How has food policy changed in Britain?

The politics of food has been a long under-researched topic in the UK, though one that is becoming more and more relevant as Brexit approaches us. Natalie Bennett reviews Many Mouths: The Politics of Food in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State by Nadja Durbach to see what we can learn from the past interrelationship between food policy, gender and class.

Dinner at the workhouse
dinner at the workhouse

Image: WIkimedia Commons

Natalie Bennett

Food is a subject on which nearly everyone has an opinion. Everyone, after all, eats, and for most, food is more than a simple fuel.

It’s attached to memories of childhood, it’s a cause of great worry for those concerned about their weight, it’s the subject of around 10 per cent of the adverts we see.

Many Mouths front cover

Yet as a historical subject it is little covered. Sure there’s the inevitable “Christmas dinners in seasons past” newspaper feature, and the occasional historical recipe dug up for shock value, but there’s not been as much serious historical study as the subject surely deserves, at least until recently.

Many Mouths: The Politics of Food In Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State is a valuable addition to this new genre – and particularly timely as food becomes, in the age of Covid-19 and looming Brexit transition crash-out, a source of raised anxiety and attention.

Hard campaigning has forced the government to include at least limited provision for food security reporting into the Agriculture Bill that the House of Lords will start considering next week. England is going to get a food strategy, catching up with Scotland and Wales, some time soon. (The draft was due in spring.) A young footballer has received blanket media coverage as he forced the government to extend provision of food for schoolchildren.

What’s striking, reading Many Mouths, is how much these controversies have been revisited again and again over two centuries, without ever really being resolved.

Author Nadja Durbach starts with the 19th century decades-long row over the Christmas meal of poorhouse residents. Tradition, or at least what was perceived to be tradition, expected that the poor of the parish would be treated to roast beef and plum pudding, to in some way make up for the misery of the rest of their year.

Newly centralised authority tried to stop local officials providing this – even where money was given for it by local dignitaries. Although workhouses in fact always contained many of what was considered deserving poor – the infirm, aged, widows and children – the perception that any concession to basic decency, provision of anything more than the humblest working man outside might afford for himself, would cause a mass outbreak of layaboutism. Universal credit anyone? 

As Boris Johnson, after his own brush with mortality, has suddenly developed a concern with the national physique, so historically anxiety about the physical bodies of the poor has long haunted the nation, particularly in times of war and stress, what Durbach sees as an example of “biopolitics”.

The provision of cooked meals to Indian child famine victims at the end of the 19th century – famine inflicted by the British empire, as the brilliant Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World makes so clear – was driven not so much by humanitarian impulses but the desire for a healthy future generation of agricultural labourers.

During the Second World War, the concern focused on the psychological impact of food. The British Restaurant – a chain of self-supporting but non-profit cafes providing a home-style hot meals – emerged, Durbach says, “out of fears of low morale among the working classes on the home front who might foment discontent and present a threat to national security if their material needs were not being met”. 

It overcame a reluctance to accept state provision as being stigmatising that affected school meal provision in the 1920s and 1930s, as Durbach sets out. She’s fascinating on the play out of gender in these, quoting a regular customer as noting the serving size varied by “sex, size and clothes”, favouring young men, assumed to eat more than women unless they were visibly pregnant.

Durbach continues: “But as one district food officer noted, young girls were in fact growing faster than boys their age and were only just beginning to get the food they actually needed. I have never shown anyone around a British Restaurant, he stated, without hearing “look at the platefuls of potatoes those young girls can eat.”… In publicly eating their platefuls of potatoes, these young women were rejecting the norms of female bodily sacrifice that had become magnified during the Depression. Instead, they demonstrated their ability to eat as much as a man and declared their state-sanctioned right to do so at a moment when men’s access to food was still privileged over women’s, particularly within working class communities.”

As that passage suggests, there’s a lot more to food history than you might think, a way to access lives and perspectives sometimes hidden from other approaches.

Many Mouths is clearly an academic book, but an accessible one. And it is a powerful reminder that food policy is, and remains, an area of great national failure. Responsible for much global hunger, Britain was poor in preventing it even on its own shores. Without a single department of state responsible for food, “the British government rarely learned from its previous experience and generally failed to transfer its knowledge effectively between agencies”.

It is a reminder that the large hurdles we need to overcome today have a long and deeply embedded history.