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Community kitchens in Lebanon: Cooking together for health

Joyce Barakat is the Food Security Programme Coordinator at International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in Lebanon. She has a BSc in Biology and Premedical Studies from the Lebanese American University.

Click here to listen to the interview with Joyce Barakat on ENN's Media Hub

Introduction

Syrian and Lebanese women work together to prepare food in the community kitchen projectFood assistance is known to be the fastest intervention in all emergencies. Following the early stages of the Syrian Crisis in 2011 and the influx of refugees arriving in Lebanon, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) began delivering food parcels to Lebanon’s most vulnerable refugees through funding from German agency Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe.

Two years later, IOCC and the American University of Beirut (AUB) tried to shift food assistance programming from the delivery of food parcels to the delivery of items with greater nutritional value. The aim was to contribute to beneficiaries’ improved dietary diversity and food security by improving their food consumption scores and making food more available and accessible. To meet this aim, the chosen vehicle was the provision of hot meals through the establishment of community kitchens in areas hosting the highest concentration of Syrians among poor Lebanese populations, mainly in the Bekaa Valley in the North of Lebanon.

IOCC is currently targeting 700 families (4,200 individuals) identified as eligible for food assistance through four community kitchens, as they have been found to have medium-to-severe food insecurity and low food consumption scores.

Setting up the first kitchen

The first community kitchen was established in the north of Lebanon in 2014, targeting displaced Syrians and vulnerable Lebanese. IOCC identified a group of Lebanese women in a rural area who were already engaged in cooking for the elderly, and asked them to take part in upgrading and establishing the first community kitchen. Steps for setting up the kitchen included:

  1. Recruitment of Syrian women (most of them heads of household) to join the kitchen team alongside the Lebanese participants. An additional benefit of the programme is its focus on creating income-generating activities for deprived women, with men involved in the transportation and meal-delivery activities of the project.
  2. Development and identification of culturally and nutritionally appropriate recipes (Syrian and Lebanese cuisine is very similar) and setting up a menu cycle;
  3. Standardisation of recipes and training on the recipes;
  4. Training and capacity-building in hygiene and food safety, as well as business management and entrepreneurship.

IOCC refurbished and equipped the existing kitchen according to food safety standards where needed, and AUB provided technical training to the cooking team on food safety and menu development. The cooking team produced healthy, yet tasty, traditional meals three times per week, in addition to providing two bread parcels and fresh produce along the meal. A total of 8,400 hot meals are being served on a monthly basis.

Through the close daily monitoring of this project, beneficiaries have shown improved dietary diversity and therefore better food consumption scores, which has been recorded through post-distribution monitoring and focus group discussions. Awareness sessions, especially those related to food storage and healthy eating habits, have also been considered as beneficial by the households. Other benefits of involving women from both Syrian and Lebanese nationalities in the same activity have been reported instances of enhancing social cohesion and reducing tension. As the Syrian participants relayed, the project not only enabled them to earn some income (the cooking teams are paid), but also helped them to build friendships and reduce the psychological impact of the crisis.

Scaling up and plans for sustainability

Since the first kitchen was set up, IOCC have replicated the community kitchen model with three other partners. These kitchens are operated by women’s cooperatives or local organisations who were conducting similar activities prior to the kitchens’ establishment.

IOCC has been implementing community kitchens in Lebanon since the end of 2012 and is exploring with its partners how to expand the community kitchen model into a sustainable, independent business. A detailed business plan is currently being developed for each of the community kitchens specifically focusing on women’s entrepreneurship. Plans include: expanding the community kitchens’ coverage through links with small and medium caterers; developing kitchen and school gardens; and selling healthy snacks in private schools, with profits being directed to feeding other children.

The Ministry of Social Affairs values the project and has shown interest in investing in replicating the model in different deprived areas of Lebanon.

Costs and other challenges

The project cost is approximately US$10 per meal or US$30 per week per family for three meals (covering six individuals per household on average.) A US$10 meal meets the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in Lebanon, and at the same time reduces their expenditure on cooking utensils, fuel and other costs.

The monthly food parcels that were previously distributed either through IOCC or different partners in the Food Security Sector cost around US$35 – which might be considered lower than the cost of hot meals at US$30 per week, but incurred additional costs of cooking in the household and posed a safety hazard in informal tented settlement settings.

Summary

This multi-faceted project delivers hot food to beneficiaries, while creating opportunities for income generation, social cohesion, and nutrition education. Participants have access to technical expertise and livelihood opportunities that make them feel independent and empowered as decision-makers. When asked what they had learned during the project, one Syrian participant said, “I now know how to balance the cooking and how to diversify the food when I cook for my family. This will improve their health and decrease the vitamin deficiencies they suffer from.” A Lebanese cook said, “I learned the different kinds of fats and started to cook healthier food at home”. She laughed and added, “Healthy food can also taste good!”

 

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Reference this page

Joyce Barakat (2017). Community kitchens in Lebanon: Cooking together for health. Nutrition Exchange 8, July 2017. p9. www.ennonline.net/communitykitchensinlebanon