Britain should ‘bring back restaurants run by state’ amid cost of living crisis

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Henry Dimbleby, who founded 'healthy' fast food chain Leon, said there is 'definitely a case' for the Government re-introducing so-called British Restaurants across the country, which offer cheap and healthy meals

Henry Dimbleby, who founded ‘healthy’ fast food chain Leon, said there is ‘definitely a case’ for the Government re-introducing so-called British Restaurants across the country, which offer cheap and healthy meals 

Britain should bring back WW2-era communal kitchens to ensure people don’t starve during the cost of living crisis, MPs heard today.

Henry Dimbleby, No10’s food tsar and founder of ‘healthy’ chain Leon, claimed there is ‘definitely a case’ for re-introducing ‘British Restaurants’ to offer cheap and healthy meals across the country this winter.

The Eton- and Oxford-educated millionaire said the Government should make use of ‘extraordinary’ school kitchens to dish out meals to millions.

The community kitchen initiative was first brought in by wartime Food Minister Lord Woolton to boost the nation’s health and strength during WW2. 

More than 2,000 dining halls — run by local authorities and volunteers in schools, town halls and hospitals — served up around 180million meals a week to the public for as little as 30p.

Mr Dimbleby’s comments were in response to an MP saying that community kitchens are ‘needed’ as soaring prices force millions to go without food.

The average Brit is expected to see their annual energy bill soar to above £4,300 by the spring, while food, fuel, and mortgage or rental costs continue to soar.

Charities have raised the alarm that food banks are at breaking point and having to ration provisions, millions are skipping meals and starving pupils are eating rubbers and stealing food. 

More than 2,000 dining halls ¿ run by local authorities and volunteers in schools, town halls and hospitals ¿ served up around 180million meals a week to the public for as little as 30p. Pictured: people eating a meal at a British Restaurant in London in 1943

More than 2,000 dining halls — run by local authorities and volunteers in schools, town halls and hospitals — served up around 180million meals a week to the public for as little as 30p. Pictured: people eating a meal at a British Restaurant in London in 1943

The community kitchen initiative was first spearheaded by wartime Food Minister Lord Woolton to boost the nation's health and strength during WW2. Pictured: people looking at a menu outside a British Restaurant in 1940

The community kitchen initiative was first spearheaded by wartime Food Minister Lord Woolton to boost the nation’s health and strength during WW2. Pictured: people looking at a menu outside a British Restaurant in 1940

British Restaurants were initially set up to offer cheap meals to those on low incomes. But many more turned to the sites ¿ including those whose homes had been bombed and people who did not have access to food at work. Pictured: people queuing for British Restaurant

British Restaurants were initially set up to offer cheap meals to those on low incomes. But many more turned to the sites — including those whose homes had been bombed and people who did not have access to food at work. Pictured: people queuing for British Restaurant 

The self-service canteens served up British staples, such as Shepherd¿s Pie and carrots (which cost six pence, equating to 90p now), soup (two pence, 30p), and tea (one pence, 15p). The Government supplied ingredients and cooking equipment to the restaurants, as well as meals to sites that didn't have kitchens. Pictured: customers in London looking at a British Restaurant menu during WW2

The self-service canteens served up British staples, such as Shepherd’s Pie and carrots (which cost six pence, equating to 90p now), soup (two pence, 30p), and tea (one pence, 15p). The Government supplied ingredients and cooking equipment to the restaurants, as well as meals to sites that didn’t have kitchens. Pictured: customers in London looking at a British Restaurant menu during WW2 

What were British restaurants? 

British Restaurants were initially set up to offer cheap meals to those on low incomes. 

But many more turned to the sites — including those whose homes had been bombed and people who did not have access to food at work. 

The self-service canteens served up British staples, such as Shepherd’s Pie and carrots (which cost six pence, equating to 90p now), soup (two pence, 30p), and tea (one pence, 15p).

The Government supplied ingredients and cooking equipment to the restaurants, as well as meals to sites that didn’t have kitchens. 

Despite feeding millions of Britons every week, the Government withdrew funding for communal kitchens in 1947, causing the scheme to wind down — although some continued for another decade through community support.  

 

Mr Dimbleby made the comments to MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee during a meeting for its inquiry into food security.

Ian Byrne, Labour MP for West Derby in Liverpool, said the cost of living crisis calls for a ‘public health intervention’ and pointed to community kitchens, which ended up slowly closing when the war was over.

He asked whether the Government should ‘cast aside the nanny-state ideology and do what’s right for public health’.

Mr Dimbleby, son of veteran BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby and grandson of late war correspondent Richard Dimbleby, told MPs: ‘I think my position has changed a little bit on this. 

‘I’d always been pro universal free school meals — not just increasing to universal credit.

‘One of my advisory panel — Paul Clarke, who was at the time the CTO of Ocado — made consistent arguments for bringing back British Restaurants run by the state after the war that fed cheap meals. 

‘As a restauranteur, I knew how difficult it was anyway to run decent restaurants and I thought the state would do a bad job of it. 

‘But I do think the more I think about it, looking at the holiday activity on food programmes, that we do have these extraordinary assets which are school kitchens.

