Blog: Lessons learnt from community kitchens
Published: 9 Jul 2020
In 2014 I travelled to Peru as part of my Churchill Fellowship to explore community kitchens and approaches to food poverty. My report recommended that our basic food bank model could usefully evolve into the community kitchen model that predominates in Latin America. This can act as a way of overcoming social stigma, bolstering mental health, fostering community and sharing sustainable skills in growing and cooking.
"A return to state-supported communal eating presents a possible lifeline for private restaurants, many of which are struggling to survive." - Bryce Evans, Fellow
In my day job I’m an academic historian, and since my trip I’ve researched the hidden history of social eating in Britain during the wars and even recreated the national kitchens of the First World War in various sites across the country. Social eating refers to people from outside a family unit consuming food together. Surprisingly, Britain’s social dining in the past defied political categorisation, with those on both the right and left of the political spectrum backing it. Memorably, Winston Churchill himself backed state-supported social eating in the Second World War and was responsible for the rebranding of the Ministry of Food’s preferred ‘communal feeding centres’ as ‘British restaurants’ – a much more appealing moniker.
I currently have a book manuscript with Oxford University Press which explores the full history of national kitchens in the First World War and British restaurants in the Second World War. The three most significant points about these ventures were as follows:
- Although kickstarted by loans from central government, they relied on local initiative and were run successfully as not-for-profit enterprises.
- They had a broad cross-class appeal and were specifically designed to function differently to the class-targeted institutional feeding programmes of the Victorian period.
- Although local enterprise was encouraged, British restaurants and national kitchens had to adhere to a price structure and basic menu, to ensure affordability and nutritious value.
Since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and its social effects, I have been contacted by a lot of journalists who have asked whether these communal feeding ventures could be reimagined for the present era. Obviously, the context is very different today. The social eating schemes of the world wars operated in an era when state intervention was executed on a much grander scale, and before latter socio-political-economic transitions to ‘citizen consumerism’.
Yet the return of a “we’re in this together” ethic during the pandemic has prompted some commentators to imagine that something like this could be rolled out once more, as a way of combating the negative effects of lockdown. Such a return would be welcome, in my view, and would help to combat many of the inequalities and unsustainable features of our current food system. Furthermore, a return to state-supported communal eating presents a possible lifeline for private restaurants, many of which are struggling to survive.
However, the lessons I have learned from contemporary Latin America, and from wartime Britain, would suggest the following caveats:
- If any scheme was to work, it would need substantial investment in the form of start-up loans and grants from central government.
- Local initiative should be emphasised, and the role of the ‘big state’ should be reduced to light-touch regulation, to ensure that communal restaurants availing of financial assistance were adhering to an affordable price structure and offering nutritious meals.
- A scheme such as this should embrace the brilliant array of local actors in this sector who, over the last decade, have been pioneering a quiet revival of social eating across Britain.
- Such a scheme should not be politically weaponised by any party, but instead function as an example of a cross-class, cross-community, “in it together” ethic.
Practically speaking, the restrictions of social distancing would appear to present obstacles to the sort of mass eating and long-table dining seen during the wars. Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for creative reimagining of these successful historical ventures and best practice from around the world. New initiatives like the National Food Service show that more and more people are thinking the same way about how food security might be achieved through reimagining the communal as luxurious, rather than institutional.