What if the local soup kitchen were the nexus of a participatory movement for urban agriculture and healthy living? That’s the idea behind the Community Dining Halls Program (Comedores Comunitarios), which has been installing community food hubs in marginalized areas of Mexico City since 2009. They provide low-cost meals while promoting healthy eating, healthy environments, urban agriculture and community self-actualization. In keeping with the city’s rights-based approach to development, the dining-hall program is an “urban improvement” program that reaches beyond food security toward broader improvements in the ‘family economy’ and in civic participation.
Democratic systems have an obligation to ensure that basic human needs are being met. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says, “[D]emocracy has to deliver. People want to vote and eat.” Where there is widespread and persistent food insecurity, it is a signal that vulnerable populations lack the voice and space to assert and claim their rights, and/or there is insufficient accountability in the system.
How’d They Do It?
In the late 2000s, Mexico City policymakers identified poverty, and particularly food insecurity, as a persistent crisis that called for a new approach. “In 1990, 8.7 million were in food poverty,” said then-Mexico City Secretary of Social Development Jose Ramon Amieva Galvez in 2017. “After billions allocated over the years, we still [had] 7.7 million in 2010.” They were clearly not breaking the cycle of recurring poverty.
The Comedores Comunitarios (Community Dining Halls) Program was part of a shift away from a welfare model toward a rights-based approach. The key indicators under a welfare model—deficits in food security, educational access, public services and health—were deemed essentially “unjust” because they only measure minimum standards and do not address other human rights, Amieva said. Mexico City’s goal is to provide the necessary conditions for ‘living comprehensively.’ This means incorporating good governance reforms—such as access to information, accountability mechanisms, transparent budgets and public participation—into poverty-reduction strategies, and leveraging anti-poverty mechanisms to build civic infrastructure. The objective for the Community Dining Halls program is explicitly civic: to “[s]trengthen, consolidate and expand the processes of organization, participation and construction of citizenship in the exercise of guaranteeing the right to food with healthy, balanced and accessible food alternatives within the reach of any person who lives or transits in Mexico City …”
Mexico City’s program, which has since been adopted at the federal level, operates 483 dining halls (as of late 2018) in areas with medium to very high levels of marginalization and/or with conditions of poverty, inequality and social conflict. It seeks to reach residents of these areas with a particular focus on people with disabilities, adults over 60, mothers with daughters and children under 5, pregnant women and female heads of family. Hot meals cost 10 Mexican pesos, the equivalent of about 50 U.S. cents—significantly cheaper than the 40-peso cost of an average meal in the city. But beyond food security with dignity, the Social Development Department considers the dining halls to be an “urban improvement program,” providing educational tools for learning healthy habits and understanding complete cycles of sustenance through urban agriculture. Some locations support small-scale hydroponics, chicken raising and other food-production projects, as well as environmental cycling; one dining hall harvests 80,000 gallons of rainwater and re-uses the waste from its work. They can also be sources of neighborhood employment.
Mexico City officials do not balk at the prospect of funding dining halls, and their subsidized meals, in perpetuity. The individual client is viewed not as a source of income, but as the ‘access point’ for an entire social system revolving around him or her. The program costs 5 percent of the total budget, and 92 percent goes directly to citizens, according to the Social Development Department.
How’s It Going?
The comedores comunitarios (Community Dining Halls) program has been used as a platform or model for serving specific populations, including students and migrants:
University food trucks. Mobile dining halls have been introduced to serve nutritious and affordable meals to students at the 32 university campuses throughout Mexico City’s 16 districts. The city government has introduced seven so far and has requested funds to add three more. The aim is to support university students who must pay for transportation and food in addition to their education-related expenses.
Relief for migrants. In late 2018, two comedors opened next to the Estadio Jesús Martinez Palillo sports complex as part of a comprehensive interagency effort to support Central American migrants transiting Mexico City; the dining halls distributed some 70,000 food rations over five days. Each day a different section of the city (alcaldia) would provide staff support, serving three meals in two-hour time slots. (District mayors contributed funding for breakfast, while funds for lunches and dinners came from the main dining-hall program of the Social Development Department.) The dining halls permitted migrants to take a double portion of food to bring back to their family members who were unable to wait in line. The effort extended beyond food aid—local governments, non-profit organizations, and international organizations also used the site to disburse health care, clothing, shoes, blankets, legal advice, information, access to electricity, and international calling.
The Comedores Comunitarios approach takes a benefit that’s often narrowly targeted (i.e. food aid) and turns it into a universal social program (e.g. schooling or parks.) This has the potential to create both positive and challenging knock-on effects, such as:
Removing stigma. Recasting the ‘soup kitchen’ as an affordable neighborhood restaurant, open to all, helps to preserve residents’ dignity as they access subsidized meals—which could be an end in itself, or a means of encouraging residents to access the anti-poverty program. (New York City’s IDNYC program sought a similar de-stigmatization and uptake by attaching museum memberships and other cultural benefits to an identification card, which then became popular with diverse residents.)
Dampening impact? Making a social service open and accessible to the public may mean removing data-collection mechanisms (such as means testing) that help direct services toward the neediest residents and monitor impact. In 2013, Mexico launched the National Crusade against Hunger, which included a nationwide community dining-halls program. But Mexico’s federal audit agency has published findings that audited dining halls have not kept adequate records to demonstrate that they are operating efficiently and serving a truly food-insecure population. “It was not clear how the program manages to transcend the focus on assistance to one focused on the development of human capital,” the 2016 audit stated.