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Amma canteen

Amma canteen: Where an Indian meal costs only seven cents

Amma Kitchen Video

The Amma canteens are run by women

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's "amma canteens", which serve cheap meals to hundreds of thousands of people daily, have become immensely popular with the poor and the middle classes. The BBC's Geeta Pandey samples the treats at a canteen in Chennai (Madras).

It's just a few minutes after noon on a hot summer day as I join the queue of lunch-goers at the amma canteen in Pallavaram town, just outside the state capital, Chennai.

The menu today includes hot sambhar rice (rice cooked with lentils and spices) and curd rice (rice cooked in yogurt with curry leaves). The former is selling for five rupees (seven cents; five pence) a plate while the latter costs just three rupees - a fraction of what the dishes would cost in any other restaurant.

I'm famished so I buy a plate of each and move to one of the tables in the centre of the room to eat.

If you're after a fine dining experience, this place is not for you.

The heat and the humidity can be a bother and the sambhar rice is a bit too spicy for my north Indian palate.

But my fellow diners, men and women who include poor daily wage labourers, housemaids, college students, and middle-class office workers, are not complaining.

The portions are big and most describe the food as "delicious".

The amma canteens have become hugely popular with local people

Diners buy coupons which are then exchanged for plates of rice

Lakshmi, who works in the neighbourhood as a housemaid, is a regular at this canteen.

"Earlier, my employers would give me leftovers, but now I come here for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. For less than 20 rupees, I can eat three meals here," she tells me.

"This food is really good. I like all the dishes. My stomach's full and I'm happy," she says, patting her belly.

What's on the menu?

Breakfast (served from 7am to 10am) - idli (steamed rice cakes) for one rupee or pongal rice (rice cooked with lentils and peppercorn) for five rupees

Lunch (served from 12 noon to 3pm) - sambhar rice (rice cooked with lentils and spices) or lemon rice or curry leaf rice for five rupees each and curd rice (rice cooked in yogurt with curry leaves) for three rupees

Dinner (served from 5pm to 7:30pm) - two rotis with daal (handmade bread with lentil soup) for three rupees

Raju, a construction worker from Punjab, was introduced to the canteen by his co-workers.

"I earn 400 rupees a day. Before these canteens came up, I used to spend at least 150 rupees on food per day. Now I spend only 20 rupees a day," he says.

The canteens were first started in 2013 in Chennai by Ms Jayalalithaa, who is popularly called amma (mother) - hence the name amma canteen - with the aim to provide subsidised meals to the public.

These two first-time visitors in were taking a selfie to upload on Facebook

AIADMK party spokesperson CR Saraswathi says Ms Jayalalithaa started the canteens to provide good, cheap food to the people

Today, there are more than 300 such eateries in the state - at least half of them in Chennai alone. They serve simple breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week.

"The food is prepared hygienically, it's very well made and it's tasty," says CR Saraswathi, spokeswoman for Ms Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party.

"Our chief minister started these canteens to provide good, cheap food to the people. It has also generated employment for thousands of women. The canteens are run by women who cook, clean and serve."

Most diners describe the food as "delicious"

And the scheme has served Ms Jayalalithaa well too.

The canteens have helped poor and lower middle-class families massively slash their food bills and freed the womenfolk from the daily drudgery of cooking and cleaning. And their gratitude has often translated into votes for Amma.

A year after the scheme was launched, Ms Jayalalithaa's party won 37 of the 39 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

In April, her party was re-elected in the state assembly polls and analysts say the canteens are among the reasons for her victory.

Analysts say the canteens are among the reasons behind Ms Jayalalithaa's election victory

At the canteen, I come across S Shweta and S Pavitra - two young women who work as salesgirls in a telephone showroom nearby.

This is their first visit to an amma canteen and to mark the occasion, they are taking a selfie with their plates of rice.

The photograph, they tell me, will be uploaded on their Facebook accounts.

"This is a great initiative. Where else can poor people eat a full meal for five rupees? We support amma," says Ms Shweta.

As the popular saying goes, the way to a man's - and presumably also a woman's - heart is through the stomach. And Ms Jayalalithaa knows it well.

Political concerns


And so this story from the BBC inspired me and wondered if we might do something like this in Scotland?

I will do a separate article on Food Waste but I noted another BBC article that showed a farmer growing parsnips for supermarkets.  Problem was they would only accept what they considered "perfect" sized ones.  In the show they showed perfectly good parsnips that were rejected due to not being "perfect" and so rejected and they would half to be dumped and that was around 90% of the crop. The point I am making is that this canteen system could perhaps purchase them at a much reduced cost as the canteen would likely have to peel them and either include them in a stew or use it as a mash.  So this way we'd get cheaper vegetables and the farmers would at least get some money.

And given that the person quoted above spend at least 150 rupees on food per day and now he spends only 20 rupees a day. So that's a major saving so if we could also reduce our food meals by the same rate if you spent 15.00 a day then that would means you'd now spend just 2.00 a day.  That's a massive saving.

And now to show that the UK once had very successful public canteens here is another story...

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 food supply.

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 "national kitchens".

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 menus.

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 any longer.

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 lunchtime cafe.

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 currently operate.

"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 do better."

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?"

See also...

Download the book How We Lived Then in pdf format at:

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