Are we going back to soup kitchens?


Tim Watkins’ latest piece is good – including his idea that: “If you were looking for a single indicator of what has been happening in the UK since the 2008 crash, you could do a lot worse than to look at the growth in foodbank use…”

It reminds me of the first few years of my employment at Birmingham Corporation, in the early 1950s, as a trainee municipal engineer – a long since gone profession – on a salary of £80.00 pa.

My lunches were divided between a stir-fry in a Chinese restaurant for about two shillings (10p today) and a ‘British Restaurant’, which was more affordable at 9d a time (4p today).

Named by Churchill, British Restaurants in the 1950s were a leftover from the war years when there were over 2,000 of them.  Not just in the cities, I remember one in the village in Warwickshire where I grew up.

According to Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan:

Local councils were expected to supply the venues for British Restaurants and the people to run them. About a third of British Restaurants were supplied with meals from central kitchens run by the Ministry of Food or local authorities; the rest had their own kitchens. The government supplied the equipment and fittings. British Restaurants were expected to be fully self-supporting and cover repayment of capital expenses over eight and a half years and any profit was taken by the Ministry.”

Was the war expected to last eight and a half years?

Although they were disbanded by the government in 1947, many of them had made a profit, which is why the one I ate at in Birmingham was still serving meals in the 1950s. 

The last one closed in the 1970s.  In Cambridge.

Wages were low enough for many British Restaurants to be profitable.  They were run by women.  In 1950 the average female manual wage was £4 per week. At first sight, today’s foodbanks are an update on British Restaurants. 

They are run by volunteers and may seem sustainable.  However, as Tim Watkins points out:

Foodbanks are classic charities insofar as they involve better-off people and companies donating food which is then distributed to those in need. And as with all such charitable models, they fail at precisely the point when they are most needed because inflation and recession result in far fewer well-off individuals and companies donating far less food.

So foodbanks must be seen as temporary until the economy recovers.  Which will depend on growth.  So maybe not temporary after all!

Are foodbanks an example of a kind of spending which may turn out to be ill-founded?  Such spending can only be justified if there is future growth. 

Iffy spending. Such as Liz Truss has in mind.

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