Tag Archives: poverty

The ‘National Kitchens’ of #WW1

  • Ahead of the inaugural event in my AHRC-funded project to recreate First World War public dining schemes, here is the full article on which the project is based
  • First recreation to take place at 7pm, Constellations Bar, Liverpool https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/national-kitchen-pop-up-tickets-32635520721
  • Event to be covered across the media including BBC national television and radioIMG_0331.PNG
  • If citing, please refer to: Bryce Evans, The British ‘National Kitchen’ of the First World War, Journal of War & Culture Studies, 10 (2016). ISSN 1752-6272

The National Kitchen in Britain, 1917-1919


In early twenty-first century Britain communal efforts to alleviate food poverty are well documented, with community kitchens and social supermarkets operating alongside hundreds of food banks. These initiatives have their historical precedents. Significantly, communal feeding programmes were a fixture of Britain’s experience of total war in the twentieth century. Between 1940 and 1947 there existed a vast network of state-subsidised ‘national restaurants’. Christened by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (who feared that the Ministry of Food’s original moniker – ‘communal feeding centres’ – was too ‘redolent of Communism and the workhouse’) there were over 2,000 national restaurants operating across the country at their peak (Atkins, 2011: 139-154). Yet the national restaurants of the Second World War did not owe their success exclusively to Churchill’s marketing skills. They were partly inspired by their largely overlooked First World War predecessor: ‘national kitchens’.

National kitchens were locally administered yet part of a major nationwide government-sponsored programme to alleviate food poverty and its effects. They grew out of grass-roots projects within working class communities to combat wartime supply disruption and price inflation and were first sponsored by the state in May 1917. By mid-1918 there were over 1,000 national kitchens in Britain (Jones, 1944: 40); but a year later the movement had all but disappeared. This article provides the first history of the national kitchens of the First World War, which existed between 1917 and 1919, and explores how this popular arm of British wartime food supply policy intersected with national cultural attitudes around food.

Operating as part of a statist food policy encompassing rationing, price control, and state purchasing, historians have pointed to the popularity of British wartime food policy in general while overlooking national kitchens as part of this scheme (see, for example, Winter, 1985; Hunt, 2010). The focus on harmony between organised labour, consumers and government in the acceptance of a comprehensive rationing system has overshadowed the national kitchen. Thus communal, municipal, or national kitchens, which preceded the roll-out of comprehensive rationing by the summer of 1918, remain an under-documented phenomenon.

Neither have the national kitchens of the First World War been treated kindly by historians. To Margaret Barnett, national kitchens may have been the fruit of a new idealism which took hold in the latter stages of the war, but they failed to move beyond the old soup kitchen model. These remained ‘stolidly lower class institutions located in a dingy back street or public baths and presided over by the familiar Lady Bountiful’. In other words, they were culturally unappealing to many. According to Barnett, despite (and maybe because of) support from prominent women such as Sylvia Pankhurst and Queen Mary, egalitarianism in public dining held no appeal for the British public because the unexotic air of ‘social levelling, communism and fair shares’ hung over the venture (Barnett, 1985). Barnett’s appraisal echoes Winston Churchill’s, but it clashes with the verdict of Derek Oddy, who cites the Food Controller of North West England describing the British working man’s dining tastes: ‘the fried fish shop he knew, the cold supper bar where he could by his tripe of ‘trotters’ he was acquainted with, but a restaurant was not in his line’ (Oddy, 2003). The claim here is quite the opposite – that national kitchens were culturally unappealing to the working man who ate meals prepared by his wife at home and seldom, if ever, dined out: not because they were shabby and grey, but because eating out at a restaurant was seen as upmarket and snobby.

This article argues instead that instances of cultural resistance to national kitchens should not be over-amplified to suggest wider unpopularity. Like other aspects of wartime food policy, the fate of national kitchens had more to do with political will than public indifference. As late as mid-1918 the Ministry of Food was talking confidently of national kitchens becoming a ‘permanent national institution’ (Ministry of Agriculture, Departmental Committee meeting on village canteens, 11 April 1918, NA, MAF, 60/329). This article argues that national kitchens did in fact prove popular, especially among lower middle class workers, and many were attractive venues at which to eat. Their demise, it is argued here, was due to political factors: primarily, the government’s decision to introduce full rationing; but also the vocal opposition to the movement from the catering trade; and, following the armistice, the dismantling of the collectivist ethic.

Origins: ‘Communal Kitchens’

Run by voluntary organisations such as the Salvation Army, communal soup kitchens predated the outbreak of war in August 1914. During wartime, these charitable kitchens assumed heightened importance in offering cheap but nutritious food to people caught out by price inflation (Barnett, 1985: 151). The cost of living and instances of food shortage had increased in Britain since July 1914 (see Gazeley and Newell, 2013) but for the first two years of war such trends tended to be localised (Gregory, 2008: 192-198). As well as being locally run, communal feeding schemes were also gendered, most either run by or aimed towards working class women.

With the intensification of war came the transition from Herbert Henry Asquith’s ‘Wait and See’ administration to David Lloyd George’s ‘Push and Go’ ministry in December 1916. Faced with the heightened U-boat campaign of spring 1917, a commission of enquiry linked labour unrest to food price inflation and recommended the opening of industrial canteens (Chance, 1917: 32-33). The championing of canteens implied that charitable feeding ventures were inadequate in meeting public demand. So in May 1917 the Prime Minister appointed fellow Welshman and millionaire businessman D.A. Thomas (Lord Rhondda) Food Controller. Distinguishing himself from his predecessor Hudson Kearley (Viscount Devonport), who was widely perceived to have lacked dynamism, Rhondda signalled a switch to swift state action. Devonport had issued a public appeal for voluntary rationing and introduced the unpopular ‘meatless days’ initiative in early 1917 (Simmonds, 2013: 205). These measures were accompanied by tens of thousands of voluntary campaigns to instil a culture of frugality, including ideas such as children’s essay competitions and cinema screenings devoted to food economy. Yet these initiatives proved limited as queues for staples like potatoes and bread soon developed (Marwick, 1991). Rhondda, by contrast, responded to rising prices by announcing the rationing of sugar, and later meat, and issuing a succession of maximum price orders.

The differences in approach between Devonport and Rhondda tend to obscure the fact that the latter initially favoured voluntary action when it came to effecting cultural shifts in British dining habits. It was Devonport who introduced the first restrictions on restaurants via the Public Meals Order of 5 December 1916, limiting day meals to two courses and evening meals to three courses (Marwick, 1991: 240). Rhondda followed this with rationing by weight in restaurants in April 1917 and restrictions on the serving of afternoon tea, but initially favoured local initiative over statist action when it came to communal feeding. Rhondda’s early preference for voluntarism over statism was reflected in the Ministry of Food’s early endorsement of communal feeding schemes. In May 1917, the Ministry of Food publicly encouraged the opening of more voluntary communal kitchens (J.S. Middleton to Lord Rhondda, 15 June 1917, PHM, WNC, 14/4/1/2:1). At the same time, one of Rhondda’s understudies at the Ministry, Kennedy Jones (a former journalist and Unionist politician who had contested the 1916 Wimbledon election on the radical right wing ticket of the ‘Do-it-now party’) was tasked with putting together a guidebook to accompany the new experiment in British communal dining.


