Tag Archives: community

Images from Nottingham National Kitchen, 16 June 2017

My national project to rediscover the public feeding schemes of 100 years ago hit the road again last Friday, when over 100 people in Nottingham were fed for free from a menu 100 years old. We had a jazz band, we had music hall numbers, we dressed up and danced and ate. And all in a stunning Victorian venue designed by renowned architect Watson Fothergill http://www.watsonfothergill.co.uk/

The idea is to highlight how social eating is superior to the basic food bank model and how we can learn a lot from how the government did things 100 years ago. So we fed 100 people food from 100 years ago, including period dishes ‘wet nelly’ and ‘trench cake’.

The local television coverage of the evening is accessible here: https://nottstv.com/programme/social-eating-experiment-takes-locals-back-world-war-one-19-06-17/

The point was to rediscover social eating in an area of nottingham (St Anne’s) with a high food bank dependency and a very diverse demographic. The event was held in the city’s Pakistan Community Centre and involved some fairly diverse groups of people including a choir for children with special needs. We teamed up with Marsha Smith of Super Kitchen and ‘Pulp Friction’ (a Nottingham-based charity for young adults with learning disabilities) and the floor was run by Hospitality guru Dr Clay Gransden, ensuring the night provided an opportunity for young adults with learning disabilities to learn transferable skills for the industry (front of house, table service etc).

The entire project has now been nominated for the Royal Historical Society’s Public History Award 2017 and so was judged on the evening by Professor John Tosh (Royal Historical Society).

All the below images are reproduced by kind permission of Richard Mowberry:


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French reforms welcome; let’s not privatise waste food

Last week came the brilliant news that the French have made it illegal to throw away any food considered edible. Supermarkets and other food businesses will now have to give this food to charities combating food poverty: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/25/french-supermarkets-donate-food-waste-global-law-campaign

Viva la revolution! Good on you, France! Good on you, Arash Derambarsh (the man who pushed for this, pictured below).  

 Let’s hope the scheme is a full success and doesn’t get watered down or, even worse, tourner au vinaigre.
So any chance of this catching on here? Any similar legislation in Britain would be most welcome. Underlining the meanness of some approaches to food waste in this country, supermarkets here lock their bins away so that people can’t even scavenge from them. Tight fisted. Greedy. Selfish.

In much of continental Europe, by contrast, even large corporations leave their bins accessible, signalling an openness to the idea of their food waste being taken by those who might need it; now France has led the way in ensuring corporate giants are forced to take food waste seriously.
If we were to adopt similar laws here, the greatest beneficiaries would presumably be the Trussell Trust. In Britain, media commentary on the food poverty issue is monopolised by the Trussell Trust, which runs around half of the food banks operational here. There’s a conspicuous lack of alternative voices on the food poverty issue in this country. Hence, food banks are seen as the solution.  

 But in previous posts, I’ve written about how food banks are simply not a sustainable solution to food poverty. Food isn’t fresh a lot of the time. Cookery skills aren’t addressed. Despite the admirable spirit of voluntarism, Hand outs, not community, is the ethic. They take risk and responsibility away from supermarkets and politicians. Sure, supermarkets already donate waste food by running food bank collections here. But this does not include FRESH fruit and veg. That would be a lot more difficult to manage, you see. Far easier to chuck away the fresh stuff and give non-perishables to food banks.

So if similar laws were adopted here, they should have to ensure that a greater cross section of community food projects receive waste food – projects which go beyond emergency food provision and look to longer term solutions to poverty, sustainability in food and community cohesion.

Food waste shouldn’t be privatised

Which brings me to current food waste service providers FareShare.

They, like the Trussell, enjoy something of a monopoly on food waste. The model involves community organisations, food banks etc signing up. Then FareShare collects waste food from supermarkets and drops it to you. 

