Time to Revive Egalitarian Eating or What’s Wrong with Food Banks

Communal Kitchens in WW1

Thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage of the First World War’s centenary we know everything we need to about that conflict, right? Wrong!

While the BBC and others were busy sending reporters off to trudge the battlefields for the umpteenth time they ignored an aspect of the war which has great relevance for public health today: communal kitchens.

These grew out of working class communities, where soup kitchens were established to feed the most needy at a time when food supplies were poor and nutritional standards low.

These grassroots kitchens evolved into state-supported ‘national kitchens’ or ‘national restaurants’.

Initially, you see, you brought a bucket with you to a ‘distribution centre’ and had it filled up with nutritious food for next to nothing. This model was soon replaced by cheap restaurants where people received hearty, fresh, nutritious food at incredibly low prices.

Avoiding the Taint of Charity

Significantly, the Ministry of Food backed the scheme on the condition that it ‘avoid the taint of charity’. These cafes and restaurants would be self supporting. They would be cheap but appeal to the middle class as well as the working class.

The big point is this: they would move beyond the Victorian soup kitchen with the Lady Bountiful or smiling vicar doling out grub to the meek yet grateful poor. They had to be cheap yet attractive; efficient yet appetising.

You couldn’t get further from the perception of our current food bank model. The anti-charity ethos of these WW1 national restaurants ensured they had widespread appeal and did not come to be viewed as havens for the idle underclass.

Popularity

These national restaurants were so popular that large cities boasted several. Hundreds of thousands dined at them each week. They served good, nutritious food at very low prices. They were clean, safe and kept people alive during a time of serious food shortage. Trust me, I am currently travelling up and down the country researching them in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust.

They fizzled out after the First World War, but were successfully revived during the Second World War as British Restaurants. If you are old enough to remember the war or the late 1940s / early 50s you may remember these state-subsidised and incredibly popular restaurants.

Let’s do it again!

What’s wrong with food banks today?

Food banks today are not fit for purpose. The majority do my serve fresh food or give people instruction as to how to incorporate the food they receive as meals. People lack cookery skills but they don’t receive them at most food banks, they just get hand outs of non-perishables.

What’s more, the non-perishable food handouts do not usually contain fresh fruit or veg. When people take the rice or pasta or whatever home with them, they often can’t even afford to heat it up and incorporate it into a nutritious meal.

Most of all, food banks signify a return to the Victorian model of the church and rich people doling out food to the humble but grateful food. They don’t foster a sense of community and are tainted with the stigma of the handout.

What is to be done

Let’s revive communal dining. Let’s have local authorities open chap cafes on site or next door to food banks. Places where people can get a cheap nutritious meal.

The big thing here is mental wellbeing and community: these intangibles are easily targeted via simply sitting down and breaking bread.

Why not give people the option of giving over some of their food bank parcel so that on-site chefs can prepare it for them as a cheap meal?

Above all, let’s overcome the ‘taint of charity’. We did this 100 years ago, let’s do it again. Cheap cafes or dining areas or simply kitchen facilities on site in foodbanks are the way forward.

Then maybe, just maybe, we might slowly see the return of the ‘national restaurant’!

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