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Evolution of Community Kitchens

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Published: Tue, 20 Feb 2018

Abstract

Community kitchen, as a concept is critical for ensuring the food security of the vulnerable population. It is a gathering point where groups of people come together to pool their resources to cook large quantities of food. The main focus of this research thesis is to understand the concept of community kitchens and their operation in different social settings. This research also aims to understand the role of the government agencies (if any) in ensuring the food security for the communities (which is their primary responsibility). In the changing context of state relegating to a secondary position, initiatives by such private actors assume significance. By highlighting on two different case studies of organizations, we tend to unravel the process of community kitchens in separate social environments. With the help of participant observation, focus group discussions and in-depth individual interviews, this research is an exploration of the possibilities of food security through the concept of community kitchens.

Introduction

Community kitchen is an institution where food is prepared by the members of a community in a collective manner. There are different models of community kitchens that exist around the social space. Generally it is observed that members of a community who prepare food are also the consumers of the same meals cooked collectively. However there are other models like Akshay Patra (our case study in the present study) where food is collectively prepared but distributed among the non preparers of the food cooked. Community kitchens aid the community in preparing affordable meals through a self sustaining institution. The purchase, preparation and consumption are more often than not done in a collective manner which makes the enterprise a cost effective and time efficient in nature. While meeting a community’s social needs, collective kitchens are a mechanism which provide financial, social and food security to the community members. Community kitchens are socially rooted institutions, they help in increasing the solidarity among the members of the community. Grace Campbell states “The formation and operation of community kitchens varies widely across communities and cultures and is largely dependent on the membership, yet each organization requires a well-equipped kitchen, willing participants, and initial capital.” Food security is a modern day challenge, which needs to be addressed at all levels of society. Community kitchens at local level provide access to affordable and nutrition rich food to the members of a community, which goes a long way in ensuring food security. Globalization, inflation, increasing gap between the haves and have not’s, are the major reasons which are keeping an average man food insecure. In such a scenario, this research aims to explore food security through the concept of community kitchens.

Food security

Food security is “a condition in which all people at all times can acquire safe, nutritionally adequate and personally acceptable foods that are accessible in a manner that maintains human dignity.”[1] The four components of food security, as described in the literature, are the quantitative, the qualitative, the social, and the psychological. The quantitative component describes what is traditionally known as hunger, not having enough to eat at the individual level, or not having food in the house at the household level. The qualitative component concerns the quality of the available food (its nutritional adequacy, safety, and variety). Individuals often compromise on food quality to cope with a lack of funds to purchase suitable foods. The psychological component includes the fears and decreased feelings of self-worth associated with dealing with the lack of funds to purchase sufficient, quality food, whereas the social component describes many of the coping strategies used to acquire food when funding has run out, such as charity, stealing, and buying on credit. [2]

In the 21st century disparities in economic growth have questioned the socio-economic and environmental sustainability. The issue of food security has now become a global concern. Notwithstanding the technological and scientific developments in the area of agricultural productivity, hunger and malnutrition continue to be a threat to the humanity. Access to food is still perceived by many as a privilege, rather than a basic human right, and it is estimated that about 35 000 people around the world die each day from hunger. An even larger number of people suffer from malnutrition. [3] UNFAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) defines food security as “Food security is food available at all times; that all persons have means of access to it; that it is nutritionally adequate in terms of quantity, quality and variety; and that it is acceptable within the given culture. Only when all these conditions are in place can a population be considered “food secure.”

Based on the UN definition research world over emphasizes on four main components of the issue of food security those being availability to provide sufficient food to all, equal accessibility to nutritious food, acceptability of food based on local traditions and cultures and lastly adequacy which emphasizes on sustainability of production and distribution of food.

Food security in India

Food security has been a major development objective in India since the beginning of planning. The achievements of green revolution have somehow failed to reach the bottom of the pyramid. Chronic food insecurity remains at an all time high. Over 225 million Indians remain chronically under nourished. The state of India’s food security is worsening by the year.[4]The cost of food items is increasing rapidly, making them unaffordable to a majority of the people.