The Brave New World of Communal Dining and British cultures of consumption

‘Probably at some future time it will be difficult to believe that each household in the country did its own separate marketing, buying small amounts of food from retail dealers a hundred per cent above cost price, that every hundred houses in a street had each its own fire for cooking, and that at least a hundred human beings were engaged in serving meals that could have been prepared by half a dozen trained assistants’

This was the verdict of Kennedy Jones’s hand-picked group of food reformers – R. Hippisley Cox, H.J. Bradley and Eustace Miles – in their Public Kitchens handbook. The Public Kitchens Handbook may have been written by a trio of middle class vegetarians, but it erred on the side of caution and cultural sensitivity. It advised that to ensure long term popularity national kitchens should ‘bow to prejudice’ by serving established British meat-based dishes. The guidebook criticised the ‘appalling ignorance’ of the British people when it came to preparing attractive food, a ‘national disgrace’ which had led to the neglect of many different cuisines, most notably those of the ‘pleasant land of France – the shrine of all true chefs’. Yet foreign cuisines and the greater use of vegetables should be introduced only gradually, they instructed. Gravies should be prepared in the ‘British way’ – from the juices of their own meats – and not, ‘as in many restaurants where foreigners rule’, from a mixed meat gravy. Cox, Bradley and Miles, then, wanted to improve the national character through improving diet, increasing vegetable consumption and reducing waste; but they understood that to do so effectively British cultures of consumption had to be bowed to, and the taint of foreign avant-gardism had to be avoided (Cox et al, 1917).

The term ‘public kitchens’ was significant in itself. The voluntary origins of ‘communal kitchens’ would soon be obscured by their patriotic rebranding. This was evident in the first large communal dining centre opened by Queen Mary on London’s Westminster Bridge on 21 May 1917. It was described as a ‘Kitchen for All’, not a ‘Public Kitchen’. These were more than mere linguistic idiosyncrasies: the brave new world of communal dining would be riddled with the political and cultural anxieties echoed a generation later by Winston Churchill in his fears of its socialist undertones. Once again, the desire to ensure that national kitchens were broad-ranging in their cultural appeal was paramount.

The ‘Public Kitchen’, though, was soon to become a ‘National Kitchen’. In November 1917 Rhondda appointed a business friend of his, Charles Spencer, to head up a new division of the Ministry of Food devoted to mass dining (Beveridge, 1928: 46). Spencer, as he put it to Rhondda, was ‘not used to being chained up’. A self-styled man of action who adhered to the ‘do it now’ attitude of Kennedy Jones, he took on the project on the condition that it be ‘untrammelled by red tape’ and run as a ‘business proposition’. Determined to circumvent ‘municipal obstacles’ to the efficient running of national kitchens, Spencer declared himself in favour of employing ‘real hustlers’, if necessary, to make ‘quick work’ of the extensive surveying, building and engineering needed to establish a national network of kitchens. Spencer was all about ‘economy with efficiency’, promising Rhondda that ‘wasters or inefficients’ would be ‘fired out immediately’ (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918).

Spencer’s hard-headed business mind, it seems, was responsible for the name change. Spencer confessed to Rhondda that he did ‘not feel quite happy’ with ‘the word communal’. ‘Its association with Socialism is too well known, and I am afraid it is rather a handicap’. He suggested the following alternatives: ‘War Emergency Food Kitchens’; ‘War Food Depots’; ‘War Catering Depots’; ‘National Food Kitchens’; ‘Local Catering Centres’; ‘National Catering Centres’; ‘People’s Food Supply Depots’; ‘Local Food Kitchens’; and ‘Food Supply Depots’. From this unwieldy-sounding list, the ‘National Kitchen’ emerged (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918). In a newspaper interview a week later Rhondda confirmed the name change. ‘I do not like the term “communal” Rhondda told the Manchester Guardian; ‘I should much rather talk of central or national kitchens’. According to Rhondda, pre-echoing Churchill, ‘community kitchens’ implied, on the one hand, a culture of charity and, on the other, communism (Manchester Guardian, 27 January 1918).

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-communism of Rhondda and Spencer was expressed amidst increasingly statist measures in food control. In September 1917, under the extended powers of the Defence of the Realm Act, Rhondda had overseen the state takeover of food supply, control, pricing and distribution (Beveridge, 1928: 164). With the state taking on ever greater powers, Spencer worried about the potential of home-grown radicalism to subvert these controls. ‘The working classes are near breaking strain’ he wrote Rhondda, a situation which had materialised ‘since June 1917’. This provided another compelling reason for the name change. When he considered the prospect of hundreds of the great unwashed collecting together under one roof, Spencer worried about the potential for dissent. Instead national kitchen customers, he envisaged, would visit central depots, have their flasks or buckets filled with food, and return home to consume it (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310).

Spencer was something of a maverick, a technocratic Yorkshireman who stayed in post until January 1919, when he resigned citing the demands of his many other business interests, which – significantly – included tramways (The Manchester Guardian, 9 February 1919). He even envisaged the ‘travelling kitchen’, a form of ‘fast food’ whereby people would come to tramcars to receive food. In practice, however, the take-away model – whether doled out from behind a kitchen counter or tram window – was overtaken by canteen-style dining. The success of the Westminster Bridge canteen impelled Rhondda to press for the establishment of national kitchens ‘wherever possible’ (J.S. Middleton to J. Moore, 31 July 1917, PHMA, WNC 14/4/1/5). Spencer’s anxiety over the working class assembling to dine en masse was assuaged by Rhondda. Once safely rebranded ‘national kitchens’, Rhondda damped any fears of radicalism by promising that local businessmen could run them as commercial enterprises; local authorities would lend support, but these would be businesses first and foremost. Commercial nous would prevail, Rhondda insisted, in breaking down class and cultural barriers, bringing together not one but ‘all classes’ (The Times, 22 May 1917).

Not a charity: achieving cross-class cultural appeal

Spencer, too, was determined that national kitchens have a cross-class cultural appeal. He declared himself resolutely opposed to national kitchens becoming ‘class kitchens’ (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918). In an obsequious despatch to Rhondda, he argued instead that elite patronage would ensure popularity:

There is no one the working woman looks up to like a Lord. I have found it so in electioneering times. A Lord on a platform will draw more working women to any hall than anyone else. We should have to get noble Lords and Ladies to patronise the communal kitchens and have the fact well press-campaigned (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918).

Yet Spencer’s desire for noble patronage was not shared across the Ministry. The most significant instruction from the Ministry civil servants was that national kitchens were ‘not to be conducted as a charity’. Rather, they had to function as a business, complete with a full set of accounts (HM Government, National Kitchens Order, 1918). Queen Mary may have opened the first ‘national kitchen’, then, but under the new scheme the charitable culture of the philanthropic ‘Lady Bountiful’ was very much a thing of the past. The Ministry of Food’s National Kitchens handbook, published in late 1917 as the number of state-subsidised kitchens grew, warned against any spirit of ‘condescension or patronage’ towards customers (Ministry of Food, 1917: 17). Kitchens would, on the one hand, avoid the taint of charity and, on the other, ‘be conducted without loss to the ratepayer or taxpayer’ (Cox et al, 1917: 14). These were to be popular ventures rather than schemes solely for the very poor.

