In Lima, for more than thirty years, women have been organizing themselves against poverty. Popular restaurants allow them to save money, but also to come together.
Since 8 o’clock in the morning, the rhythm did not decrease in the small room fitted out in kitchen of the district of Carabayllo, in the north of Lima. Laura and Luz, sitting on the ground on bricks, have been peeling potatoes for two hours already. Hima and Fulgencia, the two head cooks of the day, orchestrate the rest: they cut the onions, heat the water, handle the big pots, fill the basins, cook the inevitable rice…and chat. But there is no question of being idle. At 11:30 am, the first members of the community will come to get their meals. Some women have already brought their empty pots and pans during the morning, they will pick them up full at dinner time.
The « comedor popular Gran Cambio » is one of the 1200 popular self-managed restaurants (1) of Lima. The objective of these neighborhood canteens is to allow the associated women to save money on meals, and also to offer the possibility to people who need to eat a complete meal at an accessible price. Their formula is original: a comedor is born when women in need decide to gather, to shop together and to cook together, to reduce the costs of their food to all.
AN ECONOMIC REFUGE
The comedores populares appeared in Lima at the end of the 1970s. At that time, the effects of the Peruvian economic crisis of 1976 were felt, especially by poor urban families: unemployment, precarious work, lack of income… Different groups of women who can’t make ends meet decide to organize. At first, the formula is basic. In groups of 15 or 20, the women pool the food they have, find a large pot and make a community soup. Little by little, these soup kitchens are formalized in comedores. Women’s groups are beginning to offer meals to others in the community as well. Women who are members of the comedor and who participate in its functioning pay less for their meals and those of their families (from 0,40€ to 0,80€ on average). Other people pay a little more (from 1€ to 1,40€ approximately). As for the cooks of the day, necessarily members, they receive five free meals that day.
For many people who come to eat at comedores, the difference is enormous, often half or even a third of the price of a cheap menu elsewhere. Workers, families come there… And it is not uncommon for a menu to be shared between two people or to serve as dinner. For Matilde, of the comedor « Amor y Paz » of San Juan de Lurigancho, « the comedor is the pillar of each day for the majority ». For some, having meals at the popular restaurant also allows them to save for other things, such as their children’s education.
ECONOMIES OF SCALE AND MUTUAL SUPPORT
The strategy of the comedores is based on collective work. By buying, cooking and selling together, women save significantly on their food. Second, popular restaurants are based on solidarity. Violeta, for example, has been part of the popular restaurant movement for 25 years. When she started in her neighborhood comedor, she was not able to participate in the kitchen or in the organization. Her husband was sick, she had to earn money to take care of him. « I had a friend who was in a comedor and she signed me up. She told me ‘right now I know you won’t be able to cook, but you can still get your meals for the price of a member’. I still attended the monthly meetings, and I started to help as secretary, and then took on other roles. And when my husband passed away, after seven years, I started participating as a full member. Currently, she is the human rights secretary of FEMOCCPAALM, the federation of self-managed popular restaurants in the Lima metropolis, and she volunteers much of her time to the comedores.
When a member is temporarily unable to pay for his or her meals, all members may decide to give him or her menus at a reduced price. In the same idea, if one of them can’t take his turn in the kitchen because he has to work or take care of a sick child, another one replaces him and can have his free rations.
Solidarity is not limited to the members’ circle. In each comedor, a certain number of meals are offered to vulnerable people. « Many people don’t even have enough money for a meal here, » says Matilde, one of the two cooks of the day at the comedor « Amor y Paz ». As she talks, she continues to move between the large pans on the gas stoves, which she is only a head above. « They come, they ask, and we see if they really need it, and we decide whether or not to give it to them. Those to whom we give at the moment, they are all in extreme need. There are old people, people who don’t have a job, there is a man with a mental problem, another with tuberculosis. We try to help in this way. That’s why we sometimes say that the comedores populares are « the poor who subsidize the poorest ». At the « Gran Cambio » in Carabayllo, Luz helps peel potatoes, but she is not considered a cook. She is mentally retarded and has received social case status. Therefore, she can receive her lunch free of charge every day, with no obligation to the comedor. But she is still there daily to help the women cook.
SELF-ORGANIZATION AND OWN STRATEGY
From the courtyard of a member’s home to a comedor-owned and operated space, Lima’s popular restaurants can be quite different. Some serve up to 140 people daily. Others are more modest, limiting themselves to 50, depending on community demands and budget. On average, 10 to 15 women make a comedor run.
The principles of solidarity and mutual support are present everywhere. The organization varies a lot from one comedor to another. In general, each woman who is a member cooks at least once a week. Each comedor has its own rules, decided collectively. The price of the meals, the menus, the cleaning, the turns in the kitchen, the arrival times… And everything is decided in the monthly meetings between members. Each popular restaurant also has a board of directors. The women who are part of it divide among themselves the different roles: president, secretary, treasurer, fiscal… The tax authorities ensure that their rules are respected, but also that the rights and obligations of each are balanced. For the majority of the women present, every menu counts.
