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.
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Last week, the Club of Mothers, another community kitchen organization more closely linked with the government, staged a protest outside the Ministry of Women and Social Development. "We want a solution!" chanted dozens of women from all over Lima. "Everything is costing us so much more these days," says Rosio Orellana, a member of the group. "It is reducing our rations."Skip to next paragraph
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It is no surprise that these women are on the forefront of one of the biggest issues facing Peru today, says Ms. Miloslavich Tupac. While community kitchens formed to solve the practicalities of feeding families, they have over the years metamorphosed into a massive movement that the government cannot ignore, one whose tenets have found their way into the cornerstone of public policy on food programs in Peru, she says.
Empowered to speak out
Most of these women once were anything but political activists. Many joined clubs timidly, against the will of their husbands. "We used to be embarrassed, we wouldn't leave our houses. Now we know how to defend ourselves," says Ms. Zelaya, who moved to San Martin de Porres 33 years ago from the rural mountains. Her husband worked in a ceramics factory, and on that salary alone they could not feed their six kids. "Now we have awoken. And speak out, speak out, speak out."
Their skills have been fostered by training programs that go well beyond food. At Diez de Febrero, most women have rotated at one point or another as president. They also run a store, whose proceeds they use toward the daily menu. At FEMOCCPAALM they participate in marketing, leadership, and nutrition workshops. "They used to only have a role in the home, now they are protagonists in society," says Ms. Bozeta. "They are intermediaries between the government and the community."
When Quilca wanted the road outside her street paved six months ago, she organized a chicken roast and together her street pulled enough money to lay down the concrete. They have fought for light, electricity, garbage collection, and better education. "I used to be afraid to talk in public," says Quilca. "Now I say, 'Be quiet, listen to me!' "
Bozeta says the kitchens have faced criticism over the years: that they are not doing enough to address the structural roots of poverty, that their services don't reach the poorest in society, and that they are inefficient. But Bozeta says their work should not be seen as a solution but as a complement to government obligations. "They are making change in the development of the country," she says.
And they have no plans to back down from a food crisis that hits at the heart of their social work. FEMOCCPAALM kitchens, which count 26,000 members throughout Lima, receive 19 percent of their food from the government; the rest is paid for by members.
Other soup kitchens like the Club of Mothers and the Glass of Milk Committee, a children's breakfast program, are more heavily subsidized. But the subsidies haven't risen with the food prices, and they don't buy nearly as much food as they once did. Women are now demanding more money. For now, they get by cooking with less rice, adding fewer vegetables to the soup, or buying cheaper, beaten-up potatoes in an effort not to raise their prices.
"They are facing difficulties, but when there are problems with food the kitchens become stronger," says Raul Zibechi, an Uruguay-based analyst on social movements who recently published a research paper for Center for International Policy on Peru's community kitchens.
A second family
The kitchen networks also provide much-needed solidarity for many women. At Diez de Febrero, like in thousands of kitchens in Lima and more than 10,000 across the country, women have been cooking together for over 30 years. They are like sisters, finishing each other's sentences, gossiping about the price of food, and bickering over facts and figures.
"When I came here, I had eight children, and my husband was abusing me," says Delfina Blas, a founding member of Diez de Febrero. Her husband left her when her youngest baby was 2 months old. Her kids were too young to comprehend; it was the women in this kitchen that helped her pull through. "My kids have been eating this food all their lives."
"We are like a second family here," Ms. Blas says. "We always have been. And here we are, all these years later, still fighting."