In the earliest months of the scheme, most national kitchens were run by local businessmen and overseen by local government. National kitchens, as businesses, may have been managed locally but they were subject to direction by the Food Controller (Rhondda) and assisted by a Treasury grant. The grant initially covered a quarter of costs; a further grant was available once a kitchen had proved its financial viability. Kitchens were only deemed official national kitchens after proving to the Ministry over a number of months that they were viable financial concerns. Local authorities were then able pay back the loan via ten yearly instalments (Commons debate, 18 June 1918, vol 107, col 181).

As noted in a Commons debate of early 1918, working class women had performed the ‘pioneer work in starting public kitchens’ yet increasingly found themselves marginalised by the new system (Commons debate, 17 April 1918, vol 105, col 397). Voluntary communal kitchens run by working class women, from which national kitchens had sprung, could be established or re-established in the future, contended Spencer, but only if they subjected themselves to local authority supervision. Any non-affiliated communal ventures would not be Treasury funded. At the same time, Spencer the businessman was keen to disassociate the national kitchens division of the Ministry of Food from accusations of statist uniformity. He had no objection to setting up ‘special’ kitchens to target particular occupational groups such as city clerks; likewise culturally sensitive ‘special kitchens’ would also have to be established for areas in which Jews formed a majority of the population, he reasoned, ‘as their mode of living must be considered special’ (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310).

In towns and cities, national kitchens soon evolved into cheap restaurants. The initial policy that no food could be consumed on-site soon gave way to pressure and ‘national kitchens’ evolved seamlessly into cut-price restaurants. At the flagship ‘Kitchen for All’ on Westminster Bridge a small staff – two cooks, two kitchen-maids, a superintendent and a cashier – proved sufficient to cater for 2,000 people a day (Cox et al, 1917: 3). For speed, customers purchased coupons from a cashier upon entering the premises rather than handing over money after eating. Contact with ‘shippers and important dealers in the great markets’ meant that meat was procured at 25% of retail price – savings which were in turn passed on to customers (Cox et al, 1917, 13). Most national kitchens opened at lunch and dinner time (from 11.30am to 2pm and between 5pm to 8pm). Fish was the predominant dish for the evening meal. The sample lunch menu provided in the official National Kitchens handbook provided a uniform menu and price structure (Ministry of Food, National Kitchens Handbook, 1917: 23).

Sample menu (lunch)  
Item Price
Half a pint of Soup 1d
Joint of meat (with entrees) 4d (6d)
Scones 0.5d
Side Vegetables 1d
Puddings and cakes 1d


Another aspect crucial in differentiating national kitchens from soup kitchens was the need to make them culturally appealing. The Ministry instructed that each outlet ‘must not resemble a soup kitchen for the poorest sections of society’, but rather a place in which ‘ordinary people in ordinary circumstances’ could purchase an attractive yet cheap meal. Staff had to be well dressed, cooks experienced and the décor could not be chintzy. Gramophones and pianos were recommended to add to the ambience (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310). A report in the Scarborough Post on Hull’s central national kitchen encapsulated this:

The Hull people do not go into a back street. They avail of commanding premises in a good and busy thoroughfare, they fit their premises on modern lines, and there is no suspicion of shabby genteelness to be observed. On the contrary, were it not for the artistically painted signs you would never dream it was a National Kitchen. The place has the appearance of being a prosperous confectionary and café business. It is dainty and pleasing to the eye and the goods delivered are in appetising form. The business done is enormous. So far fourteen kitchens have been started in Hull… (Spencer memo, October 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310)

National Kitchens Grow

In December 1917, as food queues lengthened, sugar and butter were placed under local rationing schemes. As a prelude to the extension of rationing, which came in January 1918, Rhondda introduced flour and potato subsidies and empowered local councils to control food via locally appointed Food Control Committees (HM Govt., Local Authorities Food Control Order (no. 2), 25 February 1918). Food Control Committees (hereafter FCCs) were mostly composed of trade professionals and although required to contain at least one woman and one representative of labour, it has been claimed that working class women were largely absent from these new bodies (see Hunt, 2002). Arguably, the coming of FCCs represented a broader shift away from working class leadership on food supply problems to government control.

This change was reflected in the standardisation of national kitchens. The government’s ‘National Kitchens Order’ of 25 February 1918 instructed local authorities to establish national kitchens ‘as a matter of urgency and as a form of insurance against acute food shortage’. The Ministry of Food advised as to location: buildings with steam, such as public baths, were recommended, but location was left up to local initiative. For every large town or city, Spencer envisaged central kitchens (where cooking would take place) supplying a number of outlying ‘distribution centres’. Fluctuations in rationing and supplies, accompanied by national orders, meant – practically speaking – that any independent communal feeding ventures now had to dialogue with FCCs in order to guarantee supplies. And now, more often than not, this meant coming under the aegis of Spencer’s national kitchens division of the Ministry of Food.

By mid-1918 the Ministry of Food was pressing local authorities to establish national kitchens and offering generous financial incentives if they did so. The largest national kitchen in London, in Hammersmith, could feed 50,000 people a day and the biggest in Manchester 3,000 (The Manchester Guardian, 10 September 1918). Even villages (of 1,000 people or less) were urged by the Ministry to turn their local kitchen into a village canteen. National kitchens could only be established, it ordered, in areas where there was sufficient population density and transport facilities. But villages were permitted to open so-called village canteens. Village canteens were also subject to special Ministry instructions: soup had to be accompanied by food items which could be easily ‘taken into the field’, for example Cornish pasties.

In July 1918 Glasgow Corporation appointed three of its civic officers to visit national kitchens across Britain and report back on their workings. The deputation presented its findings two months later. They showed that national kitchens were booming. In Birmingham there was one central kitchen and seven subsidiary kitchens; the largest seated 72 people and served 2,500 portions a day. Hammersmith’s massive central kitchen was doing a roaring trade. The deputation reported that the Ministry’s main kitchen on New Bridge Street in London was turning over a ‘substantial profit’ adding ‘there can be no doubt as to the success and popularity of the restaurant and the value received for the prices charged’ with queues to gain admission composed of ‘all classes of the community’ and stretching 100 yards up the pavement outside. The kitchens at Poplar, Holborn and Wandsworth were located in public baths but also proving very popular. In Brighton, the main national kitchen was predominately used by the ‘middle and lower middle classes’. In Leeds the city’s two kitchens were located ‘in a busy industrial area surrounded by many workshops in which girls are employed’. Sheffield boasted six kitchens; Nottingham eighteen; Middlesbrough three; and Bootle five. The deputation recommended national kitchens be adopted in Glasgow for three key reasons: economy of fuel, the nutritious value and affordability of the food, and economy of labour. Glasgow Corporation approved (Mitchell Library, Glasgow Corporation minutes, 27 September 1918).

By April 1918, it seemed that there was no stopping national kitchens’ bold forward march. The values of national kitchens were extolled at cinemas in propaganda organised by the Ministry of Food’s Economy section. Providing ‘object lessons’ for the public in how to manage want, the campaign bore all the hallmarks of Kennedy Jones’s ‘Do-it-now’ political ethic. Spencer announced that his division would avail of ‘tactful speakers, quick witted and forceful, to educate the people’ in schools, theatres and workplaces (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310). The Ministry also recommended that national kitchens incorporate cookery instruction, another departure from the earlier take-away model, and the Ministry soon started poaching staff from domestic science colleges (National Kitchens Order, 1918).

