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Une économie solidaire peut-elle être féministe ?

Christine Verschuur
Isabelle Guérin
Isabelle Hillenkamp

Solidarités, féminismes et rapport au politique

Missed opportunities, mixed messages and lessons learned: collective kitchens in marginal urban communities of Peru

Jeanine Anderson

Texte intégral

1The idea of collective kitchens – cooking collectively for multiple households that group together to share expenses, labour and (occasionally) the sociality of communal meals – is as old as a feminist Utopia (Hayden 1985). It has been compelling to social, religious, and practical reformers for many and varied reasons, including simple economic efficiency.

2During the economic crises of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all over Latin America, comedores populares emerged as a crucial response to hunger and poverty. For many of their promoters and participants, they had the added attractions of furthering leftist ideological programmes, highlighting gender inequality as a vanguard issue, and building a political movement based on serving the practical needs of the marginalised masses. In Peru, at their height in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, they numbered in the thousands, received ample government subsidies for equipment and food, and had broad support from the policy establishment. Though under a single rubric, they varied in their organisation, modes of functioning, and scale. Feminists and women’s NGOs backstopped the comedores and other emergency feeding programmes that involved grassroots level women’s organising, enthusiastically providing technical assistance, training and political cover.

3With these ingredients in play, the comedores position themselves at the intersection of feminist economics and current debates around economies of sharing and solidarity. This paper examines several issues that flow from such a positioning. How, and to what extent, do the comedores exemplify the theory and principles of feminist economics? What content do they give to social solidarity? Do they point to ways of combining economic solidarity with gender justice in spheres beyond feeding families and household provisioning?

  • 1 The comedores have generated a vast literature, both within and outside Peru. My choice of texts an (...)

4The issues are complex and the empirical record is not always complete. The comedor movement has a political and an economic dimension; some would add a psychological, cultural and moral dimension. Comedores were a vehicle for women’s political participation even as they were a response to economic stress. We are forewarned, then, that our object of analysis reflects multiple agendas of multiple actors. Given a time frame of four decades, we can expect that the relative prominence of one and another shifted. A little history will help place the puzzle pieces on the table1.

The heroic years (not without contradictions)

5The comedores represent the convergence of two streams of influence. One involved Christian solidarity and identification with the poor in a country in which the great mass of the population was part of that category until very recently. As rural to urban migration increased in the 1960s and 1970s, the Peruvian Catholic Church promoted Christian base communities and placed priests and nuns in the new shantytowns to assist in the struggle for services and recognition. Evangelical Protestants organised prayer and social assistance groups. The other impulse came from leftist political parties. They sought strategies for bringing women into the struggle for socialism, strategies that would not challenge male leadership or the prevailing dogmas concerning gender relations, the meaning of family, the organisation of work or the appropriate course for development of a mass popular political movement. Objectively, the sudden increase in the numbers and concentration of the urban poor posed a threat to the established order. Lima, the capital, was almost evenly divided between the consolidated city, with streetlights and services, and the new settlements (barriadas neighbourhoods, renamed, optimistically, pueblos jóvenes, people’s villages, by the military government of the 1970s and later renamed again asentamientos humanos, human settlements). Most of their residents were recent migrants from the rural Andes. Their connection to urban employment was precarious, even as they struggled to build their houses and gain access to urban amenities. The promise of factory work in the cities drove the migration through the boom years of the 1960s and early 1970s, but by the late 1970s the economy had soured and Peru, with the rest of Latin America, was entering the Lost Decade. The comedores first emerged during this period.

6Sara‑Lafosse (1984, 77) carried out fundamental research during the early years of the comedores. The idea leapt from barriada to barriada as food prices rose and work opportunities dried up. Based on a survey questionnaire applied to a representative sample, Sara-Lafosse concluded that the comedores were achieving their formal objectives. They were improving the access to food of the families that participated and helping to reduce malnutrition among children and mothers at risk. They were making efficient use of food supplies, much of which they were receiving from donors (the Catholic charity Cáritas prominent among them). Sara‑Lafosse expressed concern over the risk of making poor families dependent on food donations, and she registered a problem of rivalry between comedores for donations and other resources. Interestingly, she found that most of the leaders (dirigentas) of the comedores were already involved in other community organisations. They brought that capital to the complicated tasks of managing a cooperating group of ten, twenty or more neighbouring families, including enforcing turn-taking among the women who assumed the tasks of purchasing, cooking and serving the food, and clean-up. Sara-Lafosse goes on to list several unanticipated benefits of the comedores that, over the following years, grew almost to the point of overwhelming the objectives of simply getting food onto the plates and into the bowls of poor people.

  • Promote the personal development of the participating women;

  • Reduce the time spent on household tasks; time that could be used in paid work, education and training, and volunteer work for the community;

  • Promote cultural change within families and, by heightening women’s self-esteem, change ideas around equality in marriage;

  • End the isolation of women whose primary responsibility was managing the household;

  • Provide families with greater security: food security, reduced domestic violence, stronger bonds between married couples;

  • Modify systems for processing food, scaling up from individualised household-level production to rationalised mass production with reduced costs;

  • Consolidate democratic practices in poor communities and raise their levels of cohesion and integration. (Sara-Lafosse 1984, 90)

7The comedores came into being almost simultaneously with another food assistance programme for the poor, Vaso de Leche, designed, financed and operated by a left coalition government of the city of Lima and launched in 1984. Before that there had been governmental (often presidents’ wives) initiatives in distributing food to mothers’ clubs, and some private charities had experimented with breakfast programmes and the distribution of a daily “glass of milk” to children. The affiliation of all these programmes to successive governments and the political parties that were dominant in them was a constant point of contention. A wedge quickly arose between comedores that received government subsidies and the so-called autogestionarios or autonomous comedores. The latter received subsidies, ample administrative support, and ideological guidance from NGOs and opposition political parties. International aid organisations participated in both streams, and some of them were also channelling resources to the Vaso de Leche programme. Similar to the tense relations that often arose between the comedores subsidiados and the comedores autogestionarios, a turf war and battle for political support, media attention and the moral high ground took shape between the comedores as a whole and Vaso de Leche.

