food talk

Community kitchens: An idea whose time has come

Institutions that provide cheap or free meals are not mere populism – they are vital for the food security of people on the margins.

My first experience of a “community kitchen” was in Brazil where we were taken to try out a meal at the Popular Restaurant in Lauros de Freitas. The serpentine queue outside it surprising initially, seemed entirely unexceptional once we had been served: for one real (approximately Rs 30), one got fish or meat, beans, rice, a fresh fruit with fresh fruit juice. Each restaurant employs a nutritionist to ensure nutrition and hygiene. No processed or packaged foods are allowed.

The idea behind community kitchens, soup kitchens, food banks is similar: to provide cheap – or even free – nutritious food as a public service. Management and other arrangements vary across these models. For instance, some are run by religious bodies others by the state. Soup kitchens in the US are often run by churches, similar to langars at gurudwaras, where members of the community volunteer their resources to feed others. The scale of these interventions also varies: in England, food banks have been in the news recently for serving 45 lakh meals in six months.

Community Kitchens in India

Amma’s canteens (formally Amma’s Unavagam) in Tamil Nadu are a vegetarian version of Brazil’s Popular restaurants. Both are state initiatives to provide food security in urban areas. On the menu at Amma’s canteen: idlis with sambar (Re 1 per idli) or pongal (Rs. 5) for breakfast from 7 am-10 am, various rice varieties for lunch priced between Rs 3- Rs 5 per plate. For dinner, chapatis with dal or kurma are served at Rs 3 (until 9 pm).

Food is provided at a heavily subsidised price, the canteens are well-maintained and food is cooked in hygienic conditions. Prominently placed billboards provide public hygiene messages. The canteen we saw was spotlessly clean, the all-women team had their heads covered, though the space was modest (you can only stand and eat). According to a quick survey by S Thagamani and M Maragatham in Salem (“Unavagam survey”), nearly 60% of respondents felt that the canteens were clean.

Amma’s canteens appear to be the most widespread (there are nearly 300 canteens across the state) and sustained effort in India so far. In spite of the heavily subsidised prices, the annual cost for approximately 300 canteens is estimated to be around Rs. 100 crores. These are estimated to serve about 2.5 lakh people each day. (Sounds like a lot? That’s reportedly what Chief Minister Naidu spent on furniture and helicopters.)

Unsurprisingly, Tamil Nadu is a bit of a pioneer. However, community kitchen initiatives are not unique to Tamil Nadu. Perhaps among the earliest was Maharashtra’s “zunka-bhakar” scheme initiated in 1995 by the then Shiv Sena government, which was discontinued in 2007 following a range of complaints of misuse by political parties.

Delhi has had “Janata Aahar” outlets where meals at Rs. 15 are available – though these don’t seem as clean as Amma’s canteens. In its early days, the AAP government in Delhi announced that they would set up “aam aadmi canteens” modelled on Amma’s canteens but not much has been heard since. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha have also been experimenting off and on, with varying degrees of success, with dal-bhaat kendras (rice-dal centres). In March, Telengana celebrated the first anniversary of its community kitchens in the Hyderabad region. Meals are provided at Rs. 5 at these centres and is reported to have provided meals to 12.5 lakh people in the first year of operation. Most recently, Uttarakhand has opened such community kitchens.

Though community kitchens are primarily an urban phenomenon there are some notable exceptions. Odisha’s emergency feeding initiative (from the nineties) for the elderly and destitute in the drought-prone Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region is one such. (Reports suggest that it may have been discontinued since March 2015 when the Centre stopped providing subsidised rice for it.) Something similar has been reported from Kerala, following the tragedy of child deaths in Palakkad and Wayanad where anganwadis have become community kitchens.

Why are community kitchens important?

If you haven’t already rolled your eyes (thinking “not another populist measure”), here’s why there is more to community kitchens than populism.

To begin with, community kitchens are not only a food security measure for those who cannot fend for themselves (e.g., the elderly, ill, disabled, destitute, etc.). In fact, such initiatives are equally important for working people in urban areas (from rickshaw pullers to delivery boys who are on the road the whole day) as a source of inexpensive and nutritious food. This is amply evident outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi at meal times. The queues for free meals served by charitable bodies can be up to a kilometre long. The Unavagam survey shows just how wide their clientele is.


Two, such kitchens can also be viewed as a response to market failures where street food is concerned. Many urban poor do not have much option but to rely on street food. When there are price spikes (in recent times dal, onions before that), the poor are often the hardest hit. During the recent dal price hike, journalist Ravish Kumar documented street food options for the urban poor in Delhi, revealing just how badly they can be hit at such times. Community kitchens can provide relief at such times by offering food at fixed prices. In fact, the Unavagam survey found that the presence of the canteens had forced private eateries to reduce their prices.

Three, there are important gender dimension to community kitchens too. For instance, women are often burdened with providing packed food for working men. According to the Unavagam survey, 88% of the clients were male. If men have the option of a decent meal at such canteens, women get some relief from the daily drudgery. This is similar to the idea of school meals, which relieve mothers from the task of cooking – first thing in the morning – for their school-going children.

Further, in several states, community kitchens are run and managed by women providing them an independent source of income. Municipal corporations contract out locations to women’s self-help groups. In Jharkhand too, where such canteens have made a modest beginning, women run the show.

Four, such kitchens help in the creation of democratic spaces much required in our deeply divided society. There is nothing like sharing a meal with people from diverse backgrounds to foster a spirit of togetherness.

Going forward

The community kitchens described so far are state government initiatives. Community kitchens were an important component for urban food security in the draft National Food Security Bill. Unfortunately, the provision was dropped.

Happily, as with many other social welfare programmes, it seems that as the central government loses the plot, the states are making modest, yet pioneering, moves.

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