So far, fair enough. But there’s a catch: the charge. FareShare make their money by charging a monthly fee. And you don’t know what you’re going to get week by week. Recently, FareShare’s CEO Lindsay Boswell stuck up for the poor old supermarkets who were being wrongly demonised by some beastly MPs for contributing to food poverty. Of course he did. The status quo suits him and his company.

Compare this to the approach of Adam Smith. No, not the Scottish economist. The founder of The Real Junk Food Project. 

 Smith Has told me that he wants to see FareShare “on its knees”. Why? Because he believes it’s wrong to profit from food waste. Instead, under his scheme, you sign up for free and he gives you a load of mobile numbers. You set a date on which you’ll hold a community dinner or ‘Binner Party’. Then you go through your list, calling the manager of Nandos or wherever, and getting his/her pledge to give you its still-good but technically ‘waste’ food on that date. No middleman. No fee.

The status quo, which people like Adam Smith are challenging, means boom time for those looking to make a quick buck off food waste.

Let’s follow the French model instead and let’s ensure, in doing so, that it contributes to the death of not only the food bank but also the food waste redistribution system as we know it.


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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.


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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In praise of Bolivia’s ‘Day of the Pedestrian’


Bolivia’s president Evo Morales divides opinion. Since coming to power in 2005 in what some term the ‘second Bolivian revolution’, the country’s popular leader has established himself as just the sort of Latin American leftist that Washington loves to hate.


Since the recent death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state has become the standard bearer for Latin American socialism. He’s nationalised the mineral transportation and telecommunications industries and, as a champion of coca leaf production, is at loggerheads with the USA’s ‘war on drugs’.

As is the case with many Latin American leftist politicians, Morales hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the populist caudillo. While he has made some improvements to health, education and infrastructure for the poor, there’s a long way to go. Moreover, he’s been accused of cronyism in the filling of state positions and in his closeness to the nation’s coca barons.


El Dia del Peaton

But I’ve witnessed one policy of Evo’s at first hand and it’s really impressed me. It’s the ‘Day of the Pedestrian’ (Dia del Peaton). Five years ago, Morales decided that the entire country would be traffic free for one day a year. For the good of public health and for social cohesion. The first Sunday of September is now enshrined as that day.

The results are a joy to behold. The first thing you notice is the tranquillity: the absence of the rude, ubiquitous car horn. And with the removal of fumes, the air is actually breathable. The streets resemble an end-of-the-world movie: highways usually clogged with noisy traffic are completely car-free.

Car-free streets

Car-free streets

The most impressive thing, though, is the evidence of people coming together as families, individuals, community. There’s a carnival atmosphere as people reclaim the streets. Children play hoopla, skipping and hopscotch. And further down La Paz’s Avenue of the 16th of July there’s a big ‘zumba’ dance in progress.


Then there are the spontaneous games of football. Few shops are open, but in those that are most of the staff have downed tools in favour of a big kick-about. There is music and street food in abundance and, in the bus central boulevards, the entire affair is subject to low-key marshalling by city officials dressed in zebra costumes.


Of course, Dia Del Peaton is not popular with all. Hotel receptionist Silvia moans about the time it will take her to walk home this evening. But overall, the ‘Day of the Pedestrian’ is a reminder of the beauty of life without the motorcar. It seems to me that this scheme of Evo’s is a definite success.


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Food at Altitude

The National Police: out in force in Arquipa

The National Police: out in force in Arquipa

The cook

The cook


Gaining Altitude

Altitude is not something to be trifled with. I’m reading Conversation in the Cathedral, the work by famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book contains a nauseating description of altitude sickness. Hipolito, a minor character, is a thug-for-hire contracted by dark forces within the military regime of Peru’s President Odria in the 1950s. He’s a nasty piece of work but he’s also a Liman and so when he’s sent to break up a political rally in the rebel mountain city of Arequipa (2,300m above sea level) the dizziness overcomes him. As the rally descends into a fist fight he’s unable to hold his own and is ultimately killed.