8Although malnutrition and poverty have always been concentrated in rural areas of Peru, and although rural municipalities eventually joined in, the food assistance programmes were designed to alleviate the suffering and promote the inclusion of the marginalised poor of Peru’s coastal cities. Here, migrants from the countryside and refugees from the overcrowded slums were creating new communities. Their local institutions were only just taking form, and they lacked the connections to established paths for accessing vital resources. Food assistance was an obvious palliative measure. At the same time, militant organisations of the urban poor were putting forward more encompassing demands for services, jobs, economic opportunities and political representation. Those critical and dissenting notes gradually faded as the economic crisis of the 1980s wore on. Organising poor people was choked off as it became increasingly difficult for the government to distinguish between legitimate protest movements and groups fronting for Shining Path and other violent revolutionary groups.

9In step with the popular movements in the early years, the comedores, Vaso de Leche organisation, and others, such as health promoter groups, were vehicles for experiments with new gender arrangements and transforming women’s roles and mentalities. Jenkins (2011) highlights the militant feminism of many of the NGOs that backstopped the organisations. The health promoter groups worked to expand women’s rights to contraception, safe sex and choice (all phrased in the veiled language possible at the time).

10Gradually, however, the argument for the comedores and the Vaso de Leche programme shed the references to empowerment, liberating women’s time, and other nuances. Distilled to its essence, it became a message of moral solidarity and abnegation on the part of the slightly more fortunate among the poor on behalf of those less fortunate. A prominent dirigenta, Emma Hilario, spoke thus in a workshop organised by the NGO Yunta:

En este momento, cuando el país atraviesa por una grave situación económica, es la organización la que está cargando con el peso de la crisis, como si nosotros fuésemos culpables de la errónea conducción de los gobiernos anteriores. (…) En estos momentos de angustia, de pobreza de nuestra gente, salimos con valentía y con fuerza moral para decir : “aquí estamos ejerciendo la solidaridad”. También como organización moralizamos, y le exigimos moralidad al señor Presidente ; igualmente ha anunciado en su discurso la concertación de voluntades y le tomamos la palabra. (Córdoba 1992, 111-112)

11For members and supporters of the comedores, hunger and poverty were an affront to a basic notion of justice and social contract. In pronouncements in the media and marches on the street, the slogan was: “No matarás, ni con hambre ni con balas” (Thou shalt not kill, not with hunger nor with bullets). A prominent observer, based in a Lima NGO long involved with workers’ rights, likened Vaso de Leche to the conscience of the nation: “El Vaso de Leche no era pues un programa más. El Vaso de Leche era la conciencia viva de un pueblo que no se deja amilanar ni por el miedo ni por el hambre” (García and Morales 1994, 11).

12There are good reasons to emphasise the acquisition of organisational, administrative and political skills as a part of the comedor phenomenon, at least for some of the women involved. Throughout the first half of the 1980s the local committees came together to create sector and district level federations and later citywide federations in Lima and other urban centres. By 1986, the comedores autogestionarios had consolidated in the Comisión Nacional de Comedores (CNC). For many observers, 1985 to 1991 marks the heroic period of optimum functioning of Vaso de Leche and the comedores in Lima. Córdoba (1992, 11) calculates that the comedores affiliated with the CNC were producing daily some 1.5 million food rations. While some of the regional and national dirigentas went on to media stardom and even gained a large quota of political influence, the army of cooks and bottle-washers in individual comedores expressed their frustration at being passed over for leadership positions and training opportunities. The divisions between the leadership and the operational bases and members of the comedores only widened as time went on.

13The numbers of comedores, as they fluctuated over time, are difficult to ascertain, as are the numbers of members of each comedor and the number of rations they prepared. Rousseau (2009, 102‑103) registers some of the factors that conditioned their expansion and constriction: the abundance of food donations, the general economic situation, alternative opportunities for work and income for poor women. Rousseau believes that the comedores autogestionarios in Lima were around 300 in 1986 and increased to 3,000 in 1989. There seem to have been some 5,329 comedores of both types in Lima in 1991, of which about a third (1,892) were autogestionarios. In 1997 the total of comedores autogestionarios remained about the same (1,800), and they had some 45,000 women members. The government-subsidised comedores numbered 5,200 and had 70,200 members. Each comedor served approximately 100 to 300 persons every weekday; on weekends individual households were on their own.

