The comedores populares of Lima, Peru serve as a compassionate and innovative example of a community’s strength, unity, and collective support of one another while living in desolate poverty. These comedores populares, or common kitchens, are organized and run by neighborhood women to better feed the community. In Lima, over 100,000 women are involved in the common kitchen movement, feeding half a million people and up to 7% of the city’s overall population.
Though unique to the region, the movement is hardly new. Lima’s common kitchens began forming in the 1970s, when the political conflicts of Peru during its contentious military regime sparked poverty and mass social mobilization. Women of the poorest areas in Lima decided to pool their resources, achieving not only better living for their loved ones but also important skills in organizing.
The social impact of these poor women in Lima began with these kitchens and escalated as their skills and confidence in collective organization rose. Aside from the common kitchens, these women have also formed Glass of Milk (Vaso de Leche) Committees—which pressured the government to then implement the Glass of Milk program in 1984, providing a glass of milk a day for pregnant women and children—as well as neighborhood councils.
Because of the social impact of common kitchens and the raised voices of their organizers, many comedores populares are now subsidized by the Peruvian government, receiving donations from NGOs. However, these rations only cover about 20% of the cost of a meal. As such, most of these kitchens operate largely with the help of food donations and free labor from community members. The women work in rotation by weekly basis, making up to 100 meals a day, and holding meetings and workshops among themselves to discuss kitchen operations as well as important community issues such as domestic violence, alcoholism and drugs.
In Pamplona Alta, Lima, the Comedor Hijos de Brillantes helps the disabled and the elderly, who receive at least one free meal a day, while other customers are only asked to pay the U.S. equivalent of less than $0.60. Many common kitchens are like this one and serve as an easy way to help people who would otherwise be unable to obtain a healthy meal, either due to financial or physical reasons. The women begin their work of feeding the community every day at 7 AM, excluding weekends.
What do the women involved get out of this? Apart from the fulfillment of helping the most impoverished people eat, the Peruvian women who participate in these kitchens gain a sense of autonomy and responsibility outside of the domestic sphere. Having positions within the organization such as treasurer or president allow them to cultivate leadership skills and independence, while the self-sustaining group structure gives them a sense of collaborating smoothly with others. Within their own hands, they make a difference for themselves and their communities.
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