Public canteens were set up
to feed people during World War One - and they proved hugely popular.
Could today's food banks learn from them, asks Adam Forrest.
A bowl of soup, a joint of meat and a portion of side vegetables cost 6d
- just over £1 in today's money. Puddings, scones and cakes could be
bought for as little as 1d (about 18p).
These self-service restaurants, run by local workers and partly funded
by government grants, offered simple meals at subsidised prices.
In 1917, ministers in Lloyd George's government had agonised over the
best way of combating hunger while Germany's U-boats disrupted Britain's
The government was keen to avoid the stigma of poverty associated with
soup kitchen hand-outs, but also wanted to utilise the volunteer-run
community kitchens springing up in working class communities to help
deal with food shortages.
A popular fix was found - a network of public cafeteria known as
The Ministry of Food instructed that the kitchens "must not resemble a
soup kitchen for poorest section of society". They should feel like
places "ordinary people in ordinary circumstances" could sit down
together at long canteen tables for a cheap meal.
Now there are efforts to bring them back. Bryce Evans, a senior lecturer
at Liverpool Hope University, has researched the WW1 kitchens and
believes there are parallels with today's food banks.
"Some of the bigger kitchens were feeding up to 2,000 people a day, and
the efficiency really helped cut down on waste," he says.
"Great efforts were made to make sure they were attractive places run
along business lines and avoided the taint of charity. It encouraged
middle-class professionals like clerks and office workers to come in and
sit alongside working class families."
It was an egalitarian approach to meeting people's needs, which I think
we can learn from today."
Bryce Evans, Liverpool Hope University
Evans's new research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, shows how the
government's national kitchen programme grew out of grassroots community
kitchens run by charities and trade unionists.
The Ministry of Food seized on their potential for efficiency. Wholesale
purchasing and the collective preparation of food, they reasoned, would
help cut out waste.
So local authorities were urged to open up public cafeterias wherever
possible. If an outlet followed Ministry of Food guidelines, the local
authority received a Whitehall grant covering half the costs.
In May 1917, Queen Mary opened the first government-backed national
kitchen on Westminster Bridge Road in London. By the end of 1917,
national kitchens were popping up in almost every British town and city.
A 1918 Scarborough Post story about a national kitchen in Hull
emphasised the ambition of the typical urban outlet: "The place has the
appearance of being a prosperous confectionery and cafe business. The
business done is enormous."
The Ministry of Food handbook criticised the "appalling ignorance" of
British people when it came to preparing food, advising that more
vegetables should be introduced to the diet through national kitchen
The handbook also advised that each kitchen "bow to prejudice" by
offering meat dishes. Gravy was to be made the "British way", by using
juices and fat from the meat. The ministry also recommended any kitchens
in rural settings like village halls should have food which could be
"taken into the field", like Cornish pasties.
At the height of their popularity in 1918, 363 national kitchens were
doing business across the country. Wartime civil servants at the
Ministry of Food eagerly discussed whether national kitchens might
become a "permanent national institution".
Yet the bold experiment was not to last.
The restaurant trade was not happy at the threat to private enterprise.
The introduction of full rationing toward the end of the war apportioned
food to each individual, damping demand for communal eating. And after
the war ended, local authorities were reluctant to help fund kitchens
Within six months of Armistice Day, 120 of the kitchens had closed.
Evans believes the national kitchen movement has been too easily
dismissed as merely an emergency expansion of dingy soup kitchens.
"The national kitchens were a great example of government supporting and
building upon good work going on at the grassroots," he reflects.
"They were also an admirable attempt to bring people together. It wasn't
a service only for the very poorest - it was an egalitarian approach to
meeting people's needs, which I think we can learn from today."
Inspired by the past, the historian has now set up his own project in
Liverpool called Manna Community Kitchen. Manna volunteers visit housing
associations and other community spaces in the city to create a pop-up
Meals at Manna are made using surplus food. Soups and "scouses" (a local
lamb or beef stew) are sold for 50p, and people from all walks of life
are encouraged to take recipes home, or even help with the cooking.
Turning back to communal kitchens, it would be extremely difficult to
avoid the stigma of it feeling like a service for the poor.
Evans thinks community kitchens like Manna might act as an alternative
to food bank hand-outs, which are used by a rising number of people.
The Trussell Trust network has grown to 445 food banks, and the
charity's most recent annual figures also show a 19% year-on-year
increase in food bank use. Around 500,000 different people are thought
to have received help over a 12-month period.
According to the charity, the most common reason for food bank use has
been benefit payment delays and sanctions. But more than a fifth of food
bank users - 22% - were referred because of low incomes, including
people in low-paid, zero-hours or part-time work.
Most of the food banks run by the Trussell Trust charity only have the
storage facilities to hand out non-perishable items like pasta, cereal
and cans, though a small number do offer fresh fruit and vegetables too.
Evans hopes community cafes might inspire food banks to rethink how they
"There are some wonderful people who give up their time to volunteer at
food banks," he says. "But I think simply handing over plastic bags of
tinned and dried goods is a very limited approach. It's a wasted
opportunity to do more with the huge amount of fresh food being wasted."
"I think food banks need to evolve into places with kitchens for people
to cook fresh food and social spaces for people to eat together. We can
Yet not everyone agrees the seeds of a new communal dining movement lie
in the home front hardship of the WW1.
"Turning back to communal kitchens, it would be extremely difficult to
avoid the stigma of it feeling like a service for the poor," says Martin
Caraher, professor of food and health policy at Centre for Food Policy
at City University.
"If they build up quite organically from a community choosing to set it
up, perhaps the stigma can be overcome. But if it feels anything
remotely like charity or state provision, people will feel like they're
going cap in hand."
Evans argues community kitchens could also help address the nation's
poor diet. At a time of rising obesity rates, he thinks it would be
useful to have local authorities helping subsidise cheap cafes which
only have healthy food on the menu.
"I'd like to see supermarkets get involved too by donating fresh
produce," he explains.
"Community kitchens, by providing cheap and healthy meals, could really
help improve nutrition."
"I would love to see community kitchens blossom," adds the historian.
"We have a history of egalitarian eating. Why couldn't we do it again?"
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