14The structural adjustment package launched by the newly-inaugurated Fujimori government in 1990 caused a spike in the number of comedores and would-be comedores as the price of basic foods, fuel and cooking gas leapt by 100, 200 and 300% overnight. A worker in one of the organisations (Care International) that distributed food subsidies talks about the impact of what has gone down in history as the “Fujishock” in a shanty community of Pamplona:

Lo que hacen las mujeres es emprender una labor titánica de apoyar a la gente más necesitada. Comenzaron a cocinar, de 50 raciones (antes del shock), a 500-600 raciones. Cocinaban en tres turnos. Y entonces a partir de ellos se fue acelerando el proceso de salida de las mujeres del entorno de cuatro paredes a lo que es la sociabilización. (Interview, R.G., employee of Prodía/Care, 2001)

15While existing comedores doubled and tripled their output as more and more neighbours showed up at their doors with empty pots, new comedores were formed and people organised informal groups to get access to emergency food subsidies. Desperation walked the land. Many of these new organisations were unable to rise to the task of managing the logistics, accounting and actual food preparation involved in running a comedor. After a few weeks or months, most were removed from the rolls of recipients of subsidies.

16The vital importance and high visibility of the comedores in the response to the Fujishock and in keeping marginal urban barrios afloat made them a target for the Shining Path just at the moment when its strategy turned from occupying and holding rural focos to urban terror. The assassinations of prominent women leaders quickly followed and had dire consequences for the operation of the women’s groups on the ground. NGO supporters could not enter the barrios without endangering themselves and the women they had contact with. Threats were made, fear was rampant, and many women had to abandon the organisations (Guzmán and Pinzás 1995; Jenkins 2011). Some leaders were forced into exile and have never been able to return to Peru.

Co-optation, incomprehension, and lost opportunities

  • 2 The national programme for food assistance PRONAA was the government agency charged with enrolling (...)

17The 1990s in Peru were dominated by the presidency of Alberto Fujimori and the increasingly populist-dictatorial political regime he imposed (Rousseau 2009). The regime’s relationship with the comedores movement suggests the degree of improvisation and opportunism that dominated social programmes at a time when much of the population required special emergency measures to weather the economic crisis. The barrio-level women’s organisations of all types quickly became a focus of political mobilising in support of the regime. Under PRONAA’s2 operating system, larger, more consolidated comedores were designated as “centros de acopio” where supplies were delivered for a network of surrounding comedores. Their dirigentas became responsible for activities such as baking birthday cakes for the president, delivering mothers and children to marches, organising festivals of integration among comedor members, and distributing campaign materials. Their action as political mobilisers and their possibilities for distributing patronage grew enormously.

18While such forms of collaboration with the government are clearly abusive and illegitimate, the comedores and Vaso de Leche committees took on a number of responsibilities that suggest possible new roles for them in an evolving democratic system. In such a system, civil society organisations share in expanding access to services and channelling citizens’ participation in decisions about government programmes. An epidemic of cholera struck Peru in 1991. The comedores were key to disseminating information, detecting cases of sick neighbours and referring them to the health authorities, and feeding family members when a principal caretaker was hospitalised. The Metropolitan Lima Vaso de Leche federation established a formal agreement with the Ministry of Health to assist in vaccination campaigns, public information and preventative measures of all kinds. This relationship pre-dated the epidemic and continued afterwards. The Wawa wasi programme, a national programme for providing childcare services to poor working women, incorporated the comedores into its design as suppliers of cooked food for the children being cared for in designated households and community centres in their areas of influence. The comedores competed for the job and had to meet strict requirements with respect to hygiene and food preparation.

19A study by a group of Catholic University researchers in 1999 revealed new facets of these arrangements (Anderson, Vallenas and Castillo 2000). In Lima and several regions of the interior of Peru, we found that Vaso de Leche committees and comedores were regularly called upon by government agencies to serve as a nexus with the local community. Falling short of the quotas for the number of talks to local audiences that were part of health information campaigns? These organised groups of women were an irresistible venue. No time for personnel to monitor cases of children at risk of malnutrition or pregnant women not showing up for check-ups? What better than to ask the members of the women’s organisations to stop by and pay a visit, even if that meant several hours walking to out-of-the-way annexes. Need to get the word out about an upcoming health fair? The women could talk it up as they went about their daily activities in the market, in the fields and crossing paths with neighbours. Because the members of the comedores and Vaso de Leche had already assumed an identity as omnibus social facilitators in their communities, it was difficult for them to refuse such requests, even though they were clearly performing functions that should have been carried out by the institutions and their staff. Still, they were not shy about expressing their sense of being overburdened, even exploited, in this relationship. The exchange might have been experienced as fairer if the organisations had in return gotten access to the levers of local power and decisionmaking. The research incorporated techniques of network analysis and we were thus able to show a consistent pattern whereby local institutions and organisations sorted themselves into two separate networks: one involved with power, governance, business and resources, the other focused on social programmes and assistance. The comedores, despite their ambitions and often in contradiction to their self-perception, were unequivocally a part of the second network.

20In the second half of the 1990s, social policymaking came more and more under the influence of a group of technocrats centred at the Universidad del Pacífico, a college of economics and business administration with a strong neoliberal presence. PRONAA, the national programme for food assistance, began to put pressure on the comedores under its aegis for greater efficiency and proof of results in terms of improved nutrition and health status for the consumers of the rations (Portocarrero et al. 2000). They were also under pressure to transition from being subsidised social programmes to becoming self-sustaining income-generating schemes. Reinventing themselves as cooperatives and microenterprises, they launched bakeries, popular restaurants, boxed lunch delivery services to offices and construction sites, and catering services. Few survived the transition. Their traditional clients, the poor and the near-poor, were unable to pay more for their food. Tied to poor neighbourhoods, without the requisite financial and social capital, they could not access more lucrative markets.

