Monday, July 06, 2015

Community Eating

In May 1917 the first government-backed national kitchen opened on Westminster Bridge Road in London. The government's national kitchen programme grew out of grassroots community kitchens run by charities and trade unionists. By the end of 1917, national kitchens were popping up in almost every British town and city. At the height of their popularity in 1918, 363 national kitchens were doing business across the country. The experiment was not to last. Within six months of Armistice Day, 120 of the kitchens had closed. The restaurant trade was not happy at the threat to private enterprise. And after the war ended, local authorities were reluctant to help fund kitchens any longer.

Bryce Evans, a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University, has researched the WW1 kitchens, observes, "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”

The historian has now set up his own project in Liverpool called Manna Community Kitchen. 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. Evans hopes community cafes might inspire food banks to rethink how they currently operate. He says. "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." Evans also 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 would love to see community kitchens blossom," adds the historian. "We have a history of egalitarian eating. Why couldn't we do it again?"

"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 is 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."

This blogger happens to know in his home-town that at lunchtime he can have a tasty reasonable-priced curry at the mosque, sharing the long table with local students, or a cheap wholesome soup with mince and tatties, around the corner at a nearby church, sitting alongside OAPs, so nothing earth–shattering about the above concerning eating out on a budget. If really pushed for the dosh, a trip to the further away Sikh temple he can enjoy an actually free vegetarian Indian meal. 

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