Tag Archives: poor

Time to reintroduce national kitchens

Since the outbreak of the CoronaVirus I have been in conversation with many people (via Twitter, email etc) about my research on wartime public feeding.

Many of these brilliant people take a far more active role than me in feeding people / nudging policy, but I’ve been an advocate of a better public feeding system for a while now, and now more than ever this is a priority.

Here’s how we can do it by learning from history:

But hang on, social distancing makes the large communal dining schemes of the war impossible now, right?

Yes, but the public feeding schemes of WW1 and WW2 weren’t exclusively about long-table dining.

They also pioneered the UberEats / deliveroo / meals on wheels type model.

I won’t drone on about the history, but here’s the point:

  • National Kitchens (WW1) and British Restaurants (WW2) are the best example of emergency feeding in recent British history.
  • They ran by central government providing ‘start up’ loans to local councils, who sourced sites and appointed a paid staff and manager for each.
  • Crucially, they offered cheap and healthy food – needed now more than ever in the context of panic buying, black marketeering etc. They had to adhere to a maximum price structure and offer meals that met nutritional standards.
  • This was not some sort of Soviet-style top-down drab dystopian vision. Sure, central government needs to provide the initial cash. But they were more of a national collaborative effort which involved nutritionists, local volunteers, and also much input from the retail trade (forms like Marks and Spencer etc).
  • The communal dining model is impossible now but the other model they used is viable – i.e. food prepared in big kitchens (schools, often) by trained staff (cleanliness and sanitation a priority), then distributed via courier system – vans, trams, and even (in the BLitz) underground trains.
  • The best way to replicate this today would be to utilise school kitchens to produce safe food in a controlled environment, food then transferred to van and motorcycle couriers (like UberEats etc) and delivered to the homes of the most vulnerable people.

Time, now more than ever, for the return of this form of public feeding.

Re-establish the Ministry of Food, and let’s get the ball rolling.





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In the Liman Slums

After a hard week's work, men of the Pamplona enjoy a Sunday beer and a chat beneath an election poster

After a hard week’s work, men of the Pamplona enjoy a Sunday beer and a chat beneath an election poster

I'm given a footballing lesson

I’m given a footballing lesson

The size of that squash!

The size of that squash!

Vilma talks organisational structure while two comedor volunteers read my letter of introduction from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

Vilma talks organisational structure while two comedor volunteers read my letter of introduction from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

Women marshal any local kids they can lay their hands on for a photo op outside a hilltop comedor, Carabayllo

Women marshal any local kids they can lay their hands on for a photo op outside a hilltop comedor, Carabayllo

Grub's up at the Comedor Virgen del Carmen, Carabayllo, Lima

Grub’s up at the Comedor Virgen del Carmen, Carabayllo, Lima

Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane

In the Slums

On Sunday we visited the shanty town of PamplonaAlta, part of the nuevo pueblo (new town) district of San Juan de Miraflores in Lima. It’s a squatters’ village: the residents don’t own the land, they’re just recent Andean migrants who’ve pitched up and built from scratch. The miserable shacks in which people live are cobbled together from chunks of wood or old advertising hoardings.

Hence, there’s no regular water supply; just one big delivery a week. Since it was a Sunday, the water supply for the week had already been used up. This presents a serious public health issue. It also complicates things for people like Dan Kasnich, the head of an NGO named Construyendo Sueños, who are attempting to develop sustainable projects like a community allotment. Lima receives very little rainfall and without running water it’s hard to grow crops.

The New Haciendas?

Most of the women in this slum work as maids in the big houses over the hill. To get to work they have walk up a steep hill and then climb through a hole in a wall. The hole is an illegal one and the wall – dubbed the ‘wall of shame’ – has been thrown up in the last few years by Lima’s wealthy suburbanites, keen not only to keep the slum dwellers out but also to prevent their views from being spoiled by vistas of dirty slums as they sip on their morning coffee.

I’ve heard a lot in the last weeks about the land reforms of Peru’s leftist military leader Velasco in the 1970s. These welcome reforms abolished the colonial hacienda system and with it some of the chronic abuses such as the landowner having his sexual pick of the female domestic servants.

Things today aren’t regressing back to that. But as I look around Pamplona Alta I see swarms of children unaccompanied by their parents. Their mothers  are gone sometimes six or seven days a week, cleaning and tidying in the palaces of Lima’s new elite, where they stay overnight, remaining at the whim of their bosses. The menfolk mainly work in construction. Often, they are the ones labouring to construct these big houses. When they’re finished their impossibly long shifts, mothers and fathers crawl back through the hole in the wall of shame to all-too-briefly see their kids. Then they’re gone again.

Dogs scavenge in the litter in the Pampona Alta slum, Lima

Dogs scavenge in the litter in the Pampona Alta slum, Lima

A Footballing Interlude

It’s in areas like this that community kitchens – comedores populares – are clearly most needed. But when we visit the local Comedor (the Comedor Virgen de Andacollc – all comedores have titles), it is closed. A local woman tells us that it closed four weeks ago and hasn’t reopened since. It was being run by a doctor from an NGO who hasn’t been seen lately. This, for me, underlines the importance of local women running the comedores for themselves, rather than relying on outsiders to do so. But with so many of them off at work, new slums like Pamplona have not developed the sort of efficient rota system witnessed in comedores in more established poor areas such as Carabayllo (discussed below).

