Here’s a better alternative to food banks – subsidised national kitchens

A return to community canteens. Food by Shutterstock

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. Despite this, almost a billion people go hungry every day. These figures are no longer only applicable to the developing world.

According to recent statistics, one in five British children now lives 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. Just hang on for a minute and think about that – 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, feeds more than 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. How has this happened?

Communal kitchens

To answer this question, we need to look at how Britain dealt with food poverty in the past. From research into egalitarian eating, it’s clear this country faced a serious food problem due to trade disruption during World War I. 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 communal 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 efforts 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.

Grub’s up. Imperial War Museum

Eyeing their popularity, the wartime Ministry of Food took over the running of communal dining ventures. It backed the scheme only on the condition that it “avoid the taint of charity”. The cafes and restaurants had to be self-supporting: the state expected a profit and would not offer its financial support otherwise. So the national kitchens, as they were patriotically re-branded from 1917, would be cheap but appealing – to both the struggling middle class as much as the working class. The profit went back into the local kitchens rather than the ministry – these were not-for-profits as we would understand it today – and they had to at least break even. Anything on top was reinvested.

Significantly, they would move beyond the idea of 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.

Essentially, the state gave them some of the capital needed to set up – and sometimes food. This was before the modern supermarket era so today, ideally, supermarkets would provide the food. The overriding point being that supermarket food waste is not really addressed by supermarkets giving non-perishables to food banks like they do now. Food waste lies in fresh food – fruit and veg – and this doesn’t often make its way to food banks.

Fruit and vegetables

You couldn’t get further from the perception of our current food bank model. The anti-charity ethos of the 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 programmes such as Junk Food Kids shows that disdain for the “undeserving poor” is now back with a vengeance.

The communal 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 war, but were successfully revived during the World War II as “British Restaurants”.

The model for these kitchens – a proud tradition started and revived in response to a social need – could find a place in today’s downturn. However, modern-day food banks have reverted to the exact same Victorian taint of charity rejected by earlier politicians and volunteers.

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

Staple goods. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

What’s more, when people take the rice or pasta or whatever other non-perishable home with them, some 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. While some are moving towards the Food Bank Plus model, which uses the food bank as a conduit for other interventions, most don’t foster a sense of community and possess the stigma of the handout.

Supermarket ‘waste’

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 rather than just non-perishables. Donating non-perishables is so much easier for supermarkets and hits waste targets easily, but fresh produce is where the waste really lies. This would improve nutrition and get 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 as there was during World War I but there’s certainly a case for spending money to ensure food banks resemble community kitchens more – not just to feed, but to encourage better and affordable eating. In Peru, there is a system where the state provide basics (rice and cooking oil) and the communities provide and cook all the fresh food. The expense of doing this for the state is offset by long term savings in public health – and this is in a country where they don’t have free public healthcare. If the NHS is to pick up the long term tab for poor eating then it’s surely more cost effective to spend a bit now to reap the long term rewards.

Above all, then, let’s overcome the idea of the handout. We did this 100 years ago, why not do it again? For that to happen, 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.