Lima, Peru has a history of community kitchens, which have served their neighborhoods in times of hardship. The paper looks at two such historical moments—a surge of internal migration in the 1970s and the COVID-19 pandemic in the early 2020s—to identify strategies where community kitchens not only met the immediate needs of those communities, but also helped the people there build more resilience and autonomy.
Ollas Comunes (Common Pots), are a modern network of community kitchens born in Lima, Peru during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are an example of South American mutual aid that follows a process of co-production, and stand out as a more resilient iteration of community project than the previous iteration in Lima, the Comedores Populares.
1970s: Comedores Populares
During the economic deprivation of the 70s and 80s when many Peruvians were migrating from the Andes into the capital, Comedores Populares (roughly People’s Kitchens) emerged as a mutual aid community kitchen, where women came together to feed their neighborhoods. These kitchens evolved to be more than just a place for feeding people, providing women an alternative space to the isolation of domestic life and allowing them to come together to identify and solve community problems as a group. The CPs even eventually established recognition and support from the municipal government.
However, the institutional relationships formed by the CPs created dependency on those institutions for resources like food donations, who expected political support in return; an arrangement known as Clientelism. The CP members were also unpaid, and thus their labor went unrecognized, and over time their ability to reproduce themselves by finding new people to run the kitchens diminished. Ultimately, the structure of the CPs and the shape of their relationships to larger institutions weakened their ability to build their own security and autonomy into the future.
2020s: Ollas Comunes
Fifty years later, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a younger generation of economically precarious Limeñas to build a new mutual aid project to feed their neighborhoods called Ollas Comunes (Common Pots).
This new incarnation was in even more peripheral parts of the city, as continued migration over the past 50 years has pushed the edges of Lima further into the mountains, and the geography made for unique challenges. However, the proliferation of the internet and social media gave the projects a huge modern advantage, in that the many instances of OCs were able to build connections and solidarity across the city, and appeal to others beyond just their local neighborhood.
While the cycle of institutional dependency continues to be a long term threat, there are a handful of differences in process that make OCs a potential model for building community resilience and autonomy.
The key component of what differentiates the OC’s success from the CPs shortcoming is the process of co-production. In short, co-production is a process where instead of a professional or management class designing and implementing infrastructure, the directly impacted citizens are centered in the entire process, or are even the primary initiators and implementors of the project. This contrasts with many models, especially in the US, where public engagement on infrastructure projects is limited to a few information sessions or public comment periods, but residents are not present in the room for design, and almost never a part of the implementation process.
The process of co-production has two interrelated parts: the co-production of knowledge, and the co-production of the infrastructure itself. Through asynchronous group chats and mobile-phone friendly image sharing, the working groups and organizers of OCs were able to include many people who wouldn't otherwise be able to be directly involved with the project due to other obligations, again particularly women. This allowed for much deeper co-production of knowledge, allowing the OCs to synthesize more localized plans that more directly met the needs of their communities.
Another key element of the co-production process were the participatory design workshops which created space for face-to-face conversations among different OC working groups which enabled them to identify common problems, such as lack of water and sanitation infrastructure, proper cooking and storage spaces, and a lack of access to nutritious food. From these common needs, they were able to develop modular infrastructure plans rooted in the highly variable investment capacities of different communities, so that each OC could tackle their needs in an order that worked best for them given their resources.
For communities seeking to build resilience and autonomy, the key takeaway is that a process of co-production has a lot of potential to build community buy-in, empower local change-makers, and perhaps most importantly, produce really great results. By integrating and centering the neighborhood voices in the process of building collective infrastructure, not just in a nominal way but by tasking residents with action and decision making, community ties become stronger, and the mutual aid capacity of the neighborhood is strengthened.
There is also a warning for communities to be wary of the types of relationships they build with institutions and governments, to be proactive about preventing cycles of dependence, and to make sure that the structure of their project promotes new people to always be moving up through leadership roles.
For the larger institutions, both non-profit and governmental, the key takeaway is that the status quo of paternalistic and bureaucratic structures consistently end up harming these projects, even when seeking to help. Not only do their processes end up creating dependency instead of autonomy in the communities they work with, but they also miss out on further empowering those groups to solve even more issues within their communities. Instead of seeing these mutual aid projects as a platform for community development and working with them to help them help themselves, they instead stifle their growth through an implicit, and perhaps unintentional lens of charity.
Large institutions would do well to step back and ask themselves what the intended material outcome of their involvement with a project is, and then assess if they are actually programmatically suited to contribute to that goal. If the structure of an organization is more likely to harm than help (and many large non-profits unfortunately are), then the best course of action may be to not get involved at all, and to hopefully consider how their processes can be reformed.
July 19, 2023
/stream /mutual-aid /ollas-comunes
After discussing the Ollas Comunes paper with my friend who linked me to it and then sleeping on my notes, I came back this morning and wrote a clearer synthesis on the topic. The notion of co-production stood out to me much more today, especially in the context of the other conversations I've been having with friends around the /climate crisis and the recent catastrophic floods in Vermont.
July 18, 2023
/stream /reading /mutual-aid /ollas-comunes
Read Collective Infrastructures of Care after being linked to it by a friend from Peru, which was a great review and anlysis of some of the history of community kitchens in Lima. It was a great example of Mutual Aid in South America, and formally introduced me to a concept I had been thinking about called "Co-Production", where communites are directly involved in the decision making and design of their collective infrastructure. I read through the paper and took a lot of notes and highlights, and will come back later to finish a synthesis after sleeping on it a bit.