After the emergency

21Since 2000, Peru has been on a track towards economic growth, a degree of prosperity for an ever-broadening middle class, and relative political stability. Portocarrero et al. (2002) counted 34,500 women’s grassroots organisations, primarily comedores and Vaso de Leche committees, in all of Peru at the beginning of the millennium. Clearly, a demand for subsidised food, a need for cooked food for delivery to vulnerable groups, and families without a cook available to prepare the noon meal, still existed.

22Another recent attempt to quantify and qualify the contribution of the comedores is the survey performed in Lima in 2003 by the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (Blondet and Trivelli 2004). Out of 15,891 “comedores populares y clubes de madres” in all of Peru, 5,000 were located in Metropolitan Lima. Their membership numbered 100,000 women. They prepared 480,000 daily food rations and fed about 6% of the population of the urban area. If Córdoba’s estimates are correct, this is a third of the number of rations being prepared and distributed a decade and a half earlier. In 2003, of all consumers in the comedores, 37% were slightly above the poverty line (but might fall below it if they could no longer get low-cost meals), 51% were poor, 12% were indigent.

23Blondet (2004, 15) updates to 2004 the advantages the women receive from their participation in comedores. They overcome isolation in the domestic sphere, meet other women, find emotional support, share their problems, have access to a never-ending stream of adult education courses on topics from nutrition to making plush toys, learn to cook in quantity, learn budgeting and accounting, practice public speaking, identify personal objectives and interests, learn to relate and successfully negotiate with public officials, conduct the internal affairs of their organisations including oversight of the leadership, and practice parliamentary procedure and elections. Moving up in the hierarchy of local, district and regional dirigentas of the comedores gives access to other networks such as the Mesas de Concertación de Lucha contra la Pobreza. Perhaps with a certain wistfulness, Blondet (2004, 15) repeats the claims of 20 years ago : “Es decir, que los Comedores Populares resultan siendo verdaderas escuelas de aprendizaje ciudadano. Es en la organización en donde las mujeres populares se constituyen en sujetos de derechos y de obligaciones”.

24The President’s “state of the union” address to congress on Independence Day, July 28, 2014 added a final number to the declining curve of comedores. Officially, there are now 13,500 in all of Peru. Nonetheless, the fact that they were mentioned at all as part of the social safety net in a presidential address suggests that they are not gone and not forgotten. For the current Peruvian government, they are adjuncts, not protagonists, of anti-poverty and social development programmes; therein lies their importance. Besides providing subsidised, cooked food to indigent community members, they supply meals and snacks to childcare centres, in school lunches, and for meetings and training sessions in remote parts of the country where restaurants and catering services do not exist.

25The triumphant neoliberal climate in contemporary Peru was a serious blow. But why were the comedores so easily pushed off the centre stage that they had occupied for so long? Why were they never really associated with the “sueño de la casa sin cocina” (Anderson 1990): the dream of the kitchenless house in nineteenth century Utopias, and core feminist demands in many other countries, of equitable and efficient distribution of the burdens of housework and caring labour in Peruvian households? A case study reveals some further aspects of the problem.

A case study: Pamplona Alta

26Comedores can be placed in a context of non‑monetised reciprocal exchange of services, community self-help and neighbourly favours that constituted the social matrix of community development projects in the initial years of formation of new urban neighbourhoods in Peru. An example is the community of Leoncio Prado, one of hundreds of subdivisions of Pamplona Alta, a vast area of sandy hills on the southern edge of the city of Lima, once used as a firing range for training exercises by the Peruvian army. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the area began to be occupied incrementally by groups of families that organised and sought a propitious moment to set up their straw shacks (Christmas holidays, for example, when the government would get bad press if it attempted to evict them). The 1970s were a time of relative tolerance of the expansion of barriadas in Lima, and the military government in power set up certain mechanisms for creating order out of chaos. The army supplied bulldozers to level new areas of occupation, establish streets on a grid and do a semblance of urban planning. A special government agency intervened to organise elections for development committees.

27I have had the fortune of being involved as a researcher, activist and friend to members of the community of Leoncio Prado since a first study in 1977-1978 in which I was invited to participate. I directed follow-up surveys in 1992 and 2001 of the households that were part of the original sample (around 8% of the community’s total population). In all three rounds, and through smaller projects focused on community organisations and local democracy, I had access to a rich history of institutional life in the area. In one of those studies, I was able to show that approximately 15% of women in the community actually participated in organisations of any kind; this, when the vision of many outsiders (including overly enthusiastic feminists and women’s NGOs) was that everybody was involved and mobilised.

28Another study by the NGO GREDES in 1991 produced inventories of community organisations and examined their relationships with local counterparts, government institutions, philanthropic entities, NGOs and agencies of international cooperation. The table reports the results of the inventory for Leoncio Prado and, as a reference, the neighbouring community of Ollantay.

Type of organisation

Leoncio Prado


Local development central committees
(political authority at the barrio level,
nexus with the municipal government)

Comité Central (men)
Concejo Feme-nino


Social development (Vaso de Leche,
health promoters, committee to
promote day care centre)






Parent-teacher associations
(obligatory for every school)



Economic cooperatives,
representative and self‑defence
associations (e.g. market vendors,
home-based stores, handicrafts co-op,
minibus operators)



Sports clubs



Religious groups



Political parties, local committee






Source: GREDES project on local democracy, 1991

29The GREDES study gathered detailed information about the kinds of exchanges (including information), coordination and shared projects the various organisations had undertaken with different counterparts. These contacts might involve simply lending a meeting space or some folding chairs, selling each other’s raffle tickets, or major inputs of resources such as were channelled through the parent-teacher associations. Some organisations were heavily involved with local exchanges; for example, the sports clubs which got together for matches and to organise local tournaments. Others were more outward-looking: for example, most political party committees and religious groups, which took their cues from larger organisations. The comedores turned out to be at the extreme of organisations with many connections outside the community; not surprising if we consider that all were receiving subsidies from sources such as Cáritas, from international donors via Peruvian NGOs such as FOVIDA, or from the government. One of the comedores listed no fewer than 42 counterpart organisations with which it had had some level of cooperation. Some of their exchanges within the community were hostile: they often competed for clients and members (especially women who had shown themselves to be loyal ground troops, exceptionally good cooks or able administrators), and for access to outside donors and supporters that came visiting.

