When we leave the kitchen, the conversation turns to one of the worst problems in the neighborhood:
after 10 p.m., no one can go outside because of street gang violence, they all say. A 15-year old boy
was killed recently. Nothing can be expected from the authorities or the police. It’s time to turn off
the tape recorder: "We did it before, organized, meted out justice with our own hands …" says
a voice that gets lost in the dust.


End Notes

  1. Blondet and Montero, 19.
  2. Blondet and Montero, 15.
  3. Blondet and Montero, 55.
  4. Blondet and Montero, 56.
  5. Blondet and Trivelli, 20.
  7. Blondet and Trivelli, 32.
  9. Blondet and Montero, 20.