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.