Without a functioning comedor in the locale, it’s up to Dan and his NGO to provide breakfast for the parentless children. Most of the kids wait patiently for their fruit juice and hot dogs. As they do so, I’m outside with some of the older boys enjoying a kickabout.

Navigating your way between effluent and dog crap with a ball at your feet is hard work. Well, that’s my excuse anyway as I’m out-skilled by lads half my age. When I see how good these young players are, it’s hard to believe that Peru haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1982. Then again, that failure is all the more understandable when you consider that Peru have to play against the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile to qualify for the finals.

I get a second chance at Peruvian football on Monday evening, when I’m invited to play in a floodlit league in the well-off central district of Surco. I take to the task with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm, in fact. I score two goals for our team.. But I also attempt a wild interception of an opposition attack, resulting in the ball looping over our goalkeeper, my friend Alejandro, and into my own net. So, I score two goals and one own goal: my net contribution is one goal in a 4-3 defeat. Hardly spectacular. But my team mates tell me I play with a lot of ‘way woahs’ – I’m jotting that down phonetically as I can’t spell it – which translates as a lot of testicles. I take it as a compliment, but I know it also reflects my unsuitably frenetic style of play. In Peru it’s all about ball-work, slick passing and dribbling. I do adapt to this, but also throw in some ponderous cross-field aerial passes, sliding tackles and big headers and soon learn that that’s not the way it’s done here.

Still, I think performed better than I did against the slum kids. In fact I’ve one last thing to say about my game of slum football. Lads, I was never offside for that last goal. How could I have been? I was not interfering with play when the ball came to me. Plus, there were no markings on the pitch and the goalposts were a climbing frame and a pile of rocks: hard to stay on-side in such conditions. I think you were pulling my leg with that one.

Into Carabayllo

It’s safe for me to rebut my offside via this blog post since the poor kids in Pamplona don’t even have electricity and therefore won’t be able to read this. As Alejandro drives me home after our floodlit game, I tell him about my slum kick-about and how gifted the kids were with a ball at their feet, despite the lack of a proper pitch.

He acknowledges this, but still seems a little disdainful overall of the residents of the Pamplona Alta. They’re just squatters without legal entitlement, he tells me. Their situation isn’t reflective of Peru as a whole, which is becoming more prosperous. Just look around, he instructs me. Look, the cars round here are bigger and better than they were a decade ago. Land Cruisers. Mercedes Benz. That’s how you know that the country is on the up, Bryce.

One place where the car doesn’t dominate is the enormous poor district of Carabayllo, which we visited on Monday. Home to a quarter of a million people, Carabayllo was once like Pamplona. Because it’s a more established community, however, the residents have slowly come to experience better infrastructure. The tiny, tinny motor-taxi is king here, conveying people up vertiginously steep hills and through narrow alleyways.

We visit several comedores in Carabayllo, all run by elderly and middle-aged women. Hilda Valdivia, a senior worker in the NGO Socios en Salud (Partners in Health) takes us to several kitchens where government-supplied vegetable oil and rice is stacked high and the women stir massive metallic pots of soup and rice.

Presidentia Vilma

Later, Hilda leaves us in the hands of Vilma Huancan, the Presidentia of all the comedores in Carabayllo, around 80 in total. Vilma is 53 years old and a calm, self-assured woman. She introduces us to yet more comedores in the area and it’s on Vilma’s tour that I start to get a better idea of the organisation of this movement.

Not only have middle-aged women like her won the historical struggle for the state to provide the kitchens with food via the PRONAA scheme, they also manage popular kitchens on a day-to-day basis. As district Presidentia, Vilma is part of a national organisational structure feeding into regions and culminating in the national Presidentia of Peru’s comedores populares: Relinda Sosa. These are all strong, formidable women and so it’s not surprising to hear from Vilma that Relinda’s nickname is ‘Masculinda’. Relinda heads up the national federation of comedores, a body which goes by the overblown abbreviation FEMOCCPAALC.

Vilma is a warm woman and supportive and protective of all the comedores in her area. But she’s also capable of giving a bollocking. We see this when we visit the Cena de Jesus kitchen. It’s the first comedor we’ve seen which is unclean and smelly and it’s because the Presidentia of this comedor is ill, suffering with chest problems that are aggravated by cooking in the corrugated iron shack that serves as this kitchen. A depiction of the Last Supper on the wall is the only evidence of dining occurring here and, illness or no illness, Vilma summons the two women in charge and has a robust discussion with them as we look away and try to avoid the swarms of flies hovering about.

Before we leave, Vilma presents us with photocopies of piles of paperwork. It’s further evidence that in established poor and working class areas like the Carabayllo, the community kitchen ethic is alive, well and highly organised.

NEXT we’re off to see more comedores in Arequipa. See http://www.mannacommunitykitchen.org

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