I was fine with the altitude in Arequipa but I’m writing this dispatch (altitude-assuaging coca leaves tucked inside my cheek) from the Andean city of Puno, which is about double Arequipa’s height above sea level. No major problems, but I certainly have noticed a difficulty in breathing after any physical exertion and a headache comes and goes. My bout is a lot milder than Hipolito’s, then, but ‘altitude sickness’ is certainly real. Our hotel is downtown in Puno and feeling out-of-sorts is not helped by the madding crowds of this lakeside city: the streets are teeming with women in traditional dress, pork pie hats and babies slung over their shoulders; hawkers of every hue; and – as in every Peruvian metropolis – legions of manic taxi cabs.     

IMG_0659A game of bingo at 7am

Coach travel in Peru is serious business. In the absence of a decent rail network, bus journeys can be reminiscent of long distance air travel. We travel with the main company, Cruz del Sur, which offers blankets, pillows and reclining seats for weary travellers. Mini-televisions in the back of seats show the latest Hollywood movies. Hot meals are served by the onboard crew. And there’s heavy security to ward off the bandits with all coaches tracked by satellite.

That’s business class. After that we travelled south between Ica and Arequipa, this time in second class and it’s a slightly different story. You’re told in business class that not wearing your seatbelt is a criminal offence. In second class, as the coach winds dizzyingly through tight mountain passes, I enquire as to where my seatbelt is. I’m told that my seat doesn’t have one. Peru’s road safety record isn’t great, but I accept this and try to fall asleep. It’s an overnight journey of twelve hours duration. Annoyingly, I’m woken at 7am by a big game of bingo with the conductor as the announcer. This is followed by loud slapstick comedy on the TV screens. It feels like cheap entertainment for the masses.


The Rebel City

But so what? We’re in Arequipa to visit more communal dining rooms. Volcanic mountains tower over this picturesque conquistador city, which is refreshingly green compared to Lima’s unrelenting grey. Arequipa is where Peru gets most of its milk and Fresian cows loll in the sunshine, beneath centuries-old Incan agricultural terraces. It’s also a well preserved colonial city with beautiful facades that are best described as Incan baroque.

This weekend happened to be the twenty-sixth anniversary of the (re)founding of the Peruvian national police and the cops are here in force, especially the police band. It’s also the festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the national police. Policemen and women strut around the place resplendent in smart green uniform with gold trim, pistols tucked in their holsters, while band members lug cymbals and trombones and flags about with them. Arequipa is the home of Vargas Llosa, and has historically been the starting place for many Peruvian revolutions, with change sweeping down from the high plains into Lima. So it’s a little odd to see the state out in such force in this heterodox, free-thinking, pretty mountain city. Some young protesters agree, moving through the crowds in the central square with placards proclaiming ‘culture is more important’.

Reducing Child Malnutrition

In contrast to the ‘popular’ communal dining ventures we’ve visited so far, the sites we’re visiting in Arequipa are run by the Catholic Church. Brother Victor Ramos is our guide. He takes us to the Arequipan shanty towns of Ville Cerrillos and Paucarpata. We see a primary school that has been set up by donations from the Church and other charitable bodies. The Nada Marquez school provides more than just education. For just one sole (£0.25) a week, families can buy their child breakfast and lunch at the school. The preparation of the food is done by local mums, who volunteer their time for free. Amazingly – given work pressures on poor men not to mention the Peruvian culture of machismo – Brother Victor has succeeded in recruiting four of the local men to cook voluntarily too.

The success of the scheme has been astounding. Nutritionists put child malnutrition at 70% when the school meals started a decade ago. Today it’s 9%. And it’s thanks to the introduction of simple foods such as mandarins, cereal, soya and rice into a staple diet dominated by the potato. Importantly, the school also provides lessons in basic hygiene and healthy eating for kids and parents alike. In a teeming slum in which there is only one water pump, which is only operative for one hour per day, teaching the basics about hygienic food preparation is essential.     