However, with national kitchens expanding their operation as 1918 wore on, longer-term considerations to do with nutrition and public health (rather than the immediate provision of calories) began to feature in writings about national kitchens. A mid-1918 memo written by Marion Phillips, a member of the Women’s Labour League and the Consumer Council, reflected these anxieties. Phillips was generally supportive of the principle community dining, which she hoped would become a fixture of improved post-war housing estates. ‘Poor cooking noticeable in some kitchens’, noted Phillips, but in general she deemed them to be operating well. The Ministry’s kitchen in Poplar was a notable success, ‘well arranged, well-lit and beautifully clean’, noted Phillips, but its cultural appeal was limited because it was ‘situated in one of the public baths so will not last post-war’. (Phillips, Undated Memorandum, PHMA, WNC 14/4/3/1 i).


And yet there were would be greater problems for national kitchens than location and Phillips identified problems which were eventually to lead to the national kitchen’s demise. These challenges were borne of the extension of rationing, and in particular meat rationing. With people now receiving meat via their ration, Phillips reported several cases where recipients refused to give up coupons for the meat on offer in national kitchens. In response, the department was attempting to arrange a new system whereby certain types of offal would be provided coupon-free (Phillips, Undated Memorandum, PHMA, WNC 14/4/3/1 iii). As detailed below, the national kitchens division of the Ministry of Food came to devote considerable time to the question of cooking techniques, dietary habits and public nutrition. However the steady introduction of a more comprehensive rationing system, as documented by Phillips, was soon to sound the national kitchen’s death knell.

Offensive to a Culture of ‘Fair Play’

In August 1918 Glasgow Corporation’s special committee on national kitchens was approached by a six-man deputation from the Glasgow District Restaurateurs’ and Hotel Keepers’ Association. The restaurateurs had gotten wind that the city authorities, impressed by its civic officers’ feedback on national kitchens nationwide, was to buy a large restaurant in the city centre and run it as a national restaurant. This central location, they claimed, would be hugely detrimental to the restaurant trade in the city. What annoyed the Glasgow restaurateurs most was the location: the new national restaurant would operate not in the city’s slums but on the bustling Argyle Road (Glasgow Corporation minutes, 23 August 1918). This, they argued, was not merely a question of business rivalry but an affront to the British culture of ‘fair play’ in trade and commerce.

Spencer, for his part, did not see communal dining as a threat to private restaurants, insisting that they could co-exist and even buy cooperatively in order to pass on savings to customers and reduce waste (Spencer memo, October 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310). This was not an argument which held weight with restaurateurs. One private retailer wrote to the Ministry of Food claiming that he and his fellow businessmen had ‘done their bit’ for the war effort by providing hampers of food to the families of ‘exasperated, hungry men’, thus preventing a ‘good deal of trouble’; Spencer, by contrast, had avoided addressing the ‘real need’. And whereas he had ‘four sons and a grandson fighting for King and country’ Spencer ‘apparently a young, strong man’ with ‘no knowledge of catering whatever’ had enjoyed lavish state support and press backing for his advocacy of communal dining. Spencer had benefited personally from all this, claimed the food retailer, since the publicity surrounding national kitchens ‘must have been worth thousands of pounds to him as an advertisement’. Spencer’s national kitchens, according to this critic, had received ‘preferential treatment’ from the state, and this went against the important British value of ‘fair play’. Here lay the rub. In a criticism of the culture of commerce that the national kitchen represented, national kitchens, he argued, were in fact un-British; Spencer, he claimed, had failed to ‘play the game’ (Pearce, undated, TNA, MAF 60/310).

Spencer was chastened by this accusation. If the introduction of full rationing in the summer of 1918 had diminished the appeal of communal dining, the opposition of the restaurant trade sowed fresh doubts about the future of state-subsidised communal dining. Looking to peacetime, Spencer insisted that national kitchens should not be allowed to die with a return to laissez-faireism. With one eye on post-war unemployment, Spencer cited factory workers used to canteen food who would be laid off in peace time and would still need cheap food. Spencer envisaged national kitchens continuing on as centrally funded institutions which could work with the private retail trade in wholesale purchase and distribution, thus driving down costs to the consumer. He also envisaged national kitchens taking over of coffee houses in large towns and cities. A further recommendation, which echoed Marion Phillips’ report, was that national kitchens be part of post-war housing projects in every local authority area. National kitchens could therefore work with the private retail trade for the national good, continuing to combat waste in all its forms: of labour, of material, of health, of energy (Spencer memo, October 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310).

Free Trade was a popular pre-war policy in Britain and the cheap white loaf it delivered a symbol of national pride. Somewhat paradoxically, this nationalistic pride in the cheap white loaf simultaneously celebrated foreign production within a global market system while scorning alien cultures of consumption (Trentmann, 2006) but the cultural equation of free trade and British imperial pride remained influential. Thus the armistice of November 1918 was to provide another blow to the culture of wartime collectivism which the national kitchen model rested on. It was followed by the post-war winding down of the Ministry of Food and, with it, the forward march of the national kitchen was steadily brought to a halt.

At the turn of the year, a downbeat Spencer resigned as director (Ministry of Food, Kitchens Advisory Committee minutes, 17 December 1918, TNA, MAF 60/329.17). Kennedy Jones, who succeeded Spencer, accused the Yorkshireman of reckless expenditure and announced a series of cuts to the national kitchens apparatus. The Ministry began selling its sites around the country, in the meantime wrangling over a price for its flagship New Bridge Street restaurant with the private food retailers Spiers and Ponds (Ministry of Food Kitchens Advisory Committee minutes, 3 March 1919, TNA, MAF 60/329). Large council-run kitchens such as those in Marylebone and Hammersmith received eleventh hour financial support from the Ministry but, continuing to make a loss, eventually shut their doors (Ministry of Food Kitchens Advisory Committee minutes, 29 March 1919, TNA, MAF 60/329).

And yet amid the closures there were still new kitchens opening, demonstrating that there was still demand for the service that national kitchens provided in urban centres. In January 1919 the Ministry’s kitchens advisory committee was discussing the possibility of taking over the capital’s numerous civil service canteens (Ministry of Food Kitchens Advisory Committee minutes,, 19 February, 1919, TNA, MAF 60/329). The Manchester Guardian even claimed that national kitchens were being established at a greater rate after the war than during it (The Manchester Guardian, 4 January 1919). The post-war winding down of the Ministry of Food did not necessarily sound the death knell for national kitchens, insisted Charles McCurdy, Liberal MP and the department’s parliamentary secretary. He pointed to the cultural shift in dining habits which the war had delivered, calling for the state to continue providing cheap, hearty meals for the labouring masses in place of the ‘sloppy tea and teacake’ which was all that could be had for the same price before the wartime experiment in egalitarian eating (Manchester Guardian, 12 April 1919).

Resisting the winding down of their department, civil servants at the national kitchens division produced a bullish internal newsletter boasting of the continued success of the ‘NK movement’. The language used was indicative of the forward-looking spirit which had accompanied egalitarian eating in wartime Britain and which many involved were now loath to now abandon. A thinly veiled contempt for what the authors perceived as the bourgeois character of post-war culture was clearly perceptible. The newsletter breathlessly reported the growth of communal dining worldwide, citing the ‘enormous public demand’ for cheap dining and disdain for ‘overcharging’ across Europe. ‘There are no rich people any more, we are all poor’, it proclaimed. The newsletter’s authors envisaged competition with the private trade insisting that trade opposition ‘pales into insignificance’ compared to public demand for cheap, nutritious food (National Kitchens newsletter, MAF 60/50).