30One thing is clear: the comedores (and Vaso de Leche committees) were decidedly women’s affairs. Not only did they do “womanly” things (cook, serve food, budget and shop for food, manage kitchens and kitchen equipment) but they rejected the participation of men – or more accurately went along in a logic of mutual repulsion – save under exceptional circumstances. Thus one of the comedores in Leoncio Prado was exclusively for persons with physical handicaps; it included both men and women and further violated the “rules” by incorporating members who did not live in Leoncio Prado. In some other parts of Lima and other parts of Peru, men were allowed to participate in comedores, and they did so in small numbers, increasingly after the wave of unemployment that followed on the Fujishock.

31This strict gender segregation was new in the Leoncio Prado organisational world. Although the two development committees at the top of the pyramid were a men’s and a women’s committee, they coordinated closely and were often connected by kinship ties. Sports clubs were integrated, and the games and tournaments were festive occasions for entire families to come out, enjoy purchasing (or selling) snacks, and watch male soccer players, not infrequently, followed by a volleyball match between female or mixed teams. Many of the economic organisations, including a savings’ association, the market vendors’ association and the grouping of home-based shop owners, were mixed. The existence of all-female organisations and allfemale development projects was cause for conflict in the 1980s, when Leoncio Prado like other barriadas was inundated by women’s NGOs and government sponsored initiatives for women. By tradition, the ideal was for men and women to work together.

32Meanwhile, many observers were questioning why the comedores did not take firmer positions in relation to what they saw as being one of the greatest threats to women’s well-being in popular sectors and in the dynamics of the new communities such as Leoncio Prado. I refer to domestic violence. It was most definitely an issue for many of the women in the movement (Córdoba 1992; Santisteban 1994; Granados 1996) and it was certainly present in households of Leoncio Prado. Three of the functionaries responsible for the food subsidies that were being supplied to the comedores in the community in the early 1990s remarked on it in interviews (R.G. of Care/Prodía, N.M. of Cáritas, L.C. of PRONAA, all interviewed in 2001). For reasons I will expand upon in the final section of this paper, the comedores remained focused on their core objectives, with little change over time and few concessions to variations in each local context.

33The examination of local organisations in Leoncio Prado and similar barrios suggests that women as political actors are not essentially different from men. The comedores, like other grassroots organisations, had problems of in-fighting, accusations of pilfering, and innumerable difficulties in administering resources. Yet they laboured under the aura of moral authority that their lofty mission had cast over them. The emotional and psychological contradictions this entailed seems to have blocked more forthright conversations about their organisational difficulties (Huamán 1988).

34The evidence points to the need to rethink the centrality of the comedores as part of community mobilising and political movement for democratic reform over recent decades in Peru. For many of their supporters, including most feminists at the time, they were the only game in town. Popular women’s access to citizenship depended on their existence. For local communities, they were far from that and in fact the real games – the soccer matches and associated festivals – were far more compelling.

  • 3 At last notice, one, which has had the same president for almost 25 years, was closing by decision (...)

35The evidence also points to the need to rethink the role of comedores in anti-poverty strategies and household provisioning. This is not to say the comedores were or are irrelevant. In today’s Leoncio Prado, 3 or 4 comedores survive3. They are one more element in complex provisioning systems that may or may not work out, for particular families, to be a reasonable, cost-effective way to access resources. They are an insurance mechanism, one of many that are desirable to have in a political context that never ceases to shift and change. Through circumstances beyond their control, the comedores might regain their relevance as a source of food, information, subsidies and other resources at some time in the future. The poor must use all means available to defend themselves against the arbitrary decisions of unstable governments and predation by more powerful political actors. That is the lesson in citizenship that the population of Leoncio Prado, and so many other urban popular communities throughout the country, seem to have learned best.

After the neoliberal make-over

36One question, that was surprisingly infrequent throughout the long history of the comedores, concerns their actual contribution to the nutrition of the population they were ostensibly benefitting. We know that the food subsidies provided by PRONAA (Peruvian government) and by other agencies were quite limited in their variety. They were basically rice, legumes, cooking oil and other non-perishables, including tinned fish. The women themselves, using the low fees they charged for rations (lower for members, higher for outsiders), had to buy complements: fresh vegetables and meats. Huamán (1988) examined the menus, including the protein content, and found many to be deficient. At their worst, they filled stomachs and could, in some cases, be served with supplements added at home. At their best, smart and active women in charge bargained and pled at the local markets and managed to put out tasty and nutritious rations most days of the week.