In recent years, there has been a state policy focus towards household level food security and per capita food energy intake is taken as a measure of food security. The Indian government has been implementing a wide range of nutrition intervention programmes for achieving food security at the household and individual levels. The Public Distribution System (PDS) supplies food items, such as food grains and sugar, at administered prices through a network of fair price shops. There have been a range of food-for-work and other wage employment programmes. Another approach adopted by the government is to target women and children directly. This includes the mid-day meal programme for school going children, supplementary nutrition programme for children and women and Right to Food bill. [5]

The Right to Food Bill introduced in the parliament in 2009 insists on “the physical, economic and social right of all citizens to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with an adequate diet necessary to lead an active and healthy life with dignity…”With the Right to Food campaign, hunger and food insecurity have come in the center of development discourse in India. Notwithstanding all these developments, our country is a habitat of people with unconscionable level of malnutrition and hunger. Malnutrition levels among the children and women are even higher than the overall average. Institute of Nutrition, Indian Council for Medical Research) estimates that nearly 40% of the adult population in India has a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5, which implies chronic energy deficiency of epic proportions, bordering on a national humanitarian crisis. [6]

Since food security of the vast majority in the region is at stake, addressing such a wide range of issues demands community value-system based participatory approaches to ensure involvement of all the stakeholders. The various government schemes may serve as immediate means for dealing with food insecurity but shall be of ultimate irrelevance, until we work on developing our local community based food systems strong.[7] One of such means is through the institution of community kitchens.

Community kitchens in their historic perspective

Community kitchen as a concept is old, dating back to the late 15th century, which has undergone change over the years and the current form seems to be involving the community to address larger social issues like food security. In India, Sikhs have a history of providing food along with every worship service, ceremony, or event, and when Gurus gained popularity, people traveled from far of distances and gathered in groups to hear them preach the principles of equality and humanity.

It was in the late 15th century that Guru Nanak dev ji, the founder of Sikhism, started the institution of Langar (community kitchens). Langar is a Persian word meaning “an alms house”, “an asylum for the poor and the destitute”.[8]Langar upheld and reinforced the Sikh principles of service to mankind, equality of all and humility. Although the institution was begun under aegis od Guru Nanak, it was institutionalized by Guru Amar Das, who sought to encourage a tradition of eating together that had begun with Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

Langar is the collective kitchen which is run in the Gurudwara. The institution feeds all who come, regardless of their religion, caste, gender or creed. Sikh devotes are involved in each stage from the food preparation, to feeding and to cleaning of the utensils. Today, this institution of Langar is cornerstone of Sikh religion, encouraging “the discipline of service and a spirit of co-operation, philanthropy, equality,” the ideas and practices deeply imbedded in the community kitchen movement. The practice and its origin must be seen in the light of its contradiction to the Hindu and Muslim custom at the time, which separated people on basis of caste (social ranking) or purdah (seclusion of women).

In the recent past various moments around the concept of community kitchens can be seen across the world. In the nineties of the last century community kitchen was seen as a movement in Nicaragua, when Sandinista government lost power. The fall of the government put the nation’s food security policy in turmoil. It was then that community kitchens were set up all across the country to address the issues of hunger and deprivation. Similarly in Abkhazia, after the end of war between Georgia and Abkhazia (1994) community kitchens were established to provide food to the vulnerable populations of the country. The focus of the state sponsored community kitchens were women, children and elderly. Self sufficiency and sustainability were attained by purchase at local level and secondly by employing the local community.

In America too, we see the moment of community kitchens. A not for profit body called Second Harvest was a pioneer to work in the area of food security in USA. Extensive community kitchens were set up to create hunger free America. The programme was unique as it involved students in the food preparation and distribution process. This led to skill enhancement and job training for the unemployed youth. History also holds evidence of collective kitchens operating in San Francisco. Community kitchens were set up there to meet the need of the immigrants and other discriminated sections of the population.

These kitchens continue to encourage community unity through resource pooling, cultural exchange, and social interaction. Although in most of the cases the community and collective meal programmes were primarily organized to address financial challenges, many kitchens now focus on expanding social circles, multicultural interaction, address the challenges of hunger, dealing with food insecurity, and building community capacity.

Food security and community kitchens

Collaborative solutions that will make our communities resilient in the 21st century don’t need to be at vast scales alone. Efforts at local community, household and individual levels play an important role to deal with the issue of food insecurity. One such model of community kitchens is a smart, practical program that has the ability to promote local food security. This model not only ensures that the participants have access to affordable food, but also in a sustainable and cost efficient manner. These are resilience building institutions, and work on principles of shared equality and mutual benefit. This local level initiative has the ability to grow across a wide range and make an impact on the global food security level.

Community kitchens as alternate means of livelihood

Community kitchens can serve as means of alternate livelihood to women of the marginalized sections, unemployed youth, local unskilled labor and other marginalized communities like sex workers. Community kitchen has the ability to provide the financial means whereby a group or a community can live a dignified and sustainable life. Sex workers face continuous social exclusion and are in a constant search for a stigma free means of livelihood as a pre-requisite for a dignified and better tomorrow. Initiation of community kitchens provides as a means of employment for many unskilled and semi-skilled workers thus ensuring a livelihood to the community. Collective kitchens serve to reduce vulnerability of marginalized sections of the society. It provides source of income as well as a sense of ownership and possession to the members of the community.

