View from a staff member in a canteen

In a society under huge stress new thinking is needed to provide affordable, healthy, sociable and sustainable meals

By Dr Marsha Smith, Centre for Business in Society

Not just at Christmas

At Christmas there tends to be a focus on those less fortunate, and how food insecure and socially isolated individuals are served by charitable food projects. With the current cost of living crisis continuing to shape our food consumption choices, new approaches to providing affordable meals that are healthy, sociable and sustainable, are timely.

Following on from our Future of Food Symposium 2023 theme which looked at more structural approaches to food insecurity, and ahead of the forthcoming CBiS seminar on ‘A New Canteen Culture’ , this blog identifies the concept of the public canteen as an all-year-round intervention that can address both food insecurity and social isolation.

State sponsored restaurants

For many people, finding out that in the UK we used to have over 2,000 state-sponsored restaurants (more than the number of McDonald’s), comes as a surprise. Even more interesting is that they were framed as ‘centres of civilisation’, often decorated with murals and with loaned artworks, and accessed by thousands of citizens each week. They offered a nutritionally-balanced, price-capped meal, operators received government grants to aid setting them up, and they were run to cover costs but not at profit. Government was involved with securing food supplies and these ‘British Restaurants’ in the 1930s and 40s used economies of scale and offsite production to create cheap, nourishing meals consumed en-masse by the British public.

Whilst institutional catering in schools and hospitals has often been associated with somewhat drab food, the canteen in the Houses of Parliament, and the much-loved IKEA canteen demonstrate that public dining, whether institutional or commercial, can be of high quality and set in well-designed spaces.

Given the current context of high living costs, loneliness occurring in previously unaffected groups, such as young parents, food supply uncertainties and climate change, a bold new vision re-using this tried and tested model is needed. As Nourish Scotland state ‘the triple shocks of austerity, pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis exposed the fragility of our social infrastructure when it comes to food and nourishment.

Eating socially is good for our mental wellbeing

But that fragility goes beyond affordability. Our current diets are one of the key drivers of ill-health – yet making healthy choices is difficult in our ultra-processed, veg-poor, industrialised food environments’ (Nourish Scotland, 2019). And with the rise of single-person households, 1 in 3 of us regularly eats alone – yet we know that eating socially is good for our physical and mental wellbeing’ (Dunbar, 2017).

Public diners could offer twice-daily mealtimes and support people to access nutritious, cheap meals without recourse to charity, and normalise convivial dining in high street venues (Evans, 2022). Food insecure customers could be signposted to these venues and pre-paid meal cards could be issued to enable them to eat along with paying customers. Local and regional canteens could make use of Local Authority procurement expertise to bring in sustainable and regionally-produced produce, food surpluses could be integrated and just as conventional food processors centralise for efficiency, catering-scale supply kitchens could be developed and commercial food producers might fulfil contracts at-cost.

A key role for corporates

Corporates could help subsidise costs and realise their corporate social responsibility targets, canteens could be nationally kitemarked by regionally controlled but benefit from state and corporate financial support. Companies like INGKA, a subsidiary of IKEA, are already refitting old shopping centres as multi-use community spaces. Wetherspoons uses at-date beer to provide cheap pints and lots of people go to IKEA just for lunch. The constituent elements of the canteen-model already exist; we need to draw upon these provisions and the multiple actors across sectors to create it anew.

If we frame public canteens as socially-beneficial, universal models of provision, in the way that we do with libraries, leisure centres, parks, museums and adult education, we can already see that these aren’t viewed as poverty-services, but as socially-enriching infrastructure that has benefits beyond service-provision. These are part of the social and collective fabric of society and could help us shift towards more sustainable use of water, food and fuel resources.

Planning a new canteen culture

In 2024 CBiS’s Sustainable Production and Consumption Cluster will be assembling a ‘new canteen culture’ working group to look at how this model might be developed and designed and what funding, infrastructure and policies would be needed. Following an upcoming visit to Nourish Scotland’s Public Diner event, we are holding an online seminar[i] at CBiS with renowned historian, Dr Bryce Evans and MP Ian Byrne to discuss the idea, its antecedent and its future within the UK foodscape.

Leading on this important project connects to our research themes around future food and mirrors work underway in Scotland around the Right to Food. If we are to move away from charity at Christmas to all-year-round provision, we need a model of provision that is achievable and pragmatic, as well as attractive and pleasurable. We have all the resources and ‘ingredients’ already; this doesn’t rely on a technical invention, radical redevelopment or a ‘moon-shot’ plan.

Revisioning and redesigning the public canteen for the modern customer is something that must involve Government, corporate organisations, Local Authorities and community groups; utilising expertise to design places people want to go to. It must also respond to the challenge of ensuring people do not have to wait until next Christmas to be offered the opportunity to eat healthily with others in warm, welcoming places.

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.

[i] A New Canteen Culture? Reimagining Public Eating for Sustenance, Socialising and Sustainability;

Monday, 5th February 2024, 10:00-12:00, Online on Zoom.  This event will look back to historical precedents and ahead to the future of food, to explore the benefits of reimagining public canteens in the UK.  Speakers: Prof Bryce Evans (Liverpool Hope University) and Ian Byrne MP (Member of Parliament for Liverpool West Derby).  Together, Bryce and Ian propose a new canteen culture can feed people sustainably, at-scale, reviving the high street, and showcasing government and corporate partnerships. The seminar closes with thoughts on what research, organisational and policy developments might facilitate this transformation.  Sign up on Eventsforce, where you will be notified of the zoom link.