37Trivelli (2004, 21-24), based on the 2003 Instituto de Estudios Peruanos survey of comedores in Lima, differentiates categories of consumers of the rations. Almost 60% are members who, according to long-established practice, paid a fee for each ration based on real costs. Free rations went out to the workers in the comedores, who were also members, and the so-called “social cases”. The latter’s meals were covered by the subsidies provided by PRONAA and other donors, and the incorporation of a certain percentage of such cases was a requirement in order for the comedores to continue to receive subsidised food. Finally, the comedores were free to sell the rations they prepared above and beyond those categories. Most had a steady clientele that might include teachers and other non-residents who were going daily to work in the neighbourhood and drop-ins that might be temporary construction workers, itinerant salespeople, or bus drivers passing through. The table indicates the proportions of each, averaging over the entire Lima sample of comedores:




Members and their families


Cooks and assistants that work in the comedores (“volunteers”)


“Casos sociales” (Social assistance cases: abandoned children, the elderly, mentally ill, etc. The beneficiaries identified by the comedor members are persons in the community who are known to them).


Sales to clients: daily consumers and occasional passers-by

38Even as late as 2003, the comedores were extremely low-tech (Trivelli 2004, 28). Overall, just 61% had electricity and running water. Most were cooking on industrial-type stoves fuelled by propane gas in cylinders that probably had to be purchased elsewhere and carried to the site. Less than 40% had blenders, 18% had refrigerators, and 4% had ovens. The comedores were essentially using household-level technologies, implements, recipes and procedures to mass produce meals with a very high investment of human labour. The only consistent sign of “going to scale” were the giant pots that had to be lifted onto and off of the burners. Clearly the long years of existence had not led to the development of appropriate technologies. Peru’s universities and technical schools did not rise to the challenge of contributing industrial designs, food-processing equipment or improved cooking stoves and ovens. Nor did the NGOs, the government agencies supplying subsidies, or the women’s organisations themselves approach them with requests to become involved in making the comedores more efficient and less labour intensive, so far as is known.

39It is telling that the comedores’ fading away seems to have left even their friends indifferent. Virginia Vargas, the most influential, albeit selective and often tendentious, historian of Peruvian feminism barely mentions them in her many writings interpreting the last three decades of women and feminism in Peru (see for example Vargas 2006). Many left-leaning political leaders have been among the loudest voices denouncing corruption and inefficiencies in the comedores and the Vaso de Leche movement. They are a soft target for recanters showing off their enlightened acceptance of the new parameters for social policymaking. Perhaps because they were the largest and most visible pieces of the old social assistance regime, these two categories of popular women’s organisations have become for many progressives the elements they are most willing to sacrifice in making concessions to the new social architecture ushered in under neoliberal auspices. It is not irrelevant that they were and are specifically women’s organisations, and the new social policy establishment is predominantly male (and probably not heavily involved in the intricacies of food provisioning in their own households).

40The dirigentas themselves blame the collapse of the movement on its abandonment by NGO supporters and advisors and by international donors (Rousseau 2009). Córdoba (1992) attributes their decline to the terrorist onslaught, the demobilisation it produced of dirigentas, and the destruction of local groups and centralised organisations. Granados (1996) analyses the comedor and Vaso de Leche process through the early 1990s, specifically the failure to join together in what might have been a stronger, more resilient political movement. While this is often blamed on the dirigentas and their personal rivalries and ambitions, he relates the failure to larger failures of institutions and practices of the Peruvian political system: the difficulty of negotiating differences, making compromises and establishing coalitions without loss of institutional identities.

41Jenkins (2011, 300) focuses on the tensions that became increasingly unsustainable around leadership and empowerment issues. In the early, heroic years, women’s empowerment was understood to entail a critical vision of social conditions as well as acquiring the skills and motivation to change them. This critical edge had disappeared from the minds and the discourse of NGO supporters and from the grassroots leaders themselves by 2000. The critique promoted initially by the NGOs that rushed to support the comedores concerned poverty and economic injustice as well as gender inequality, the encierro doméstico (domestic enclosure) of women, and their lack of access to political decision-making at the local level and beyond. It was not explicitly focused on housework, food preparation and the injustices of the sexual division of labour in the household. How could it be? It was still almost exclusively women that were preparing food in the comedores and operating the Vaso de Leche programme.

42For some, the comedores are simply part of a long history of cultural transformation – displacement, more precisely – in a rural population that had to reposition itself in an urban environment. Comedores are sometimes traced to Andean roots although the women themselves did not talk about community roof-raisings and fiestas patronales as something they were reproducing in the city. But the larger picture does in fact show a rural population that brought with it certain institutions of rural life and, abandoning or refashioning those institutions quite radically, became an urban one. This process is evident in Leoncio Prado in myriad ways. Thus, the daughters of dirigentas and members of comedores, brought up and educated in the city, rarely opted for participating in comedores as they became heads of families, despite sharing many of the conditions of poverty of their mothers.

43Rousseau sums it up:

Because of the variety of factors described […], including divisions in the movement, the impact of political violence and changing donor policies, the collective kitchens’ movement was far more vulnerable to the Fujimori regime’s neopopulist project combining neoliberal economic policies with an authoritarian, clientelistic approach to social assistance. An individualistic, market-based model gradually settled in to dominate Peru in the 1990s, facilitated by the failure of the democratic left, the drastic weakening of the union movement and the damage and trauma caused by the war between Sendero luminoso and security forces. This new model meant the erosion of the comedores’ ideal of autonomous organizing based on solidarity. (Rousseau 2009, 123-124)

Out of the kitchen: real Utopias of feminist solidarity

44I have touched upon some of the afterthoughts of participants in the comedores, the policymakers involved and the feminists who promoted them as a progressive project, even, at their most expansive, as the highest priority for

45Peruvian feminists. I hope I have been able to show, in retrospect, some of how they evaluated the time and energies devoted to creating a vast organisation with a complicated mixture of objectives and a combination of agendas that in the end became unsustainable. The question that has not received the attention it might is: Could history have played out in a different way? Some of the actors suggest some of the conditions that might have made that possible. Yet most of those conditions are so far removed from the reality of contemporary Peru as to be unimaginable. In that sense, even the most convinced of their supporters seem to agree: the comedores were a missed opportunity, not to be seen again.