Sex works lead a life of stigma and discrimination. The degree of stigma is higher among male and transgender sex workers. As members of the society it is their right to be a part of the normal social life, without any marginalization. Especially sex workers facing stigma of HIV Aids have a natural right to live in supporting environments free from social stigmas.

United Nations

Community based programs like community kitchens have a crucial role in assisting communities to identify and change stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors related to HIV and sex work and to foster a spirit of tolerance and inclusion. Community kitchens provide meaningful and comprehensive set of alternatives and meaningful economic options to sex work.

Hunger, food productivity and illiteracy: establishing the link

While talking about building community capacity the children of the community must remain the central focus. Children, who come from remote rural areas, work so hard at the household level that going to school remains no priority for them. It is a well established fact that knowledge has the ability to transform society. Education to these children can serve as a force which can liberate the coming generations from the clutches of abject poverty. Children living in vicious circle of hunger and illiteracy require special attention by the government and society, in form of new schools, better learning facilities, learned teaches, and locally relevant syllabus taught in their local language.

Have we ever wondered why the hungry are always also illiterate? A study by World Bank states that “the people who are undernourished and the adults who are illiterate are mostly the same people, mainly the poor in rural areas.” Illiteracy and hunger thus are cause and effect of one another, making it a vicious cycle of poverty.

Collaborating the solution of the issues of education and hunger represents an important step forward, it has led to the creation of a new partnership initiative called mid day meal scheme in India. Hunger among children leaves them with very little energy to attend school and learn effectively. Medical research proves that hunger impairs both mental and physical growth of children. If millions of hungry children cannot learn, or are forced to work instead of attending school we will not reach the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. Offering incentives like noon meal encourages children to attend and their parents to send them to school and such initiatives could have a major impact on child nutrition, school attendance and social equity. Universal and nutritious mid-day meals would be a significant step towards realization of the right to food.[9]

National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education

National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NSPE), popularly known as the Mid Day Meal Scheme, was launched as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme on 15th August 1995, initially in 2408 blocks in the country. The mid day meal scheme aims to ensure food security among the school going children in India. Under the aegis of the scheme the school going children in all government schools are to be provided with free lunch. Midday meal scheme began as a strategic program to address two most pressing problems in India: hunger and education. The government of India had made education for children between the age group of 6-14. Hunger obstructs the process of holistic education, as children are forced to leave schools and take up menial jobs. Lack of education curtails opportunities for development and leads to vicious circle of poverty and hunger. Midday meal programs (school lunch) emerged to address the multiple challenges of poverty, hunger, and access to education.

Rationale behind the mid day meal scheme is firstly, to protect school going children from chronic hunger. Secondly to attain advancement in school attendance and enrollment rates. Thirdly, enhance socialization and feeling of oneness among students, thus breaking the schakels of gender, race, class and caste. Supreme Court of India passed an order on November 28, 2001, which mandated “Cooked midday meal is to be provided in all the government and government-aided primary schools in all the states.” This order expedited the implementation of the scheme. Mid day meal scheme was soon extended across the nation and across all government schools, government aided schools and for children in anganwari centers. The allocation and off take of food grains under the scheme during the 10th Plan and the first two years of the 11th Plan – 2007-08 & 2008-09is presented in Table 1.

The table 1 summarizes the allocation of funds in terms of food grains each year, from 2002-03 to the last financial year. The allocations have risen considerably over the years, both in terms of the rice and wheat food grains. It is seen from the table that allocations from the central government have been more than the off take or utilization of the food grains in the implementation of the scheme.

The summary of subsidies in different states, as on November 2009, is listed below:

The table 2 shows a comparative analysis of how the central government is contributing in terms of money and food grains for the smooth running of the mid-day meal scheme. It can be seen that in Karnataka the subsidy varies with three grade levels. Subsidy in terms of money is same for the level 1 to 5 and from 6 to 7, however it increases from 1.80 rupees to 2.20 per child per day when students reach grade 10. The grains available for children below grade 5 are 100 grams per child per day, which increases to 150 grams of grains per child per day from grade 6 onwards. On an average all states are providing 100 grams of grains per child per day in lower primary level and 150 grams per child per day in the upper primary level. Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh provide highest amount of monetary subsidy per child per day that is 3.00 rupees. Karnataka state shows the lowest figures (1.80 rupees) in terms of monetary subsidy. It must also be borne in mind that higher subsidy does not necessarily correspond to better performances. We shall look into the state of Karnataka in detail in section three.

