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Expert Comment: Time to revive Egalitarian Eating?

table and chairs Thursday 19 February 2015

Dr Bryce Evans, Senior Lecturer in History and an expert on food history and food conflict, argues that we should look back to the national kitchens of World War 1 to help combat both junk food diets and food poverty.   

Did you watch Channel 4’s latest sensational documentary ‘Junk Food Kids’? If so, you probably shared the sense of outrage that exploded across social media when scenes featuring obese children with decaying teeth were broadcast.
But the presence of fat children on our screens masks the fact that we are currently facing an unnecessary global starvation epidemic. We live in a time of overabundant food production but, despite this, almost a billion people go hungry every day. These figures are no longer only applicable to the developing world.

In the UK today, according to recent statistics, one in five children now live below the poverty line. Speak to those working in paediatric medicine in Britain today and they’ll tell you that A&E departments are not just hosting overweight children with health problems but, especially in school holiday time, kids that are seriously under-fed.

“Hang on a minute! Malnourished children in this country? Isn’t that, well, just a tad Dickensian?” Dead right it is. And so, unfortunately, is the solution to this problem: the food bank.

The Trussell Trust, which runs most food banks, feed over a million people a year. The Trust is a faith-based network supplemented by other voluntary anti-food poverty schemes, the majority of which are church-based. 

There is nothing wrong with non-proselytising faith groups alleviating food poverty. After all, there are plenty of biblical examples supporting this ethic. But one may be forgiven for wondering where the state comes in to all this.

Before Christmas the much-anticipated parliamentary report on food poverty was published. Even ‘advanced Western economies’ with ‘mature welfare states’, it stated, are reliant on food banks. Britain, of course, is no exception. But how has food poverty reappeared in developed countries, like Britain, with developed welfare states?  

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at how Britain dealt with food poverty in the past.

One hundred years ago this country faced a serious food problem due to trade disruption during the First World War. In the centenary year of 2014, while the BBC and other broadcasters were busy sending reporters off to trudge the poppy-dotted battlefields for the umpteenth time, they ignored an aspect of the war which has great relevance for public health today: communal kitchens.

The community kitchens of one hundred years ago grew out of wartime working class communities, where public dining ventures nourished 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’.

People brought a plate or bowl to a ‘distribution centre’ and had it filled up with nutritious food for a modest fee. This rough-and-ready model soon evolved into cheap restaurants where people received hearty, fresh, nutritious meals at incredibly low prices.

Eyeing their popularity, the wartime Ministry of Food took over the running of these communal dining ventures. It backed the scheme only on the condition that it ‘avoid the taint of charity’. These cafes and restaurants had to be self-supporting: the state expected a profit and would not offer its financial support otherwise. ‘National kitchens’, as they were patriotically rebranded from 1917, would be cheap but not scummy: appealing to the struggling middle class as much as the working class.

Significantly, they would move beyond the Victorian soup kitchen with the pearl-necklaced Lady Bountiful or smiling vicar doling out grub to the meek yet grateful poor. They had to be cheap yet attractive; efficient yet appetising. And they had to make a profit while maintaining rock bottom prices.

You couldn’t get further from the perception of our current food bank model. The anti-charity ethos of ‘national kitchens’ ensured they had widespread appeal and did not come to be viewed as havens for the idle underclass. By contrast, a cursory glance across twitter reaction to ‘Junk Food Kids’ demonstrates that disdain for the ‘undeserving poor’ is now back with a vengeance.

These ‘national kitchens’ 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. They fizzled out after the First World War, but were successfully revived during the Second World War as ‘British Restaurants’.

By way of contrast, food banks today have reverted to the exact same Victorian ‘taint of charity’ rejected by policy makers and volunteers one hundred years ago.

The majority of food banks do not serve fresh fruit or vegetables nor give people instruction as to how to incorporate the food they receive into meals. People lack cookery skills but they don’t receive as much as a menu card at most food banks, they just get hand outs of non-perishables.

What’s more, when people take the rice or pasta or whatever other non-perishable home with them, they often can’t even afford to heat it up.

Most of all, though, food banks signify a return to the Victorian model of the church and rich people (in this case supermarkets, happy to dispose of their waste for free) doling out food to the humble but grateful food. They don’t foster a sense of community and possess the stigma of the handout.

So, let’s revive communal dining instead. Let’s have local authorities subsidising cheap cafes on-site or next door to food banks where people can get a cheap nutritious meal or simply an on-site kitchen where people can learn to prepare food as a meal.  Let’s force supermarkets to manage the donation of fresh produce more efficiently, providing fresh fruit and vegetables – where the food waste really lies – rather than just non-perishables, thereby improving nutrition and getting rid of a few fat kids plugged full of carbohydrates and sugar.

More importantly, let’s use communal eating to combat problems borne of social dislocation, depression and loneliness. Intangibles such as mental turmoil are surprisingly easily targeted via simply sitting down and breaking bread.

Today there’s no political will to ‘nationalise’ food poverty by centrally funding ‘national kitchens’ like during the First World War, but money spent on ensuring food banks resemble community kitchens more would deliver long-term savings for the NHS.

Above all, then, let’s overcome the ‘taint of charity’. We did this 100 years ago, why not do it again? For that to happen, though, the state needs to step up to the mark, as do supermarkets. Otherwise the prospect of ‘Junk Food Kids’ will continue its monstrous yet unassailable waddle from media panic to social reality.

Dr Bryce Evans is currently travelling up and down the country researching ‘Egalitarian Eating, 1917-1918’ in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust. Read an article on his research

Bryce EvansDr Bryce Evans is Senior Lecturer in History at Liverpool Hope University. View his full profile.

You can also read his blog here 

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