Santa Rosa looks down on her comedor

Santa Rosa looks down on her comedor

The Catholic Church

Later we visit the Santa Rosa community kitchen. Like all community kitchens, this one has its patron saint. But unlike the majority, this one is run by the Catholic Church exclusively for old people. It’s the cheapest comedor we’ve visited yet. Just half a sole (£0.12) gets you a good, nutritious plate of food. Grandmothers and a handful of grandfathers congregate there every day to chat and eat. It’s great to see loneliness in old people being combated through such a simple formula: come, eat, chat. There’s also education here: in embroidery, knitting, and – notably – catechism. Food is bought through donations at masses in Arequipa. The Santa Rosa feeds 25 people a week and 5 of them don’t pay anything at all.

It’s a clear reminder that in Peru churches – predominately the Catholic – play a big role in ensuring food security. Sure, the state may provision comedores populares. But in terms of social security there’s still a sizeable vacuum. Around 30% of people in Peru don’t have ID cards. And without an ID card, you don’t qualify for any benefits. NGOs and faith initiatives fill that gap. 


Placing this in context: the rise of Quinoa and all that

Vital information on the political context of all this was provided by a roundtable discussion at the Centro de Estudios Peruanos (Centre of Peruvian Studies) at San Pablo University, Arequipa. Dean of faculty Claudia Queiroz-Munis provided excellent hospitality and help throughout our stay in Arequipa and the academic discussion was chaired by History Professor Fernando Valle.

I addressed the roundtable (in Spanish) on our research so far, begging the participants to excuse my pronunciation. I ventured the theory that the comedores populares were an organic social movement which enjoyed its greatest strength in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s. This period coincided with the economic and political crisis facing Peru in these years: the hyperinflation of left-leaning Alan Garcia administration (’85-’90); the austerity programme of the neoliberal Fujimori (’90-’00); and the powerful terrorist threat. The comedores stepped in to provide food in the absence of meaningful state support.

But winning the battle for legal recognition and for the state to provide food (granted in a calculated populist move by Fujimori in 1992) also reduced the autonomy of the popular kitchens as a social movement. Also, the reorientation of Peru’s economy has ensured that some comedores have made the transition into the marketplace by becoming cheap private restaurants. They remain, nonetheless, powerful safeguards for food security, human rights and women’s rights in Peru.

It was useful to hear the opinions of the assembled academics, who reminded me of the role of US aid and the Catholic Church in providing cheap food as early as the 1950s. These ventures predated comedores populares. Similarly, communal food initiatives were not always ‘bottom-up’. It was the Mayor of Lima in the 1980s who started the Vaso de Leche (glass of milk) scheme, for example.

Finally, the roundtable participants all stressed the issue of regionalism in Peru. The great Peruvian leftist politician Raul Haya de la Torre once remarked that you could travel from pre-history to modernity in one trip across this diverse country. Comedores, therefore, vary in character region by region. And one last important thing, which I hadn’t considered: these community kitchens have also contributed an awful lot to the enrichment of Peruvian gastronomy. With kitchens being run by women migrants to the city, eclectic recipes hitherto confined to their specific region have made their way into the national and global gastronomic mainstream. Hence, the rise and rise of quinoa.  


Never thought I’d end up discussing ITV period dramas over dinner at 8,000 feet

After the discussion, Professor Valle treated us to dinner. Since we were travelling to high altitude it was a light affair: crepes filled with cheese and non-alcoholic chicha morada (looks like wine, even tastes a bit like wine, but it’s actually made from purple corn).

It was at dinner that Professor Valle, a cerebral man every inch the university professor, told us of his wife’s love for British period dramas. Her favourite? Interestingly, not Downton Abbey. Mrs Valle likes Downton alright, but her absolute fave is frumpy ITV period piece Lark Rise to Candleford. An unexpected post-prandial conversation, but then the normality of abnormality has been a constant on this trip.

taking the lamb for a stroll

taking the lamb for a stroll

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