A damp, dreary morning. Wind snaps are creating swirls and eddies of waterlogged leaves on the pavement shores. And through it all, a monotony of grey tones brings to mind much maligned ‘British’ food.
In the wake of the Chancellor’s Autumn budget, designed to salvage the political fortunes of a Conservative Government which demolished national wealth and credibility with its previous mini-budget, the precarious grasp of those experiencing poverty has been loosened again, rendering them outsiders in a society where we are defined by what we spend.
As queues at foodbanks grow longer, and sachets of sugar are stuffed into pockets to be surreptitiously stirred into a pale grey tea or coffee for calories, our Parliament has at least nine subsidised canteens.
Differentials in wealth between richest and poorest in our society are the widest they have ever been.
The world has turned upside down.
Equality in food provision matters more than ever. Why? Because poverty destroys food choices, and in doing so it erodes life chances.
If your health is governed by access to cheap food rich in fats, salt, sugar, calories and carbs, then it’ll never be at its best.
What does hunger do to the cognitive abilities of children?
How has our over-reliance on wheat affected our food choices as the grain becomes less available not just because of war and Russian aggression in Ukraine, but also because a global wheat monoculture has fallen prey to a debilitating fungus?
And how has Brexit affected the price of food in an island which imports the majority of its food from elsewhere?
We are reaping a very sick harvest for ourselves, in more ways than one. We need to educate ourselves about the realities of poverty, and then do something about addressing the inequalities it breeds. And we need to sustain that effort – in every sense – so that we never see poverty like this again.
What can we learn from the past? That much maligned monotonous ‘British’ food – sticking to the ribs – performed a function.
During WW2, the national government created ‘British Restaurants’ open to the public and providing food at cost. Making use of seasonally available ingredients, and batch cooking, meals were provided for millions. At times of severe rationing of food, energy and much else, this made perfect sense. Some might argue that the strange death of British food dates to this time, others that the early industrialisation of food in this country is more to blame. Either way, what those spaces did was provide warmth, companionship, and equal access to food at difficult times. Tastes have changed since then, and probably for the better. But do we really need government to feed us?
Communities can do this. Institutions can host this. The Sikh Langar provides a model of how it can be done. Theatres, Museums, indeed any institution with a large space and a kitchen, could host these community restaurants. The quality bar for the food on offer need not be set at the lowest rung either, it can and should be set higher up, especially in terms of nutrition.
Of course there are ‘community cafes’ in some communities. Few if any actually serve the community in the way I’m suggesting. Yes, they create some employment and that’s a good thing. But let’s not kid ourselves that they address food inequality meaningfully or at scale. That’s why larger institutions need to step up. And some are. Watch this space.