Yet central support was receding rapidly and more sites were closing than opening. It was claimed in parliament that several kitchens were running at a substantial loss (Commons debate, 7 April 1919, vol 114, col 1667). In May 1919 George Roberts, one of Rhondda’s successors as Food Controller, announced that central support for national kitchens in peace-time was simply not ‘appropriate’ (Commons debate, 6 May 1919, vol 115, col 796). At the signing of the armistice in November 1918 there were 363 officially registered national kitchens in Britain; six months later there were 120 less (Ministry of Food National Kitchens Branch, 30 April 1919, TNA, MAF 60/329). By early 1919 the National Kitchens Division had taken over catering in London’s royal parks: a further sign of the kitchens’ journey from popular and cheap communal ventures to established institutions. Sure enough, these catering units were soon charging more than affordable restaurants like Lyons. (Ministry of Food Kitchens Advisory Committee minutes, 26 May 1919, TNA, MAF 60/329). It was clear to all concerned that national kitchens had morphed into something quite distinct from their original purpose and, by late 1919, national kitchens had closed their doors for good.


National kitchens were part of an increasingly intensive state management of domestic affairs from late 1916 onwards (see Millman, 2000). With the government moving towards ever greater control of food pricing and distribution, communal feeding initiatives were swallowed up and regurgitated as national kitchens, in the process becoming part of the state apparatus. By mid-1918 the Ministry of Food was talking confidently of national kitchens becoming a ‘permanent national institution’ (Ministry of Agriculture, 11 April 1918). Indeed C.S. Peel, a co-worker with social reformer Maud Pember-Reeves, recalled the expectation that they would ‘become a feature of the nation’s life’ (Peel, 1929: 85). Writing to Rhondda on the cusp of the extension of rationing in January 1918, Spencer even recommended ‘taking over the House of Commons and House of Lords kitchens’ and running them as national kitchens (Spencer to Rhondda, 16 January 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310). Little more than a year later, however, their days were numbered.


Spencer claimed that he had transformed a loose network of ‘scrappy’, ‘back street’ kitchens into a national movement (Spencer, October 1918). His successor, Kennedy Jones, didn’t see it that way and accused him of presiding over a division which kept incomplete financial records, was poorly organised, and spent profligately in a vain attempt to get local authorities behind the scheme (Vernon, 2007: 182). According to Spencer, the demise of the national kitchen was all about class culture. National kitchens had suffered from deep seated class and geographical divides, he claimed. He noted that, for all the Ministry’s efforts, many members of the working class still viewed national kitchens as soup kitchens and that they had proved more popular with the middle class. They had also proven most popular in London and south east England, where people were more inclined to dine out. This contrasted with the north of England, where the working class man generally travelled home for dinner in the middle of the day (Spencer, October 1918).


However a more compelling reason for national kitchens’ decline was the stout opposition of the catering trade, which rejected any post-war moves towards cooperative purchasing and selling. A ‘very large majority’ of the caterers’ trade association envisaged a return to pre-war trade culture (Spencer memo, October 1918, TNA, MAF 60/310). With the coming of peace, national kitchens were viewed as interfering with ‘fair play’ in the market, which was represented as a quintessential British value. Opinions like these marched in line with the state’s broader movement towards de-control from 1918 onwards (Tawney, 1943: 1-30).


Rationing, though, provided the fatal blow to national kitchens. The introduction of full rationing in 1918 guaranteed fair shares on an individual basis; this, in turn, dampened the demand for cheap communal dining. By December 1918 Britons were enjoying sugar-coated cakes and double meat rations. The gradual lifting of rationing restrictions, so soon after their implementation, had a similar effect in making communal dining seem not only less attractive but, ultimately, less necessary.


Despite these trends, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that national kitchens could have persisted in the post-war period. To quote R.H. Tawney, ‘it did not follow that because some controls had had their day, others had no useful part to play in the post-war world’ (Tawney, 1943: 29). Against a post-war backdrop of increased unemployment, demand for cheap and nutritious dining was certainly widespread. Yet with the post-war downsizing of the Ministry of Food, leading to its 1921 disbandment and transfer of functions to the Board of Trade, the national kitchens division failed to find a new home. Written off as an extraordinary war measure, the ‘national restaurant’ – as national kitchens had effectively become – would not be revived until the next world war. Yet the sheer scale of their operation in the First World War, not to mention their successful revival in the Second, point to the simplicity of the argument that they were merely unpopular. The death of the national kitchen was, fundamentally, the result of political will rather than public indifference or cultural contempt.





National Archives (NA), Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MAF), 60/329; 60/310; 60/50; 60/312.


People’s History Museum Archives (PHMA), Workers National Committee records (WNC), 14/4/1/2:1; 14/4/1/5; 14/4/1/2:1; 14/4/1/6: 1; 14/4/4/1i; 14/4/1/9; 14/4/2/7; 14/4/4/3ii; 9/2/69;

14/4/3/1 i; 14/4/3/1 iii.


Mitchell Library, Glasgow Corporation minutes (as dated).


Hansard. HC debates (as dated)


The Manchester Guardian

The Times


Ministry of Food. 1917. National Kitchens Handbook. London: Stationery Office.

Ministry of Food. 1918. National Kitchens Order. London: Stationery Office.


Atkins, P. 2011. Communal Feeding in War Time: British Restaurants 1940-47. In: A. Drouard and Duffett, I. Zweiniger-Bargielowska eds. Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 139-154.

Barnett, L.M. 1985. British Food Policy during the First World War. London: Allen & Unwin.

Beveridge, W. 1928. British Food Control. London: Stationary Office.

Chance, W. 1917. Industrial Unrest: Reports of the Commissioners. London: Stationery Office.

Gazeley, I. and Newell, A. 2013. The First World War and working-class food consumption in Britain, European Review of Economic History, 17/1: 71-94.

Gregory, A. 2008. The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, B. 2004. ‘Phillips, Marion (1881–1932)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hilton, M. 2003. Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hippisley Cox, R., Bradley H.J., and Miles E. 1917. Public Kitchens. London: Stationery Office.

Hunt, K. 2010. The Politics of Food and Women’s Neighborhood Activism in First World War Britain, International Labor and Working-Class History, 77/01: 8-26.

Jones, T. 1944. The Unbroken Front, Ministry of Food 1916-1944. London: Everybody’s.

Johnson, P. B. 1968. Land Fit for Heroes, the planning of British reconstruction, 1916-19. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marwick, A. 1991. The Deluge: British Society and the First World War. London: W.W. Norton.

Millman, B. 2000. Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain. London: Routledge.

Oddy, D. 2003. From Plain Fare to Fusion Food: British Diet from the 1890s to the 1990s. Gateshead: Boydell.

Peel, C.S. 1929. How We Lived Then, 1914-1918: A Sketch of Social and Domestic Life in England during the War. London: John Lane.

Porter, D. 2004. ‘Jones, (William) Kennedy (1865–1921)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simmonds, A. 2003. Britain and World War One. London: Routledge.

Steedman, C. 1990. Childhood, Culture, and Class in BritainMargaret McMillan, 1860-1931. New Jersey: Rutgers.