‘During the pandemic, my charity Chefs in Schools, we started cooking in them and delivering food to the community. 

‘And I think in some communities there is definitely a case for that. I’m not sure you’d do it in all communities.’

Henry Dimbleby: The ‘obese’ millionaire who wants to tax your food  

Oxford and Eton educated businessman Henry Dimbleby – the co-founder of fast-food chain Leon – is the man behind the Government’s war on snacks.

The son of broadcaster David Dimbleby and his cookery writer wife Josceline, he is the writer of the National Food Strategy.

Dimbleby, 52, studied at Eton – where he was a contemporary of Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – before going on to Oxford University. 

Like both of his parents, he would soon find his way into journalism, as a food writer for the Daily Telegraph – having initially worked as a commis chef under Michelin-starred chef Bruno Loubet.

Dimbleby would later join a consultancy firm, before launching ‘healthy’ fast-food chain Leon alongside entrepreneur John Vincent and chef Allegra McEvedy in 2004.

The chain was sold earlier this year for a reported £100m. 

He also co-founded the Sustainable Restaurants Association in 2009, and The London Union, which controls some of the capital’s biggest street food markets.

With the help of Vincent, Dimbleby also turned his hand to campaigning, and the pair were later invited by David Cameron’s Tory government to write a report into school meals. The report earned both Dimbleby and Vincent MBEs.   

Despite being a food tsar, he says he has a ‘conscious struggle’ with obesity.

He told The Guardian he ‘oscillates between the high end of healthy weight and the low end of obese’. 

‘I wouldn’t recommend any diets that I have used,’ he said.

Mr Byrne said a school kitchen in his constituency, West Derby, last week offered dinner to pupils, their parents and extended family ‘in the warm’, which was a ‘massive success’. 

‘The utilisation of schools in this current crisis could be absolutely crucial for our communities,’ he said.

Mr Dimbleby pointed to a similar project he oversaw in Hackney during the school holidays, which offered free meals to pupils and charged parents just £2.

He said: ‘You had a complete mix of kids at school — my kids went because they wanted to be with their friends who were going, and actually it really brought the community together. 

‘And it didn’t feel like a food bank. It felt joyful and it was a fantastic experience.’

Mr Dimbleby also called for an ‘almost immediate’ increase in free school meals as families struggle with the cost-of-living crisis.

He told MPs that expanding provision was ‘one of the best measures we can do’ to address the impacts of the rising cost of living.

British Restaurants were initially set up to offer cheap meals to those on low incomes. 

But many more turned to the sites — including those whose homes had been bombed and people who did not have access to food at work. 

The self-service canteens served up British staples, such as Shepherd’s Pie and carrots (which cost six pence, equating to 90p now), soup (two pence, 30p), and tea (one pence, 15p).

The Government supplied ingredients and cooking equipment to the restaurants, as well as meals to sites that didn’t have kitchens. 

Despite feeding millions of Britons every week, the Government withdrew funding for communal kitchens in 1947, causing the scheme to wind down — although some continued for another decade through community support.  

Mr Dimbleby authored a Government-commissioned review of Britain’s food system, which called for a tax to incentivise healthier recipe reformulation or smaller portion sizes.

The tax would have seen a £3 tax per kg of sugar and a £6 per kg tax of salt sold for use in processed foods, in restaurants and catering businesses.

He said the move would have raised up to £4billion to spend on getting fresh food to poorer households, such as by expanding free school meals and enabling GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to patients suffering from diet-related illness or food insecurity.

Born in May 1970, Mr Dimbleby attended Eton College, where he studied at the same time as Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. He then went onto Oxford University where he read physics and philosophy.

Like both of his parents, he would soon find his way into journalism, as a food writer for the Daily Telegraph — having initially worked as a commis chef under Michelin-starred chef Bruno Loubet.

In a profile on the Leon website, Mr Dimbleby is said to have been ‘too messy to survive in a professional kitchen’ and had a dislike of ‘pre-made sandwiches served from neon-lit chiller cabinets’.

He left the Telegraph to work for management consultancy firm Bain & Company where he met Mr Vincent — and they then launched Leon together with chef Ms McEvedy in 2004.

Nearly 20 years later, Blackburn billionaire brothers Mohsin Issa and Zuber Issa, who own supermarket giant Asda, bought the Leon chain in April this year for a reported £100million.

The centres that fed millions at reduced cost in the depths of war: How British Restaurants up and down the country catered to those who had lost their homes or had no ration coupons during WWII

By Harry Howard, History Correspondent for MailOnline 

When the bombs rained down, it was inevitable that not only would thousands be left without somewhere to live and sleep – many would need somewhere to eat. 

So as a means of coping with the social upheaval caused by the Second World War, the Government established communal kitchens in 1940. 

Known as British Restaurants, the venues provided places for people to go to eat meals cheaply. 

Whilst they had originally been created to assist the working poor and those who had lost all or part of their homes in German bombing raids, the restaurants rapidly gained a broader appeal. By 1943, more than 2,000 were in operation.

