Learning lessons from the kitchens of PeruThursday 9 October 2014
With food poverty still a very real issue in the UK, Dr Bryce Evans, Senior Lecturer in History, went on a fact-finding mission to the Comedores Populares (Community Kitchens) of Peru to find out how they have been feeding people there since the 1970s, and to discover whether we can replicate that model in the UK.
“Peru’s recent ‘food boom’ has firmly positioned the country on the map of global gastronomic excellence,” says Bryce.
“In Peru, food is a passionate topic, and top chefs such as Gaston Acurio - proprietor of the Lima restaurant ranked number 18 in the world - are celebrities. But the country’s food boom, feted by the nation’s tourist board and epicureans alike, has earthier origins. These lie in the unsung army of poor women who run the country’s extraordinary ‘community kitchen’ movement.”
Comedores Populares, as they are known in Peru, constitute a vast network of thousands of outlets which provide food for the nation’s poorest people. Administered by local women, the community kitchen movement became a political force in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s, eyed by the state and targeted by the country’s violent Maoist insurgents The Shining Path.
While successive Peruvian governments struggled with hyperinflation before resorting to austerity, the Maoists targeted the female leaders of the comedores, killing some for daring to ‘sell out on the revolution for a plate of beans.’
However, Bryce points out, “What the women were actually doing was no less than keeping people alive by feeding communities cheaply and simply.”
Bryce is Co-Director of Manna Community Kitchen, a social enterprise based in Liverpool, that seeks to address food poverty by extending the food bank model into communal eating.
“The idea is that this model combats loneliness and social exclusion as much as filling hungry bellies,” says Bryce.
His main reason for visiting Peru (thanks to a grant from The Winston Churchill Trust) was to find out if the Comedores Populares could be replicated in the UK.
“After surveying dozens of these kitchens, it’s easy to see why community kitchens have proved so important. Sprawling and chaotic Lima continues to undergo astounding growth. The city’s metropolitan area was home to half a million people in 1940. Today, this figure is a whopping 10 million," Bryce observes.
“Most migrants have come from the Andes and most dwell in shanty towns when they reach Lima. In this manic metropolis, recent arrivals struggle with the lack of basic infrastructure such as water and electricity, and it’s there that the good women of the comedores step in."
“And it was this very migration from the mountains and consequent dependence on the rickety rackety community kitchens which kick-started the country’s ‘food boom’. Women from far-flung villages brought local recipes with them. They cooked and served to nourish but also to preserve diverse, centuries-old gastronomic traditions. They may not boast Michelin stars, but the humble comedores are the key to food revolution in South America.
“Their applicability in the UK is clear. Comedores Populares deliver much more than food hand-outs - bringing community, cohesion, pride, and culture to hopeless places. The UK food bank model needs to resemble them more.”
Pictured: Comedor Virgen del Carmen, Carabayllo, Lima, c/o Bryce Evans.
Dr Bryce Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope. He also contributes to teaching on International Relations.
His research interests include the history of food and conflict and modern Irish history.