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Peru's women unite in kitchen – and beyond

With food prices on the rise, 'community kitchens' provide half a million Lima residents with affordable daily meals.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2008

Solidarity: Two women cook a pot of bean stew at a community kitchen in Lima, Peru.

Sara Miller Llana

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Lima, Peru

Steam rises into air thick with the scent of garlic as women prepare lunch for 120 of Peru's neediest.

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But this is no charity. Obaldina Quilca and Veronica Zelaya – who are on cooking duty today – are also beneficiaries of one of the estimated 5,000 community kitchens run by women in Peru's capital, Lima.

The kitchens started in the 1970s and persisted through the '80s and '90s, through dictatorship, terrorism, and hyperinflation that brought Peru to its knees. And now that global food prices have put basic staples out of reach for families across the region, the kitchens that feed an estimated half million residents of metropolitan Lima every day are again providing a refuge.

But their work goes well beyond survival; the kitchens have become a vehicle for collective action, giving women the self-esteem to denounce government shortcomings and demand change. They 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.

"You have to fight for your rights," says Ms. Quilca, as she mashes a pile of garlic by stone in her community kitchen, Diez de Febrero, in the hardscrabble neighborhood of San Martin de Porres. "With marches you can obtain your objectives. If you don't march, you get nothing."

A narrow set of stairs outside a non-descript building leads to Diez de Febrero, a bright, tidy kitchen of yellow walls, a cement floor, and a giant, tiled sink. Work here starts early – at 7:30 a.m. Those on duty put to boil two massive pots of rice, holding 22 pounds each, and then head to the nearby market. The 40-some members of this kitchen take turns cooking, and in return receive their daily meals for about 60 cents (1.70 soles) each.

By 1 p.m., members have picked up their lunches, served in big metal pots they drop off at the kitchen each morning, and taken them home to their families. Today's menu: chicken soup, rice, and beans with chicken.

This is one of some 125 such kitchens in this neighborhood alone, a former squatter community that has developed into one of the largest districts in Lima, with over 500,000 residents.

As food inflation hits Peru, as it has the world over, the community kitchen is providing support to the neediest families, offering meals to the community at large. They charge more for nonmembers, 90 cents a meal, but it is still cheaper than cooking at home. They now cook ten times as much as they used to before prices spiked, the women say. They also cook free meals for the sick, elderly, and those in extreme poverty.

"They are playing an important role as the prices go up," says Maria Bozeta, president of the Federation of Women Organized in Committees of Self-Sustaining Kitchens (FEMOCCPAALM), which oversees 1,300 kitchens in metropolitan Lima. "They are seeking solutions that affect the poorest; they are being proactive."

The poverty rate in Peru has dropped five percentage points in the past year – to about 40 percent of the population. But higher food prices are reversing some of those gains – and with little government response, poor women are essentially supporting the poorest. "Women have filled in where the government has not been," says Diana Miloslavich Tupac, a coordinator for political participation at the women's organization Centro Flora Tristan in Lima. "Today they are cushion for the poorest."

Cooking up some self-esteem

But they are not just cooking meals; they are also relying on their people power to protest. In April, some 8,000 members of FEMOCCPAALM marched across downtown Lima demanding that the government increase the 19 percent food subsidies that it sends the kitchens.