46A second set of questions goes beyond the actors and their intentions to inquire into the potential of the comedores as a new kind of economic organisation devoted primarily to provisioning households with prepared food. In addition to being a survival strategy for the short term and a means of accessing government and international support for the poor, can we identify in them an attempt to construct a “real Utopia” as a permanent part of the institutions serving Peru’s underclass? Could they still become the basis for a movement to reshape gender roles and promote alternative economic arrangements focused on household provisioning and the sexual division of labour in domestic and communitarian spheres?

47At this point I want to address directly the theme of this conference: economies of solidarity responsive to feminist demands and principles. The concept of Real Utopias4, as developed by sociologist Eric Olin Wright and numerous collaborators, shares with feminist economics a concern for the practical and achievable. That remits most questions to the arena of institutions. How can institutions be created that will serve as vehicles of transformation while resolving the concrete problems of peoples’ lives in the short run and under real world conditions? Many other institutional arrangements that we might wish to liberate from the logic of capitalist economics can be examined with a certain calm. But providing, cooking, and eating our daily bread cannot wait.

48Wright’s vision of socioeconomic transformation recognizes several ingredients that can be related to the case of the comedores. One is unintended social change, possibly of greater weight than transformative strategies (Wright 2010, 273). Another is interstitial transformation.

If one believes that systemic ruptural strategies of emancipatory transformation are not plausible, at least under existing historical conditions, then the only real alternative is some sort of strategy that envisions transformation largely as a process of metamorphosis in which relatively small transformations cumulatively generate a qualitative shift in the dynamics and logic of a social system. […] To invoke metamorphosis is not to abjure struggle, but to see the strategic goals and effects of struggle in a particular way: as the incremental modifications of the underlying structures of a social system and its mechanisms of social reproduction that cumulatively transform the system, rather than as a sharp discontinuity in the centers of power of the system as a whole. (Wright 2010, 321)

49The women of the comedores obviously did not see themselves as part of a strategy for bringing down capitalism in Peru. But their example of solidarity and new kinds of neighbourliness caused and embodied unintended change. At the same time, the issue they were concerned with – resolving the problems of getting food to the masses of the marginal and the poor – lies in the interstices of the political and economic agendas of decision-makers in Peru. We would seem to be on a road to meeting the criteria for a Real Utopia.

50External conditions must permit Real Utopian projects to take root and flourish. Some have suggested that true and far-reaching mobilisation of Peru’s poor in search of novel sociopolitical arrangements was only possible during the democratic transition of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Once the turbulence ended, the old institutions came back in force and crowded out the new.

51Real Utopias must be built around real needs, and they must provide real solutions to the problems of producing goods and services to meet those needs. The comedores positioned themselves in the arena of household provisioning, specifically of prepared meals. A real Utopia occupying this niche has to resolve the issues of management and administration, efficiency and costs, and the value of the product in nutritional terms. The comedores receive mixed marks on all these dimensions. As a form of economic organisation, they were vastly underserved by Peru’s food technologists, industrial designers and engineers, and others that could have seized the opportunity to innovate in improved supply and production systems. Real Utopias must be able to buy, commandeer or negotiate the support of outside actors, such that the technologies they deploy make them efficient and able to compete against the old (and new: McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, etc.) alternatives. DeVault (1991) and others have raised our consciousness about the challenges of “feeding the family” at the domestic level. Weismantel (1988) and others have complicated the issue for the Andes. The challenges of working in the interstices that the comedores claimed are daunting. Neysmith and her co-authors (2012) examine a category of women’s activities that they call “collective provisioning” which seems to name quite well what the comedores were about. The Canadian subjects in the Neysmith et al. study produced a list of the elements that play into collective provisioning (Table 4.1, p. 47). Its implications should give us pause.

  1. Crafting valued goods and services
    Providing material resources
    Creating cultures of support
    Generating knowledge
    Networking connections

  2. Constituting collectivities
    Mapping common visions
    Sustaining group places
    Contesting differences and boundaries

  3. Constructing alternative possibilities
    Exploring new spaces and identities
    Resisting injustices
    Countering dominant discourses

52I have no doubt that the women in Peru’s comedores were involved in all these activities simultaneously, to one degree or another and despite the fact that neither they (nor the Canadians) could have or would have turned them into abstract concepts in quite the same way. But we as observers are obligated to be fully cognizant of the high demands and many implications of provisioning projects as a site for feminist Real Utopias.

53In a text that has been unjustly neglected in the gender and development debates, March and Taqqu (1986) question the kinds of women’s associations that exist in various cultural settings around the world, and the viability of channelling projects of change and development through these organisations. The fact that they are “informal” associations means that they are part of the world of unintended social change, in Wright’s terms: they have come about spontaneously as organic expressions of the women’s desires and needs. They include religious groups, dance troupes, fishing cooperatives, market vendor’s associations, midwives’ groups, organisations of traditional healers (including the “cutters” in societies that practice genital mutilation), hairdressers’ syndicates, rotating credit associations of a wide variety, and a further rich roster of organisational forms. The authors, however, call attention to the high proportion of women’s organisations that are defensive. Because of the prevalence of women’s subordination and vulnerability in many cultural contexts and situations, their organising efforts have frequently focused on defending themselves from men and men’s designs. March and Taqqu contrast “defensive organisations” to “active organisations” and conclude that only those of the second type – a minority – are viable vehicles for projects of change. The comedores would seem to be perilously close to the first category, certainly at a level of their discourse and self-image.