Tawney, R. H. 1943. ‘The Abolition of Economic Controls, 1918-1921’, Economic History Review 13, 1: 1-30.

Trentmann, F. Coping with Shortage: The Problem of Food Security and Global Visions of its Coordination, c. 1890s-1950. In: F. Trentmann and F. Just, 2006. Food and Conflict in the Age of the Two World Wars. London: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 13-48.

Vernon, J. 2007. Hunger: A Modern History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

Winter, J.M. 1985. The Great War and the British People. London: MacMillan.






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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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Armenia remembers its genocide but struggles to keep up with the Kardashians

On 24 APRIL Armenia and its diaspora marked the centenary of the Turkish deportations and killings of 1915 which left an estimated 1.5 million dead. But as the nation looked to the past with a little help from its most famous celebrity ‘daughter’, Kim Kardashian, questions emerged for me about Armenia’s future aspirations.

On 10 April, two weeks before the official national day of remembrance, Armenia’s National Genocide Memorial was mobbed with people. It was overcast and drizzling with rain. The thousands of wreaths adorning the memorial, a concrete chunk of Soviet monumentalism which overlooks the capital Yerevan, usually rest silent and undisturbed. But on that day things were different because Armenian-American superstar Kim Kardashian, her sister Khloe, and rapper husband Kanye West, were in town accompanied by legions of police and photographers.

Before the Kardashian circus had pulled up, I was completely ignorant of its presence. I was getting irate from trying unsuccessfully to make my way into the museum adjoining the memorial, which was mysteriously closed. Unusually for Armenia, even my offer of a bribe wasn’t opening the doors. Something was up. It then became clear: two weeks prior to the official day of remembrance, the Kardashians were there to pay their respects.


Armenia’s suffering overshadowed as Turkey pulled a fast one

Choosing one particular date on which to commemorate genocide is always tricky, particularly so in this case; Turkey none-too-subtly advanced its Gallipoli commemorations to 24 April in an attempt to divert the West’s gaze from its historical crimes in Armenia. So as global heads of state flew out to Turkey for the Gallipoli events [Putin and Sarkozy were the only big guns to show up in Yerevan] Turkey partially succeeded in eclipsing Armenia’s suffering with Gallipoli.

To explain, 24 April is significant because it was on that date in 1915 that the Young Turk government executed 20 leading Armenian intellectuals: a symbolic assault on the brains of Armenia which marked the start of a fresh assault on hundreds of thousands of Armenian bodies.

The official slogan of the Armenian state’s commemorations is ‘remember and demand’, the latter exhortation a reference to the ongoing struggle for recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide. And although some Armenians I spoke to detested Kim Kardashian, others thought that she had helped a great deal on this score.

“Kim Kardashian has done more than any political or religious leader to highlight the Armenian genocide” claimed one young Armenian man, a concert pianist, to whom I spoke. “By just coming here”, he told me, “she’s achieved more than any politician or even the Pope [who recently referred to the Armenian woes of 1915 as the ‘first genocide of the twentieth century’] to get our genocide recognised internationally”.

Armenia's national genocide memorial, Yerevan

Armenia’s national genocide memorial, Yerevan

Armenians remember

Armenians remember

Dispute over the mass killings of Armenians

So why the controversy about recognition? Turkish denial aside, there are those who dispute whether, to quote the 1948 UN definition of genocide, the Turkish acts of 1915 constitute “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

Several points about the genocide are important. The figure of 1.5 million deaths is an estimate: figures for mass killings are rarely neat. It was largely carried out in the course of forced ‘death marches’ rather than in death camps, although there were ‘deportation centres’ which functioned as sites of death. Starvation accounted for many of the deaths, although many were also shot, drowned or burned to death. An interesting footnote relates to German involvement: many German officers, commanding Turkish regiments at this point in the First World War, presided over the deathly deportations.

The divide between ‘Westerners’ and locals

I don’t know whether Kim Kardashian was fully aware of the ins and outs of the controversy when she did her bit at the Armenian Genocide Memorial two weeks ago. The whole thing had the vacuous shades of that staple of modern Irish culture – the returned Yank – about it. Think Grace Kelly visiting Ireland in the Sixties.

Kardashian, looking resplendent in a red jumpsuit, certainly seemed to add to the noticeable divide between ‘Westerners’ and locals in Yerevan that day. It was in no small part due to this conspicuous divide that I ended up, by chance, sitting at a hotel bar alongside some members of the American film crew covering Kim’s ‘homecoming’.
They told me that on the trip the Kardashians had also visited their ancestral northern hometown of Gyumri: a city destroyed by an earthquake in 1988 and with none of the gaudy and glitzy glamour of parts of downtown Yerevan.

Suffice to say, Kim didn’t stay long in Gyumri. The scheduled day-long trip was curtailed to an hour, they revealed. I later visited Gyumri and could see why. To describe it as a ‘dump’, as one member of the Kardashian entourage did to me, would be unkind but, regrettably, reasonably accurate.


Armenia continues to suffer from wealth disparity and miserable poverty

The plight of the Kardashians’ ‘home town’ highlights the problems that Armenia faces in the wake of today’s centenary, after which the world will move on to the next historical commemoration. These include hostile neighbours in Azerbaijan and Turkey; lack of post-communist political evolution; and over-reliance on Russian troops, one of whom recently, in Gyumri , drunkenly massacred a local family of seven.

But most of all, Armenia suffers from wealth disparity and miserable poverty. In a country which has tended to look to its diaspora for financial support, there’s precious little evidence of ‘trickle down’. All of which, despite her recent ‘homecoming’, makes the super-rich Kim Kardashian a problematic standard bearer for modern Armenia.

Armenians may look with gratitude to the Kardashians for helping to make today’s genocide commemoration newsworthy but, in the wake of the circus, they still have precious little chance of keeping up with them.


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Food Banks, Food Poverty: A Television Discussion

The recent British parliamentary report, ‘Feeding Britain’ (accessible here http://foodpovertyinquiry.org) investigates the rise of hunger and food poverty in the UK.

This is a pressing political issue. Food banks provide a vital service but their emergency provision is unsustainable in the long term. Most do not provide fresh food nor address the range of reasons as to why people, in the developed world, need to avail of this sort of service. These include the restructuring of the benefit system, depression, loneliness, social isolation etc etc. And, most importantly, it is far too easy for government to sit back and let the voluntary sector address this problem in the name of the ‘big society’.

I went on local TV recently to discuss these issues. You can watch the episode here: http://youtu.be/LUjShj8s0Ek

My report for the Winston Churchill Trust, which addresses the problem in the UK and asks what we can learn from the developing world on this issue, is available here: http://www.wcmt.org.uk/users/bryceevans2014




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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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In the Liman Slums

After a hard week's work, men of the Pamplona enjoy a Sunday beer and a chat beneath an election poster

After a hard week’s work, men of the Pamplona enjoy a Sunday beer and a chat beneath an election poster

I'm given a footballing lesson

I’m given a footballing lesson

The size of that squash!

The size of that squash!

