Lima's community-organised soup kitchens are a lifeline during COVID-19

In Lima’s informal settlements, ollas comunes – community-led soup kitchens – are reviving strong traditions of self-organised crisis response and resilience among the urban poor.

Pamela Hartley Pinto's picture
Guest blog by
7 August 2020

Pamela Hartley Pinto is a development practitioner from Peru

Three women standing on a patch of open land, peeling vegetables.

Community members preparing lunch in Cerro Verde, a low-income community located in the district of San Juan de Miraflores, Lima (Photo: copyright TECHO- Perú)

Latin America is a region of dramatic socioeconomic contrasts, where extreme wealth and poverty exist in parallel. In Peru, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed public policy failures as the country struggles to support vulnerable communities in need (including a significant number of migrants and refugees from Venezuela who remain invisible to the government).

Ollas comunes (community-led soup kitchens) are an example of resilience and participation activated by community organisations as a response to COVID-19 and the national lockdown. 

Community-led initiatives are crucial in contexts of informality and inequality

Historically, ollas comunes have appeared in times of crisis, such as the internal armed conflict, economic recession, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic. Slum-dwellers are able to mobilise rapidly, utilising existing reliable community networks to provide food for their communities. Although ollas comunes exist in times of peace, they multiply and perform most effectively in moments of increased need. 

As an ad-hoc crisis response, ollas comunes are a social practice based on solidarity, tradition, and resilience. 

Popular kitchens or comedores populares, provide meals to thousands of low-income residents in Lima. They are mostly run by women and provide heavily subsidised meals. According to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI), in Peru there are 15,567 popular kitchens that benefit 797,770 people – but those numbers reflect a pre-pandemic reality.

Though they are formal structures that function year-round and are sponsored by government social protection policies, the Peruvian government decided to shut down comedores populares early in the pandemic, to avoid the virus spreading. 

Ollas comunes on the other hand, are entirely community-led, artisanal and informal – but they are by no means improvised. They represent community planning and organisation at its best. 

a group of women cooking.

Rosita, a slum dweller in Mirador de Los Humedales-Ventanilla visited markets and knocked on many doors before securing aid from the local municipality for her olla común. Local authorities are providing rice and cooking oil, Rosita and other community leaders are in charge of the rest (Photo: copyright TECHO- Perú)

Mapping as a strategy

The municipality of Lima has implemented a mapping strategy to identify ollas comunes across informal settlements, a strategy that the NGO TECHO and planning institute CENCA adopted when the pandemic broke out.

As of mid-July 2020, CENCA identified 35 ollas comunes in the district of San Juan de Lurigancho, the most populated district in Lima with over a million inhabitants, and TECHO has mapped 44 ollas comunes in 36 slums across five districts in the periphery.

a view of low-income communities in Lima.

A view of San Juan de Miraflores (Photo: copyright Edgar Escalante)

Slum dwellers hope that mapping their ollas comunes, both at the grassroots and by government, will deliver better recognition for their strong networks and community leadership – and that this visibility will help them access resources, training and funds. 

This crisis has shown that top-down approaches are not working in the context of extensive informality. Including community leaders in the co-production of policy is crucial. The pandemic has also shown the importance of local data – but this is information that local authorities often do not have.

Data must be transparent and accessible, to ensure that it can serve policymakers and help local communities to gain visibility and access aid. 

Formalisation vs effectiveness 

a woman checks an improvised open-air stove.

Preparing a meal in the San Juan de Vista Alegre community in San Juan de Miraflores, Lima (Photo: copyright TECHO-Perú)

Local and national governments are developing pro-poor strategies, but many exclude the most vulnerable and prioritise formalisation over quick and effective aid. Practical solutions can be as easy as shortening a lengthy online form that excludes anyone without access to the internet, or using WhatsApp, the mobile phone messaging platform, which has proved to be an effective and accessible tool for most urban dwellers

From health emergency to food crisis

The coronavirus crisis is developing into a food crisis as slum dwellers remain unemployed and their savings are running out. 

A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Peruvian Studies revealed that Peruvians were more afraid of going hungry than of COVID-19 (PDF), highlighting the food emergency facing these communities. It is not just about sourcing food, but also the quality, quantity and food supply. 

There has been some progress as part of the evolving relationship between the government and community leaders. Discussions on promoting urban agriculture strategies and encouraging initiatives that shift from food waste to food recovery are taking place at the grassroots, civil society and political levels.

It is critical for these actors to seek community-led solutions to prevent further out of touch and impractical guidelines such as those recently approved by the Ministry of Health, which make assistance conditional on criteria that are unrealistic in informal settlements, such as having a fixed infrastructure with walls, running water and toilet facilities. 

Such top-down policymaking has rendered many of these communities invisible and continues, preventing many slum-dwellers from receiving much-needed government assistance. 

Ollas communes are effectively serving their purpose and the tacit structure is in place when and if needed, but they are not a long-term solution. While some community-led soup kitchens have shown interest in formalising and becoming popular kitchens, others have not.

As Carlos, a community leader from the San Juan de Miraflores district explains, things will only return to 'normal' when there is no longer a need for our ollas comunes.

two women in masks peeling vegetables.

Community members preparing lunch in La Capilla, a small community located in the outskirts of Lima (Photo: copyright TECHO-Perú)

Slum dwellers strive to be recognised for their unsung assets and capabilities. By highlighting their activism and the organisational power embodied within their ollas comunes, residents in informal settlements aim to be recognised, even when their ollas comunes disappear.

Slum dwellers have untapped potential for crisis response based on experience and social capital which is engrained in the fabric of their communities. 

Due to COVID-19, political actors and policymakers are increasingly becoming aware of these capabilities and though progress is slow, community leaders are beginning to be part of the conversation. 

About the author

Pamela Hartley Pinto is a development practitioner from Peru. She is working with GIZ as a technical advisor and was formerly part of TECHO’s COVID-19 emergency response team. 

Was this page useful to you?