54In the evolution of the community women’s associations that Neysmith et al. (2012) followed in Canada, the set of functions they group under the category of “constructing alternative possibilities” looms large. Even while many of them cooperated in disseminating the benefits of social programmes and bringing out the demand, these organisations were heavily involved in advocating for an expansion of services and criteria of eligibility and in protesting against injustices in the application of policies that affected households’ ability to provision themselves. Sometimes they had to choose between accepting a passive role as collaborators in making social programmes run smoothly, or opposing them and exposing their deficiencies to the public and the press. To fulfil their role in constructing alternative possibilities, they had to enjoy a wide margin of autonomy. Their financing could not depend on a single source, their meeting places could not be shut down in a falling-out with sponsors, their legal status and community recognition could not be subject to the whim or perceived offense against a single powerful agency. Perhaps most important of all, they had to enjoy a large measure of psychological autonomy, particularly where “exploring new identities” and “countering dominant discourses” were at stake.

55This is a critical point of divergence from the comedor experience in Peru. Although “autonomy” was one of the most frequent values mentioned in relation to the comedor movement, in fact the possibility that individual comedores, or the movement as a whole, could develop in an autonomous direction was severely curtailed. The government-subsidised comedores were subject to visits and inspections by the agencies charged with ensuring that the sacks of food were properly stored and the numbers of persons receiving the rations reflected true facts. The comedores that were labelled auto gestionarios also had strong ties of dependency to the NGOs that channelled international donations and provided them with what is loosely called technical assistance. Santisteban (1994) is especially eloquent in documenting the sense of oppression the “autonomous” organisations could feel in their relationship with well-intentioned NGOs. “They even wrote our letters for us” recall the dirigentas.

56Creating Real Utopias out of domestic provisioning and the household division of labour has to be a project of men and women together. Real Utopias that occupy the interstices of domestic and family life must involve both genders in their construction. And here the comedores run into many problems. They were single-sex. Probably the NGO advisors and donor agencies imagined them as women’s empowerment projects taking flower in protected all-female spaces more often than the women themselves did, yet for many they were valued as a means of getting away from oppressive gender relations in the home. For many, including the husbands that partook of the meals, it was never clear: were they for men or against them? As Córdoba, Santisteban and Granados all show in the testimonies they reproduce of women that participated in the comedores, they might pay solicitous attention to men’s food preferences, but they also removed women from the house at the cost of unswept floors and bad report cards their children brought from school. Husbands and fathers can be blamed for not stepping into the breach, but the fact is that the model offered no incentives for them to do so.

57The comedores were trapped not only by their dependence on a few sources of food, supplies and official recognition. Any analysis of power networks ratifies the centrality of the brokers that control the gateways to resources under such schemes, their ability to set the agenda and parameters in their own interest. But the comedores were trapped by the discourse they themselves had helped to create. Their mission being feeding the poor and the humble, almost all legitimacy was drained from calling attention to their own poverty and exploitation, including as female-gendered persons with particular life projects. Abandoning their members and clients in their daily need being unthinkable (as it was), they had no bargaining tools. Discourse and practice reinforced each other in ways that restricted the capacity of the women involved in the movement to imagine distributing the burdens of household provisioning in different ways among different actors and, in the process, moving towards a world where home life, community relations and national policies truly express gender equality.

58The comedores experience in Peru, then, leaves us with many lessons and many pending questions. To my mind, household and neighbourhood provisioning remain in play as possible sites for projects of feminist economic solidarity, though stand-alone collective kitchens probably do not. To create viable models, we need to document in greater detail what provisioning means and entails in the lives and activities of men and women. In the meantime, may the experiments go forward.


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1 The comedores have generated a vast literature, both within and outside Peru. My choice of texts and topics is intentionally selective in accordance with the arguments I want to explore.

2 The national programme for food assistance PRONAA was the government agency charged with enrolling and supplying the comedores judged apt for government subsidies (foodstuffs, cooking equipment, money in some cases and some periods) and support (information and training).

3 At last notice, one, which has had the same president for almost 25 years, was closing by decision of the president, without consultation with the members and without exploring the options for transferring the comedor to another leadership or another site (it had always functioned at the president’s house).

4 Wright coordinates the Real Utopias Project.


Jeanine Anderson was born in the U.S.A. and has been a resident of Peru since 1970 and a Peruvian citizen since 1976. Holding a Ph.D. in anthropology from Cornell University, New York, she has worked for the Ministry of Education of Peru, the Ford Foundation regional office, various womens’ organisations, and as an independent researcher and consultant. From 1992 to 2012 she taught anthropology and gender studies at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP). Her regular courses involved research methodology, urban anthropology, complex societies, the anthropology of health and environment, and gender, culture and public policy. Her recent research experiences have focused on Peruvian women in international migration and global care chains, child domestic service, intercultural issues involving health systems and services, and childhood in the Andes and Amazonian regions of Peru. Her longest-term research effort, and one that has been personally most compelling, is a longitudinal study of urban poverty in Lima, where she has followed a group of families in what began as a shanty town from the 1970’s to the present.


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