Vilma talks organisational structure while two comedor volunteers read my letter of introduction from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

Vilma talks organisational structure while two comedor volunteers read my letter of introduction from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

Women marshal any local kids they can lay their hands on for a photo op outside a hilltop comedor, Carabayllo

Women marshal any local kids they can lay their hands on for a photo op outside a hilltop comedor, Carabayllo

Grub's up at the Comedor Virgen del Carmen, Carabayllo, Lima

Grub’s up at the Comedor Virgen del Carmen, Carabayllo, Lima

Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane

In the Slums

On Sunday we visited the shanty town of PamplonaAlta, part of the nuevo pueblo (new town) district of San Juan de Miraflores in Lima. It’s a squatters’ village: the residents don’t own the land, they’re just recent Andean migrants who’ve pitched up and built from scratch. The miserable shacks in which people live are cobbled together from chunks of wood or old advertising hoardings.

Hence, there’s no regular water supply; just one big delivery a week. Since it was a Sunday, the water supply for the week had already been used up. This presents a serious public health issue. It also complicates things for people like Dan Kasnich, the head of an NGO named Construyendo Sueños, who are attempting to develop sustainable projects like a community allotment. Lima receives very little rainfall and without running water it’s hard to grow crops.

The New Haciendas?

Most of the women in this slum work as maids in the big houses over the hill. To get to work they have walk up a steep hill and then climb through a hole in a wall. The hole is an illegal one and the wall – dubbed the ‘wall of shame’ – has been thrown up in the last few years by Lima’s wealthy suburbanites, keen not only to keep the slum dwellers out but also to prevent their views from being spoiled by vistas of dirty slums as they sip on their morning coffee.

I’ve heard a lot in the last weeks about the land reforms of Peru’s leftist military leader Velasco in the 1970s. These welcome reforms abolished the colonial hacienda system and with it some of the chronic abuses such as the landowner having his sexual pick of the female domestic servants.

Things today aren’t regressing back to that. But as I look around Pamplona Alta I see swarms of children unaccompanied by their parents. Their mothers  are gone sometimes six or seven days a week, cleaning and tidying in the palaces of Lima’s new elite, where they stay overnight, remaining at the whim of their bosses. The menfolk mainly work in construction. Often, they are the ones labouring to construct these big houses. When they’re finished their impossibly long shifts, mothers and fathers crawl back through the hole in the wall of shame to all-too-briefly see their kids. Then they’re gone again.

Dogs scavenge in the litter in the Pampona Alta slum, Lima

Dogs scavenge in the litter in the Pampona Alta slum, Lima

A Footballing Interlude

It’s in areas like this that community kitchens – comedores populares – are clearly most needed. But when we visit the local Comedor (the Comedor Virgen de Andacollc – all comedores have titles), it is closed. A local woman tells us that it closed four weeks ago and hasn’t reopened since. It was being run by a doctor from an NGO who hasn’t been seen lately. This, for me, underlines the importance of local women running the comedores for themselves, rather than relying on outsiders to do so. But with so many of them off at work, new slums like Pamplona have not developed the sort of efficient rota system witnessed in comedores in more established poor areas such as Carabayllo (discussed below).

Without a functioning comedor in the locale, it’s up to Dan and his NGO to provide breakfast for the parentless children. Most of the kids wait patiently for their fruit juice and hot dogs. As they do so, I’m outside with some of the older boys enjoying a kickabout.

Navigating your way between effluent and dog crap with a ball at your feet is hard work. Well, that’s my excuse anyway as I’m out-skilled by lads half my age. When I see how good these young players are, it’s hard to believe that Peru haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1982. Then again, that failure is all the more understandable when you consider that Peru have to play against the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile to qualify for the finals.

I get a second chance at Peruvian football on Monday evening, when I’m invited to play in a floodlit league in the well-off central district of Surco. I take to the task with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm, in fact. I score two goals for our team.. But I also attempt a wild interception of an opposition attack, resulting in the ball looping over our goalkeeper, my friend Alejandro, and into my own net. So, I score two goals and one own goal: my net contribution is one goal in a 4-3 defeat. Hardly spectacular. But my team mates tell me I play with a lot of ‘way woahs’ – I’m jotting that down phonetically as I can’t spell it – which translates as a lot of testicles. I take it as a compliment, but I know it also reflects my unsuitably frenetic style of play. In Peru it’s all about ball-work, slick passing and dribbling. I do adapt to this, but also throw in some ponderous cross-field aerial passes, sliding tackles and big headers and soon learn that that’s not the way it’s done here.

Still, I think performed better than I did against the slum kids. In fact I’ve one last thing to say about my game of slum football. Lads, I was never offside for that last goal. How could I have been? I was not interfering with play when the ball came to me. Plus, there were no markings on the pitch and the goalposts were a climbing frame and a pile of rocks: hard to stay on-side in such conditions. I think you were pulling my leg with that one.

Into Carabayllo

It’s safe for me to rebut my offside via this blog post since the poor kids in Pamplona don’t even have electricity and therefore won’t be able to read this. As Alejandro drives me home after our floodlit game, I tell him about my slum kick-about and how gifted the kids were with a ball at their feet, despite the lack of a proper pitch.

He acknowledges this, but still seems a little disdainful overall of the residents of the Pamplona Alta. They’re just squatters without legal entitlement, he tells me. Their situation isn’t reflective of Peru as a whole, which is becoming more prosperous. Just look around, he instructs me. Look, the cars round here are bigger and better than they were a decade ago. Land Cruisers. Mercedes Benz. That’s how you know that the country is on the up, Bryce.

One place where the car doesn’t dominate is the enormous poor district of Carabayllo, which we visited on Monday. Home to a quarter of a million people, Carabayllo was once like Pamplona. Because it’s a more established community, however, the residents have slowly come to experience better infrastructure. The tiny, tinny motor-taxi is king here, conveying people up vertiginously steep hills and through narrow alleyways.

We visit several comedores in Carabayllo, all run by elderly and middle-aged women. Hilda Valdivia, a senior worker in the NGO Socios en Salud (Partners in Health) takes us to several kitchens where government-supplied vegetable oil and rice is stacked high and the women stir massive metallic pots of soup and rice.

Presidentia Vilma

Later, Hilda leaves us in the hands of Vilma Huancan, the Presidentia of all the comedores in Carabayllo, around 80 in total. Vilma is 53 years old and a calm, self-assured woman. She introduces us to yet more comedores in the area and it’s on Vilma’s tour that I start to get a better idea of the organisation of this movement.

Not only have middle-aged women like her won the historical struggle for the state to provide the kitchens with food via the PRONAA scheme, they also manage popular kitchens on a day-to-day basis. As district Presidentia, Vilma is part of a national organisational structure feeding into regions and culminating in the national Presidentia of Peru’s comedores populares: Relinda Sosa. These are all strong, formidable women and so it’s not surprising to hear from Vilma that Relinda’s nickname is ‘Masculinda’. Relinda heads up the national federation of comedores, a body which goes by the overblown abbreviation FEMOCCPAALC.

Vilma is a warm woman and supportive and protective of all the comedores in her area. But she’s also capable of giving a bollocking. We see this when we visit the Cena de Jesus kitchen. It’s the first comedor we’ve seen which is unclean and smelly and it’s because the Presidentia of this comedor is ill, suffering with chest problems that are aggravated by cooking in the corrugated iron shack that serves as this kitchen. A depiction of the Last Supper on the wall is the only evidence of dining occurring here and, illness or no illness, Vilma summons the two women in charge and has a robust discussion with them as we look away and try to avoid the swarms of flies hovering about.

