Ghinwa Bhutto – Building a Society through Kitchen

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When I first got to know about her community kitchen from Ghinwa Bhutto, I couldn’t really picture it. Upon finally getting a chance to visit it, I discovered that it was a pleasant sight, completely different from a stereotypical idea of what a set-up providing budgeted food should look like. The energetic vibe hits you the minute you enter the area of her house that she has remodeled into a kitchen big enough to accommodate the large scale cooking.

With the combination of the smells, sounds and sights of culinary delights providing the background symphony associated with the vision of a kitchen in the mind of a reader, it would be preferable to start with the obvious question of where the idea actually came from. This would further be complicated by the fact that she is the head of a political party, in addition to the plethora of expectations associated with the Bhutto legacy.

“My connection to food is old, I always loved cooking and more than cooking I loved serving.”

Given her interest in food, she was often advised to turn it into a business venture; a suggestion she put down because her actual intent lay in feeding people, and not in using food as a means of gaining money. Her belief that food should not be reduced to a mere commodity, was further strengthened when she went for her Masters in Anthropology of Food at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 2011.

“This helped me understand the connection between things. With the commoditization of food, majority of the urban people have forgotten the people behind it. We demand that we need organic and fresh and what not, but we are not bothered about those who provide it to us. In this age of development people who are growing for us are becoming weaker and weaker because they can’t afford to keep their lands.”

“I don’t remember where I first read about the concept of the community kitchen but the idea became a part of me. I do know that it was applied in Venezuela and a couple of other countries.”

Community kitchens are a way to organize the related people. These kitchens become a public space with an open environment for discourse, something that we are lagging in the country. Even in a home when the family sits around food, the discussion follows a variety of directions and is not just limited to the quality of food.  Every religion has a food system to bring people together and restructure the society.

“If you want to bring a new manifesto you have to build a society first. So this is how I thought of bringing people together, around food, to build a society with a spirit of collaboration. A way to connect through food. We already have successful examples of it.”

This community kitchen didn’t happen overnight. Involved in politics for over two decades, Ghinwa had a recurring feeling that there was a disconnect with the real community. To connect with the community, she started off by opening a free school, which helped the children and at the same time it helped build trust with the mothers of the attending students with whom she started talking about the concept of a community kitchen.

A year after the school, The Neighborhood Kitchen came into being. The school unfortunately had to be closed due to the lack of human resource. The kitchen provides food for two individuals for Rs 20/-, for low-income non-employees for Rs 30/-. They also cater to the high end market as well, charging them the premier cost. This cost distribution helps generate the salaries of the employees of the kitchen. What makes this a sustainable model, is that there is no profit involved, no rent for the space and the fluctuating price of the raw material is absorbed by Ghinwa.

“There should be no profit on food, it should be totally supported by the government. People in Cuba get their basic food supplies provided to them by the state every month. Someone shared it with me that if you are a migrant to the country they come to your house to bring you your supplies. This is how food should be, because it is like air, a basic right.”

To start with, the raw material for the kitchen was bought from the vegetable market, however, they are now reaching out to the small farmers to plant for them. This creates a win-win situation for both parties, as the middle man is cut out; the farmer gets a better price as compared to what he usually gets and it still costs the kitchen cheaper than what they would have to pay otherwise.

The menu ranges from salads to Lebanese and Pakistani cuisine and the selection of the daily menu is a democratic process with the team’s consent. This kitchen introduced soy meat, which is nutritious, healthy and cost-effective. They are aiming to reach Korangi’s labor force and as training they are selling to the employees of Agha’s supermarket. Staying true to their core values they offered to help the other vendors there, thus targeting the same segment.

Ghinwa’s vision is to have a community kitchen in every street, but she wants the process to continue at its own pace and stick with the proper values, instead of becoming a cosmetic feature like the majority of the projects run with ulterior political motives. One branch of the kitchen at a smaller scale is being run by the mother of one of her workers in Jamshoro. It is being run without any support and is a better representation of what a community kitchen is supposed to be.

She knows that she is still seen as a feudal and it is going to be a long way before they break away from this system of dependence. The concept of community is budding at the kitchen. Men and women who started off working awkwardly can now be seen operating as a synchronized team. Their confidence has evolved and they see themselves as a productive part of the society. They work together and go for outings together. Ghinwa shares that the stark divide in our society is reflected by these outings, when people have trouble digesting her comments about these workers being her friends, and not employees.

Their food is scrumptious, I had the privilege of eating with them and the quality of food and the company were simply a delight.


Interview and Pictures by Fatima Arif | Cover Picture by Getty Images

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