In the neighborhood canteens, every penny is counted. Women must be able to cook complete meals every day at reduced costs. In the poorest comedores, savings are made on vegetables and meat. At the Gran Cambio restaurant, on Friday, the menu is abundant but modest: French fries and rice with a piece of omelette and a raw onion salad.
Comedores do not receive money from the government. Nevertheless, the state provides them with some of the food they need. When the comedores were created, driven by the necessities, they did not receive anything from the State. The women managed to get by. « I would bring my kitchen, others would bring dishes, ladles… For a long time, we even had to move the comedor to my house », says Maria, current president of the comedor « Amor y Paz ». A long struggle began for the canteens to obtain the necessary support from the state. In 1990, they obtained Law 25307. It establishes the PRONAA, the complementary food assistance program. « Complementary because the state complements what the organization brings first, not the other way around, » explains Ana Gil, president of FEMOCCPAALM. According to Law 25307, the food provided by the state (rice, oil, lentils) is supposed to cover 65% of the total cost of the menus. In practice, this state participation in kind stagnates at around 19%. 81% of the investment for the meals still rests on the members of each comedor. To make ends meet, each restaurant has its own strategy. At the comedor « Amor y Paz », the cooks offer a second, slightly more expensive menu, which allows them to balance the books and keep the members’ menus at a very affordable price (one sol, i.e. 0,40€). But sometimes, the tight budget of the comedores does not always allow them to offer their meal to a large number of people, who could be considered as vulnerable people.
In recent years, new and remaining members have been rare. Maria is 59 years old, in her comedor since its creation, she starts to get tired. Because the work is hard, because they are less and less. A little bitter, she explains the current situation: « What is happening is that today young women need money. They have to work if they want to make ends meet. The free and reduced meals are not enough anymore. So they leave to go to work. That leaves the older ones.
BEYOND THE NEED FOR FOOD
Comedores populares are not just a place to eat for cheap. It’s as much a place for women to come together, » says Ana Gil. « We started out to survive, and little by little we learned. We gradually realized that it was not only the theme of food that united us. In those daily meetings we had in the afternoon, after cooking, we realized that many women were mistreated, that others had to go to work leaving their children alone… The comedores became the centers of meetings to see how we were going to get involved to obtain water, electricity, roads… With the comedores, we began to not be alone, to regroup ». As the women talked, they realized that they were facing the same problems and decided to go further. Gradually, the FEMOCCPAALM was born, which allowed to act more for other rights. Discussions on domestic violence, sexual violence, health, nutrition… have led to campaigns and training.
The women of the comedores don’t just cook. Many of them, from responsibility to responsibility, have come to be trained for many things. To the point of taking on regional or national positions, of giving training courses themselves, of daring to defend their rights in front of the authorities. Ana Gil was part of the second class to graduate from the FEMOCCPAALM training school. « How can you solve the problems that come up if you don’t have any knowledge of the laws or have any idea who to go to? Most importantly, it’s important to know that there are other women out there who are struggling in the same way as you are to solve these problems. »
Women leaders (all those who assume an official role) have a very important role in the comedore community. More than the others, they are the ones who are involved beyond the « simple » functioning of their canteen. This sometimes creates a certain gap between them and those for whom the main thing is to feed their family with the little they have.
This tug of war is present within the comedores. On the one hand, there is the priority of the need for food, which has led women to organize themselves. On the other hand, there is the great emancipatory potential of the organization. This potential is the women’s will to empower themselves and their families, the efforts to cook healthy meals, but also to improve the well-being of their families, the fight against the authorities so that the food donated is from local producers… If this potential is carried by some leaders in particular and by the central comedores (authorities of the zones and districts of Lima), it is present, a little or a lot, in all the comedores. It is the daily fight of a part of the women of the movement so that the popular restaurants are each day more tools for their own emancipation.
But necessity always comes first. State support is often insufficient to develop this emancipatory potential as much as women would like. This is especially true since government donations are accompanied by increasingly stringent and time-consuming supervision and requirements. Hence Ana Gil’s question: « Why does the state ask so much of us if it only gives us 18% of what it costs? Between casautogestionary desires and dependence on more than useful state aid, organized women continue to struggle. Born from the impacts of an economic crisis, the comedores populares are a strategy of people in need. At some point, without a response from the State to their basic needs, they take matters into their own hands and rebuild an indispensable solidarity. An example that could perhaps inspire a Europe in crisis…
- Il existe d’autres types de restaurants populaires, au total ils sont plusieurs milliers à Lima.