Before we leave, Vilma presents us with photocopies of piles of paperwork. It’s further evidence that in established poor and working class areas like the Carabayllo, the community kitchen ethic is alive, well and highly organised.

NEXT we’re off to see more comedores in Arequipa. See http://www.mannacommunitykitchen.org

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A week in Lima

Election poster

Election poster

eating soup

eating soup

Estella, Nancy and Father Ed

Estella, Nancy and Father Ed


Images of 1980s Peru: migration & food poverty

The sectarian Maoists Sendero Luminoso strung up dead dogs with slogans criticising the 'revisionism' of Deng Xiaoping (1980s)

The sectarian Maoists Sendero Luminoso strung up dead dogs with slogans criticising the ‘revisionism’ of Deng Xiaoping (1980s)

Cheap, wholesome grub

Cheap, wholesome grub

It’s election time in Peru’s capital. Speeding through the city in the back of Julio’s taxi, local election candidates smile down on the chaotic streets from massive, colourful billboards. Julio collected us from the airport and his wife Ana came along for the ride too. The airport’s in a part of town where you don’t want to be stationary at the lights for too long and I clutch at my seatbelt and cross myself like a local as Julio’s car screeches across lanes, bobbing and weaving furiously as car horns blare all around us. Amazingly, by the end of the week Julio turns out to be the most careful taxi driver we’ve experienced in Lima.

We’re here to research Peru’s comedores populares: the vast network of community kitchens which provide food for the nation’s poorest people. Administered by local women, the community kitchen movement became a political force in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s, eyed nervously by the state and targeted by the country’s violent Maoist insurgents Sendero Luminoso (t

Comedor Municipal

A Comedor

he Shining Path). Today communal dining persists, with many dining schemes (and a plethora of other services) in the hands of local government. Recent moves towards decentralisation help explain why the municipal elections are so fiercely contested here and why every other wall is daubed with painted election slogans.

Horrid Lima

Surveying Lima, it’s easy to see why community kitchens have proved so important. To Herman Melville the city, permanently blanketed in a white-grey fog, had the drab colour and appearance of a whale’s belly. Lima is sprawling and chaotic and its growth simply astounding. The city’s metropolitan area was home to 661,000 people in 1940. Today, this figure is a whopping 9 million. Most migrants come from the Andes and most dwell in shanty towns when they reach Lima. It’s a manic metropolis of toothless beggars, careless drivers and a nascent middle class. The whole place reeks of smog and dog piss. Unless, that is, you live in one of Lima’s few affluent pockets.

Viewed romantically, Lima’s population growth – the result of enormous in-migration – constitutes an Andean re-conquest of the conquistadors’ colonial capital. Viewed realistically, it has created huge social problems, particularly during the ’80s and ’90s: a period of hyperinflation under the populist presidency of Alan Garcia followed by hard-hitting neoliberal austerity under Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian-Japanese former premier currently imprisoned for corruption who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000.

This week I’ve seen various sides to the city

On Friday I gave a guest lecture at the prestigious Newton College, a private educational institution for the offspring of Lima’s elite. The pristine sports pitches and lake were bathed in sunshine. It could have been Beverley Hills. I was there by invitation of Ned Riley, head of history, who was very understanding of our horrendously late arrival – the result of the snarling central Lima traffic and a taxi cab which, despite the best efforts of the gaffer tape holding it together, was quite literally falling to bits. The pupils of Newton College were polite, bright and attentive and the facilities were first rate.

By contrast, some of the communal kitchens in pueblo joven (young towns) such as San Juan de Mirraflores service the wretched of the earth. Poor people struggling with serious health problems such as AIDS and tuberculosis. Scarred individuals. Kids dependent on the basic nutrition of their state-subsidised morning Vaso de Leche (glass of milk). People old before their time. As the needy queue for their soup, corner boys hover outside and carry out their cocaine deals. All the while women like Berna Rios Escobedo, the sole worker at the municipal kitchen in the Barranco district, stir up big steamy vats of hot soya milk and soup for the community.

Political kitchens

The kitchens did not merely provide sustenance for needy populations. Against the backdrop of the state’s conflict with the Shining Path in the ’80s and ’90s, communal dining emerged as a third way between the state authoritarianism and the brutal Maoism of the guerrillas. The women who ran comedores came to be seen as agents of struggle for sustainable food policy and human rights. Since this narrative did not chime with the Shining Path’s bleak and dogmatic version of communism, comedores populares were targeted and leading proponents executed.

Middle aged women such as Nancy and Estella (who we meet through Columban priest Father Ed O’Connell, a gentle giant in a blue jacket bearing the Columban insignia) dished up cheap grub for thousands every week. As well as keeping people alive, women like Nancy and Estella struggled for legal recognition and for the state to donate more food to the poor. They bring along some of their literature – now sun-faded and crumpled – as proof.

Eventually, they won the battle for recognition. But with state support of the comedores populares came a surrendering of independence and an increase in clientelism and corruption. President Fujimori manipulated the comedores for his own ends while attempting to replace their organic communitarian ethic with a spirit of privatised individualism. Community kitchens still exist, but some have made the transition to become ‘Menu restaurants’: very cheap, privately run diners roughly equivalent to British greasy spoon cafes.    

Peru Rebranding

The Peru of Nancy and Estella’s youth is different to the Peru of today. After Fujimori’s fall in 2000, there has been a concentrated national effort to re-brand Peru’s image. Seeking to move beyond the Incan past, on the one hand, and the recent terrorist period, on the other, the last few years have witnessed the promotion of Peruvian gastronomy. Gaston Acurio, an internationally renowned chef, has worked to promote healthy eating and cooking skills in slum areas while simultaneously appealing to the tastes of Peru’s growing middle class.

And in the last three years, president Ollanta Humala (2011-present) has attempte to set himself from his predecessors by establishing a Ministry of Social Protection in order to root out some of the corruption involved in the administration of social projects.

But while food has been central to the attempted rebranding of the country’s international reputation, many of Peru’s poorest people evidently still experience food poverty.

More worryingly, altruistic schemes such as the Vaso de Leche have been scarred by political violence, with local politicians assassinated for favouring the wrong company as food corporations jostle with one another for the contracts to provision state social schemes.   

Lima Today

Yet despite the poverty and corruption, the Lima I’ve witnessed this week has charmed me. Peruvians are warm, generous people and the spirit of Andean cooperation is not merely an Orientalist myth dreamed up by naïve gringos. We have come across many vibrant people. Women, young and old, who cook and struggle for their communities. Poor people who work hard and rest little. Old gentlemen, like Juan Aybar, who have seen such change in their lifetimes. Priests who display the very best of the progressive Christian spirit. Young, politically-attuned professionals like Paola Fattorini and Bruno Portillo. Socially aware expats like Ned Riley and Amy Powell.

And, of course, there are the real ‘characters’ you find in a city like this: the cake seller bravely navigating his way through traffic with his dainty wares while dressed as Elvis, the theme to the Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’ spewing out of his enormous ghetto blaster; Paku, the hairless Peruvian dog, who launches into a barking fit if the wind so much as rustles the trees; and the toothless old beggar with two melons stuffed up his jumper vainly attempting to convince people to part with money in recognition of his outrageously unconvincing transvestism.

Next week, we travel to comedores populares in the district of Carabayllo and then on to more kitchens in the southern city of Arequipa.

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