In the last 20 years, the basic food bank has become the staple response to food poverty in Scotland and across Britain. It is high time that we imagined what the food bank could evolve into.

Most food banks are run by the Trussell Trust and most insist on recipients producing a written referral before receiving an “emergency food parcel”.

The Trussell Trust claims to want to eradicate food poverty. Interestingly, it recently cemented its place as the market leader on the UK food poverty scene by forming a corporate partnership with Bank of America, a company associated with the financial meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing economic troubles which, ironically enough, aggravated food bank dependence.

We need to think bigger than the basic food bank model. Many recipients of emergency food aid feel defeated before they even enter a food bank.

HeraldScotland:

(Bryce Evans)

There are other approaches to addressing food poverty: food pantries, social supermarkets and – crucially – communal kitchens.

Communal kitchens have a great historical lineage in Scotland. But the rise and rise of the food bank has ensured that our recent history of public dining rooms offering price-capped, nutritious meals to people has been rapidly forgotten.

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In the First World War, several operated across Scotland. Scottish nutrition guru Elizabeth Waldie was a great champion of these social eating spaces.

A massive communal restaurant operated on Glasgow’s bustling Argyle Street in 1917 and fed hundreds of thousands of people.

The devolved Scottish Government is already doing more than the Westminster Government in moving beyond the basic food bank

During the Second World War, the British state once again duly funded mass canteen dining, known as “British Restaurants”. And, once again, many opened across Scotland.

The idea of calling communal cafés “restaurants” belonged to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940.

Churchill thought the Ministry of Food’s preferred title – Communal Feeding Centres – was redolent of Dickensian poverty or Soviet monotony.

HeraldScotland: Satelite food bank operating from St Gabriel's Church in Turlin Moor

The British Restaurant had been pioneered in the First World War as the “National Kitchen” and the goal remained the same: to combat food and fuel price inflation and boost morale the state would subsidise attractive yet cheap urban social eating spaces.

After receiving a start-up grant from the Treasury, local government was responsible for recruiting a paid staff and restaurant management.

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Central purchasing ensured economies, ensuring meals were cheap. The ensuing popularity of social eating meant that most of these canteens turned over a profit.

When it came to menus, a balance had to be struck between the Ministry of Food’s nutritionists, who were eager to get the British public eating more vegetables, and a general public resistance to healthier fare. 

State-sponsored social eating was accompanied by anxieties over its civilisational and cultural value and many British Restaurants therefore placed a premium on cleanliness and pleasant surroundings.

Many of these sites incorporated specially commissioned artwork and some in London even featured invaluable paintings loaned from the royal collection. 

At their ubiquitous peak, there were 2,160 British Restaurants. The extent to which they were a high street fixture is illustrated by comparison to the number of McDonald’s restaurants operative in the United Kingdom at the time of writing, which is around half that figure.

These were large prominent city centre sites, for example Glasgow’s once again occupied a prime retail spot on Argyle Street.

The British Restaurant outlasted the war and post-war rationing, with some continuing to operate into the 1960s and 70s.

Far from an historical oddity, cheap yet nutritious social eating was a successful way of combating what is today termed “food poverty”.

These were popular cross-class venues and there was less stigma attached to their use than is commonly associated with food bank use today.

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Often, wartime exigencies are quickly forgotten or dismissed, and communal dining is no exception.

Yet in the 1940s and 50s their proponents – notably Scotsman John Boyd-Orr, who would go on to be the first Director General of the United Nations FAO – successfully established the British Restaurant as a vital supplement to the ration book with tangible psychological and health benefits. 

Perhaps it is again time to rescue canteen dining from its Orwellian image problem and recognise, in times of hardship, its social and economic use and supplementary benefit.

Amidst the orgy of individualism in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, social eating was increasingly seen as passé.

While the Greater London Council drew up plans for the revival of British Restaurants in the 1980s, these were never implemented.

And yet rising food and fuel poverty today present a case for the reintroduction of social eating, a less stigmatising and more nutritious alternative to the basic food bank.

When it comes to feeding people, the British state’s comfort zone has always been to leave this to private enterprise or charity, hence the current situation.

This changed during the world wars, when the state subsidised experiments in social eating.

It has often taken celebrity pressure to highlight how the state can do more to feed people and push it to do so, whether from Charles Dickens’ criticism of the Poor Law or Marcus Rashford’s campaign on school holiday hunger.

Now, with rising fuel and food prices, maybe it is time to embrace social eating once again.

Not in the form of  “Eat Out to Help Out”, but as part of a sustainable effort to ensure people are eating healthily and affordably: one which improves on the dehumanising features of the basic food bank and makes social eating spaces once more “centres of civilisation”.

The devolved Scottish Government is already doing more than the Westminster Government in moving beyond the basic food bank and instead introducing a suite of measures to combat food poverty and establish the right to food. 

It is working towards establishing “20-minute neighbourhoods” (where all one’s needs can be accessed within 20 minutes); it is backing Scotland becoming a “Good Food Nation”; and it is moving towards ensuring food security for all is a legal right.

Why not, then, reimagine the “British Restaurant” as the “Scottish Restaurant”?

HeraldScotland:

A first step would be to encourage food banks to evolve into incorporating a café on site.

If one thing is clear about the cost of living crisis, it’s that we need to think more creatively than the basic food bank model, and history shows us that social eating is sustainable, socially cohesive, and healthy. As so often is the case, in imagining Scotland’s future we first need to look to its past.

Bryce Evans is a professor of the School of Humanities at Liverpool Hope University.