Comedores Populares are the tasty and vital “soup kitchens” of Peru. Serving over 50 community members a week including men, women, and children, the women of the comedores are working to prevent malnourishment in their communities
We were very excited and eager to begin our third service project at the comedor in San Martin de Porres in Cusco. Knowing just how important these soup kitchens are to the lives of those who are severely poverty stricken, made us confident that the work we will do is pertinent and desperately needed. This specific comedor needed its building to be remodeled due to tremendous wear and tear that was beginning to prevent the women from being able to serve daily meals. Seeing just how damaged the building was set the tone that immediate work was needed. Before beginning our work at this site, we were skeptical about whether or not our help was wanted or if we would just be intruding upon a private and secure place that these women know so well. Those thoughts immediately went out the door once we were greeted with welcoming and happy faces. After some time of deconstructing the outside of the building, it became apparent that our group, along with two local men, were the only people assisting with this project. We began to reflect on this and realized just how important physical labour can be to a group of older women who might not have the time or strength to transform their place of work. Assisting them with this transformation allowed us to feel as though we were solidifying their independence by not having to depend on their husbands or pay someone to do this job for them. We knew that the work we were going to do in restructuring the building was not only going to have a positive effect on the lives of the women, but also the people who depend on this comedore for daily meals.
Comedores Populares are non governmental organizations that are beneficial to the lives of many Peruvians that live below the poverty line. These soup kitchens serve daily meals at discounted prices that people would not otherwise be able to afford in local restaurants. We now know that the women who have built and managed the comedores are able to feed and support their families because of their work. Beyond providing affordable meals for the community, the comedores also provides services for mothers and babies, families that experience divorce, while also dealing with domestic violence and the abuse of children. One of the first things that came to mind while conversing with the women of the comedores is to start a gardening project, where they grow their own potatoes and vegetables. This would reduce the need to partner with the municipality and decrease the cost of food. Some of the broader issues that arise from the situation are the lack of access to resources like gas tanks and the lack of control over the locations. Unfortunately, it is not guaranteed that the women will always be able to use the same space for services. Often times they are relocated for various purposes because it is seen as a small organization. It is important to remember that the Comedores Populares are a source of empowerment for those that work, volunteer and solicit services. Therefore, during our time volunteering we have vowed to create a space that is functional and safe.
As public service agents in the social work and public administration fields, we are cognizant of the fact that our goal is not to change anything in the community organizations that we serve. At times, it can be easy to fall into the savior complex but we have to consistently be aware and reflect upon our actions to counter that instinct. Whenever we engage with communities that are poverty stricken, we must always be mindful that our work needs to be for the benefit of the people and not us. At this comedore, our purpose is solely to draw on the strengths of the women, while helping them develop their organization. All in all, it is inspiring to see that with minimal resources and dedicated individuals an exponential amount of work can be done to provide a safe space for families to eat and receive services.
Arlene Arisme and Brittany Santos, MSW candidates