The scheme has a long history especially in the state of Tamil Nadu, where it was introduced by K. Kamraj government in 1960’s and expanded by M.G Ramachandran in 1982. Ever since it has been adopted by most of the states in India after the landmark directions by the Supreme Court of India. The purpose behind the judgment was to enhance enrolment, retention, and participation of children in primary schools, simultaneously improving their nutritional status. The judgment aims to cater to the nutritional needs of low-income groups in both rural and urban areas (Planning Commission, 2007).[10]

As per the programme the Government of India provides grains free of cost and the States will provide the costs of other ingredients, salaries and infrastructure. By January 2004, nearly 50 million children received midday meals provided either by the Government or by NGOs working in partnership with the government.[11]

However, inconsistent food quality, occasional food poisoning, poor hygiene, and operational concerns were among the complications to the provision of government-sponsored midday meals. The meals were prepared by teachers, who cooked the same meal every day: ghoogri, gruel made of boiled wheat. Children reported that that they grew tired of eating the same food daily, they did not like the taste, and it often made them feel sick. In 2004, a fire accidentally started by a teacher cooking the midday meal killed 90 children in Tamil Nadu, an event which underscored the safety issues inherent in meals prepared in makeshift kitchens based on school sites. Given the scope of hunger in India and the difficulties faced by the government programs, the task of feeding school children was still a significant challenge.

Public private partnership implementation

As the research is based on two organizations located in the state of Maharashtra, the following section analyses the public private partnership model used to implement the mid day meal scheme in the state. The State of Karnataka introduced the provision of cooked meals in June 2002 which saw a successful private sector participation in the programme. One such initiative was Akshaya Patra, which started with leadership from ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). The programme has evolved into a movement where by children in the government schools are provided with cooked lunch on all working days. The state and the central government support the Foundation in the execution of the programme. Hence the programme runs a collective kitchen based on a public-private partnership. The Akshay Patra program is conducted in partnership with the various State Governments and Central Government. All of these governments provide a subsidy to support about 55% of the running cost of the Akshay Patra program. The Central Government support is routed through the respective State Governments. The meal includes a nutritious mix such as sambar, rice, vegetables and some curd on most days. Since the success of this programme there has been an in the private sector participation in India. The partnerships in execution of the programme are not limited to rural areas but also major urban centers like Delhi, and Hyderabad.[12]

About the study

Statement of the problem

In the Indian context both GDP and food grain production have risen at a faster growth rate than growth in population over the past 50 years. Yet our country faces chronic hunger and starvation among large sections of our population. There has been declining calorie consumption especially in the bottom 30% of the pyramid. Attempting policy reforms in an era of overall weakening governance and state commitment in social sectors seems a challenge. In this background, concept of collective and community kitchens have evolved and grown acquiring various dimensions in the past few years. This research aims to explore the possible link between community kitchens and food security. The research revolves around the idea of community kitchens being the possible means to attain an end of food insecurity examining the models of Ashodaya Samiti and Akshay Patra in the Indian scenario.

Ashodaya Samiti is a sex worker’s organization working for HIV prevention since January 2004 in Mysore district of Karnataka. In 2004 University of Manitoba was directly implementing the HIV prevention project ably supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan project.[13] The organization’s collectivization and formal registering as Ashodaya Samithi was done in December 2005. Community mobilization since then has today resulted in the formation of the community based organization to take ownership of HIV awareness, prevention care, support activities and beginning of an entrepreneurial venture in the form of community kitchens.

The second organization under study is Akshay Patra. Children from economically weaker sections are forced to seek work in place of education. Some of those who do manage to attend the school drop out to feed themselves and their families while others are known to perform poorly because of short attention spans and extreme hunger. Realizing that a nutritious school meal is an effective means of gettingunderprivileged childrencome to school and complete their education, Akshay Patra was formed as a not-for-profit organization in June 2000. The purpose of the organization in their words is – to provide “unlimited food for education”, through modern community kitchens, thus freeing children from the vicious cycle of poverty and ensuring them an education.[14]

Objectives of the study

The main objectives of the current study are to

  • Understand the evolution of the concept of community kitchens in India
  • Provide a socio-economic profile of the respondents who are engaged in community kitchen in both settings (of the cases undertaken)
  • Analyze the implementation of community kitchen undertaken by different organizations namely Ashodaya Samiti and Akshaya Patra
  • Study how community kitchen is serving as a means to break social barriers (as demonstrated by Ashodaya Samiti).
  • Understand how community kitchen could be a potential mechanism for eradicating hunger among school going children in the context of mid-day meal programme of Akshay Patra.
  • Analyse the constraints in mobilizing the resources to keep the community kitchen a sustainable enterprise.