Part of the draw was the fact that Britons would not have to show ration coupons to eat there, meaning they could supplement their meagre weekly food allowance mandated by the rationing system with the purchase of a nutritious meal.

The venues only got their popular name in 1942, after the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered the term ‘communal feeding centre’ to be an ‘odious expression’ with allusions to communism. 

Instead, Churchill told food minister Lord Woolton: ‘I suggest you call them British Restaurants. Everybody associates the word ‘restaurant’ with a good meal.’

When the bombs rained down, it was inevitable that not only would thousands be left without somewhere to live and sleep - many would need somewhere to eat. So as a means of coping with the social upheaval caused by the Second World War, the Government established communal kitchens in 1940. Above: Byrom Restaurant in Liverpool was hugely popular

When the bombs rained down, it was inevitable that not only would thousands be left without somewhere to live and sleep – many would need somewhere to eat. So as a means of coping with the social upheaval caused by the Second World War, the Government established communal kitchens in 1940. Above: Byrom Restaurant in Liverpool was hugely popular

Known as British Restaurants, the venues provided places for people to go to eat meals cheaply. Above: The interior of Byrom Restaurant, with its patterned floor and globe lights

Known as British Restaurants, the venues provided places for people to go to eat meals cheaply. Above: The interior of Byrom Restaurant, with its patterned floor and globe lights

Most British Restaurants made use of existing buildings such as church and town halls, working men’s clubs, schools, hospitals and even private houses.

With many Britons noting that the restaurants proved to have better facilities than what they had at home, some venues went on to report the theft of cutlery.

As opposed to a formal outlet that would have a waitress serving tables, most British Restaurants had a self-service set-up, with customers having to queue at a counter.

A 1942 Daily Mail report told how horse meat had been served at a North London restaurant

A 1942 Daily Mail report told how horse meat had been served at a North London restaurant

Venues also often had a ‘cash and carry’ service that allowed customers to buy food and take it away with them, allowing the poorest to stretch out portions.

As well as the static buildings, there were also mobile canteens available to be sent out to bomb sites. 

One press report, from The Sphere, noted in 1942 how ‘nearly two million meals have been served from these vans in various parts of the country’. 

However, another report, in the Daily Mail, told how horse meat had been served at a venue in North London.

‘Complaints led to an investigation by the Civil Defence of the local council, who report that the horse-flesh was contained in tinned meat-roll used in this British Restaurant “as and when the state of the food supply required it”. 

‘The report adds that the “meat-roll was inedible in its existing form, and had to be mixed with curry or other flavouring to render it palatable.”

‘A tin was opened the contents found to have a “very unpleasant smell and curious appearance.”‘  

British Restaurants were fitted out by the Government and were expected to make enough money to support themselves. 

Around a third of the workforce that staffed them was from the Women’s Volunteer Service. 

Grateful Londoners are seen being served meals at a British Restaurant in Poplar in the east of the capital in 1942

Grateful Londoners are seen being served meals at a British Restaurant in Poplar in the east of the capital in 1942

Air raid shelterers at the 'Silver Lady' canteen in London, which had for several years served free meals to the needy

Air raid shelterers at the ‘Silver Lady’ canteen in London, which had for several years served free meals to the needy

However, many middle and upper-middle class women who had been unused to doing their own cooking were suddenly confronted with equipment they were not used to, such as fridges and ‘labour-saving’ appliances.

As a result, they struggled to meet the demands of catering for large numbers of people.

Meals would typically consist of soup followed by meat, fish or a vegetarian main course, with potatoes and other vegetables on the side.

There would also be dessert and tea and coffee.

However, due to the limits on food supply imposed as a result of the war, restaurants did have to start serving less familiar dishes.

As meat became scarce, the Ministry of Food created Woolton pie, which made the most of vegetables. 

Residents are seen enjoying meals at a British Restaurant in Taunton during the war in 1943

Residents are seen enjoying meals at a British Restaurant in Taunton during the war in 1943

A queue is seen outside what was then a 'Citizens' Kitchen' in September 1940

A queue is seen outside what was then a ‘Citizens’ Kitchen’ in September 1940

It was made up of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swede, carrots, spring onion and oatmeal.

The pie would be served with brown gravy and was first unveiled at the Savoy hotel. 

With many British Restaurants resembling a work canteen, Lord Woolton ordered in 1943 that they be made ‘brighter’.

The Daily Mail had said at the time that ‘it has been proved that art is an aid to appetite’.

A new decoration policy insisted on bright colour schemes, and more upbeat furnishings.

One venue that did get things right was Byroms Restaurant in Liverpool. 

As well as being self-supporting, it had a spacious and pleasant environment with a blue and red paint scheme and patterned flooring. Globe lights lit up the room. 

Only a small number of people who went to British Restaurants were habitual visitors to commercial establishments.

The majority were instead those who had taken sandwiches to work or gone home for meals, but were now without cooking conditions or someone to cook. 

Many customers enjoyed their first experience of dining outside the home in a British Restaurant. 

British Restaurants were disbanded in 1947, when 1,850 were still in existence, according to historian Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan.

They ceased to operate when the Government withdrew funding for communal feeding. 

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