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Call to go back to days of wartime kitchens to help cost of living crisis

British Restaurants would feed those in need and help take the stigma away from using food banks, according to history expert.

Wartime national kitchens should make a comeback to help families combat the cost of living crisis, according to a leading academic.

Prof Bryce Evans reckons the return of cheap communal dining rooms to the UK's high streets would feed those in need and help take the stigma away from using food banks.

In his new book, Feeding the People in Wartime Britain, Prof Evans, of Liverpool Hope University, examines the impact of nationwide communal dining schemes - or British Restaurants - that first launched in Britain in 1917 and lasted until the 1960s and calls on politicians to consider bringing them back.

Prof Evans said: “ Food banks in Britain are doing a crucial job and there are some fantastic people who volunteer at them. I’m certainly not trying to be disparaging about food banks.

"But with the basic food bank model, those who use them are already ‘defeated’ before they go in there. Many food banks require a referral in order to be able to access them and it means there’s an unfortunate, almost Dickensian, stigma attached to using them. You have to present as the ‘deserving poor’. And I find that extremely uncomfortable, particularly when you see that working people are using food banks.

“There’s also the issue that sometimes a food bank user might not actually be able to afford the fuel bill or possess the skills to be able to cook the food that they’re given. And I can’t help but contrast the situation now to what we had during wartime and afterwards where Britain had a vast network of British Restaurants that were subsidised by the Government and which played a key role in feeding the nation above and beyond rationing.

“Yes, you had to pay for the food. But it was very cheap - there was a price-capped menu. It was cooked for you, prepared on site, and it had to be at least half-way nutritious. And it was a great way to address food and fuel poverty. I look back at that system and feel strongly that it’s something we need in the UK right now to perhaps supplement food banks."

During both World Wars the UK had an official Ministry of Food which oversaw both rationing and the food supply system. In 1917, when social eating schemes were first introduced as National Kitchens, diners would be able to buy a bowl of soup, a joint of meat and a portion of side vegetables for 6 ‘d’, or ‘sixpence’. Extras such as bread rolls or puddings would cost an additional 1 ‘d’, aka a penny.

In today’s money, a main meal would cost £1.20. Add soup, a couple of bread rolls, a pudding and a cup of tea, and this would cost around about £2.

“This was cheap food, but it was decent. It wasn’t just the modern equivalent of ultra-processed junk," said Prof Bryce. “Food banks get a lot of support from central government, and the Government would much rather the charitable sector look after food banks. It’s a hands-off approach. But the problem is that we’re left with a food poverty marketplace . Back in the day, it was a very different model. Local authorities would qualify for a grant from the treasury to set up a kitchen and local government would provide the venue.”

At their peak, there were 2,160 outlets nationwide, used by hundreds of thousands of people.

“Contrast that to today and McDonald’s has around half the number of restaurants," said Prof Evans. "But for some reason, Britain has simply forgotten about the British Restaurants we used to enjoy. Right now, restaurants like McDonald’s are the social hubs of the High Street, and I think it would be nice if something more nutritious could provide a similar social space.”

The popularity of IKEA meatballs is, says Professor Evans, an example of what could be achieved. He said: “I speak with a lot of people about how social eating could be re-imagined for the modern world and they don’t have to be drab, state-run places. One of the reasons people go to IKEA is the affordable canteen, for example.

“If the Government could bring in retail expertise from people like IKEA, or M&S - who helped run these places during the 1940s - they could deliver cheap, delicious food to everyone who needs it.

"Make no mistake, we’re facing a national emergency which I don’t think has truly bitten yet. The Government must think creatively about how we enable people to eat cheaply and to eat well and it has to be something more sustainable than what we saw with Eat Out to Help Out or the basic food bank.”


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