Methodology

Data collection for the research was done in two major organizations, Ashodaya Samiti in Mysore and Akshay Patra in Bangalore. The period of data collection was from 10.02.2010 to 22.02.2010. The data collection involved personal visits to both the organizations, interviews, focus group discussions and -participant observations.

The current exploratory study attempts to understand the functioning of the community kitchens. Both primary and secondary sources of data have been collected for the study. The secondary data for the study came from annual reports of the organizations, websites, documentaries and media reports that have been provided by the organizations. The primary data for the study was collected from a diverse group of individuals engaged with both the organizations. In Ashodaya Samiti focus group discussions were carried out with the 20 sex workers who are the key in managing and operating the community kitchen. Individual in dept interviews were also carried out with 2 senior officials of the organization. The interview schedule consisted of open ended questions to include more information, their feelings, attitudes and understanding of the subject of community kitchen. In Akshay Patra data was collected through participant observation and interview schedules. Interviews were carried out with the workers in the kitchen to understand the mechanization of the operations. In-debt interviews were also carried out with the media spokesperson of the organization and the programme director. Visits to the kitchen on daily basis allowed an in-depth investigation of the process of food preparation and its distribution among the schools across the city.

In this study in depth interview was useful in understanding the concepts related to community kitchens. The tool was helpful as it ensured that I received detailed information which helped me in exploring the idea to its depth.

Focus group discussions were used as a form of qualitative research in which a group of people which included male, female and transgender sex workers of Ashodaya Samiti were asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes towards sex work as their livelihood, need to collaborate at community level, evolution of the organization from heath interventions to community kitchen, empowerment through community kitchens and their future expectations from the project. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants were free to talk with other group members.

Participant observation which has its roots in the traditional ethnographic research was used a qualitative research strategy. Participation and observations were carried to varying degrees to study the community’s daily activities in both the cases (Ashodaya Samiti and Akshay Patra). Participant observation took place in the community settings, in locations like the sex workers day care centers, the Ashodaya hotel, community kitchen of Akshay patra which had direct relevance to the research questions.

Engagement was done in such a manner such data could be collected by observing what life is like for an “insider” while remaining, inevitably, an “outsider.” While in these community settings, careful, field notes were made to record all observations.

Data Analysis

The current section provides an overview of both the organizations included in the study i.e. Ashodaya Samiti and Akshaya Patra.

Ashodaya Samiti:

‘Community kitchen used to break social barriers’

The first case that is presented in this section is the Ashodaya Samiti. The history of Ashodaya Samiti has to be seen in the backdrop of project Avahan. In the year 2003 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded an India Aids initiative to reduce the spread of HIV in India under the project AVAHAN. Avahan was set up as a far ranging Aids prevention project, and has been a success story since its inception. Under the aegis of the project aids prevention work is carried out in six major sates in India. Within these states, it provides, prevention services to nearly 200,000 female sex workers, 60,000 high-risk men who have sex with men, and 20,000 injecting drug users, together with 5 million men at risk. [15] In 2003, UNAIDS studies reported that Asia presented the greatest risk of expansion of the global epidemic. The HIV cases have been on a continuous rise since the past decade. The major reasons for that are high prevalence of unsafe sex work and injecting drug users. Initial interventions by Avahan indicated that HIV transmission in south India was primarily sexual, and in the north-east mainly related to injecting drug use.[16]

The Indian national response had a sound strategy for addressing high-risk groups. However, coverage of these groups was variable across the states and national average strikingly low.[17] [18] The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation designed a programme with help of technical experts to look into the HIV and aids prevention strategies. The project began with full co-operation from the Indian government. Avahan’s aim was to help slow the transmission of HIV to the general population by raising prevention coverage of high-risk and bridge groups to scale by achieving saturation levels (over 80 percent) across large geographic areas. Considering the scale of the country the project was magnanimous in its objectives. To avoid any complications the project began with local level involvement in operations and planning.

Avahan in Karnataka

As mentioned earlier, the project was started in six high prevalence states namely Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Manipur and Nagaland. The prevalence in the first four states was predominantly due to male, female and transgender sex workers. In the other two states there were high incidences of the spread of virus due to injecting of drugs among the people.

In Karnataka, University of Manitoba took the initiative to take up the project in the 18 of the 30 districts. Among the 18 districts, in 16 districts the i


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