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Through Twitter I recently happened upon a paper called “Selling out on the Revolution for a Plate of Beans’? Communal Dining in Peru and What We Can Learn From It.”  It’s a research project by Bryce Evans, who is a Food History academic in Liverpool. He also runs a community eating and cooking project in that city which is based on a kind of alternative vision to food banks, as he discusses in this video.

In his paper Evans asks: “What can the UK learn from the Peruvian model of egalitarian eating? What does this suggest about the role of the State vis-à-vis individuals and voluntary groups? And can the UK develop its food bank network so that it resembles the community kitchen movement of Peru?”

Evans compares the community kitchen movement as a mode of social eating and food distribution in various ways. Food banks in the UK can barely deal with fresh food, for instance, which is clearly an issue for nutrition.  There’s also the problem that hungry people often have no way to heat the foods they are given at food banks.  (I mean to write a piece called “In Praise of the Microwave” since that’s all that so many low-income renters have to cook with.) Emergency provision of food is also an opportunity for offering other services and meeting lots of social needs at once.

His paper is really worth a read for the important questions it raises, and its discussion of a really interesting self-help model I’d never known about:

 “The women who ran these simple food shacks largely avoided any political rhetoric. Most wanted change, but first and foremost they desired change for the good of their communities. Their vision of communal cohesion, development and food security did not necessarily coincide with the political goals of the state or its guerrilla enemies….Put simply, the women who ran the community kitchens wanted to feed people cheaply and nutritiously and they wanted the state to help out [by guaranteeing the provision of rice and beans] if possible.”

For me it brought to mind Graham Riches’ work in Canada (summarised in this recent newspaper piece).  “Given the urgent issue of food poverty,” he writes, [there is] a missed opportunity to change the public and political conversation from food charity to the right to food, informed by internationally recognised human rights principles and framework legislation.”  Jose Luis Vivero Pol might take this idea further, conceptually, from the Right to Food to food as a commons, which is a shift away from the current understanding of food as a commodity.

The powerful part of the community eating model in Peru is its social function in which food isn’t reduced to nutritional sustenance (commodified in an economic system) but comes with a whole lot more– community cohesion, social expectation that children should have healthy snacks, etc. Bryce Evans writes of the Liverpool program he runs:

“Manna’s project is a step above the traditional food bank model in that we do not provide hand-outs but instead focus on skills training, technical workshops, mentoring programmes and outreach work. …[W]e encourage people – young and old – to chop up vegetables and cook with us and to help us grow food, thus transferring broader skills…. Our project provides a community hub which, in a challenging and often alienating economic climate, brings people together.”

There seem to be many community kitchen/ communal eating projects around the UK, and I’d love to start gathering a list — alternative, loving, community oriented responses to hunger that bring people together around food, eating together, as do the Comedores Populares in Peru…

There is also, within the Local Food and community growing movements in the UK a great opportunity to think how we can contribute our broad and integrated notions about health and sustainability and food justice to fighting hunger, building community, changing the food system and the conception of food.  This is something I will work on in my way; please be in touch if you are interested in sharing information and strategy.

And please be in touch if you know of more projects like these– People’s Kitchens, free and cheap community cooking and eating, food festivals that don’t take the system off the hook yet celebrate deliciousness and the opportunity to do things differently.  We could really benefit networking, and learning as well how people are working with community gardens and free food and local food projects making the food tastier, healthier, and less charity, supermarket and waste reliant.

Though of course resourcefulness with waste is important, let’s not tangle the two conversations.

And Food Banks do have an important emergency function.  This is an American article but I think it offers good advice what to donate.

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