Here’s a better alternative to food banks: subsidised national kitchens

We can do better than this. Image: Getty.

Did you watch Channel 4’s latest sensational documentary Junk Food Kids? If so, you probably shared the sense of outrage that exploded across social media when scenes featuring obese children with decaying teeth were broadcast.

But the presence of fat children on our screens masks the fact that we are currently facing an unnecessary global starvation epidemic. We live in a time of overabundant food production, but despite this, almost a billion people go hungry every day. These figures are no longer only applicable to the developing world.

According to recent statistics, one in five British children now lives below the poverty line. Speak to those working in paediatric medicine in Britain today and they’ll tell you that A&E departments are not just hosting overweight children with health problems but, especially in school holiday time, kids that are seriously under-fed. Just hang on for a minute and think about that – malnourished children in this country. Isn’t that, well, just a tad Dickensian?

Dead right it is. And so, unfortunately, is the solution to this problem: the food bank.

The Trussell Trust, which runs most food banks, feeds more than a million people a year. The trust is a faith-based network supplemented by other voluntary anti-food poverty schemes, the majority of which are church-based.

There is nothing wrong with non-proselytising faith groups alleviating food poverty. After all, there are plenty of biblical examples supporting this ethic. But one may be forgiven for wondering where the state comes in to all this.

Before Christmas the much-anticipated parliamentary report on food poverty was published. Even “advanced Western economies” with “mature welfare states”, it stated, are reliant on food banks. How has this happened?

World War One's communal kitchens

To answer this question, we need to look at how Britain dealt with food poverty in the past. From research into egalitarian eating, it’s clear this country faced a serious food problem due to trade disruption during World War I. In the centenary year of 2014, while the BBC and other broadcasters were busy sending reporters off to trudge the poppy-dotted battlefields for the umpteenth time, they ignored an aspect of the war which has great relevance for public health today: communal kitchens.

The communal kitchens of one hundred years ago grew out of wartime working class communities, where public dining ventures nourished the most needy at a time when food supplies were poor and nutritional standards low. These grassroots efforts evolved into state-supported “national kitchens” or “national restaurants”. People brought a plate or bowl to a “distribution centre”, and had it filled up with nutritious food for a modest fee. This rough-and-ready model soon evolved into cheap restaurants where people received hearty, fresh, nutritious meals at incredibly low prices.

Grub’s up. Image: Imperial War Museum.

Noticing their popularity, the wartime Ministry of Food took over the running of communal dining ventures. It backed the scheme only on the condition that it “avoid the taint of charity”. The cafes and restaurants had to be self-supporting: the state expected a profit and would not offer its financial support otherwise. So the "national kitchens", as they were patriotically re-branded from 1917, would be cheap but appealing – to the struggling middle class as much as the working class. The profit went back into the local kitchens rather than the ministry – these were not-for-profits, as we would understand it today – and they had to at least break even. Anything on top was reinvested.

Significantly, they would move beyond the idea of the Victorian soup kitchen, with the pearl-necklaced Lady Bountiful or smiling vicar doling out grub to the meek yet grateful poor. They had to be cheap yet attractive, efficient yet appetising. And they had to make a profit while maintaining rock bottom prices.

The state gave the kitchens some of the capital needed to set up – and sometimes food. This was before the modern supermarket era, so today, ideally, supermarkets would provide the food. There's a broader point here: supermarket food waste is not really addressed by supermarkets giving non-perishables to food banks like they do now. Food waste lies in fresh food – fruit and veg – and this doesn’t often make its way to food banks. 

Fruit and vegetables

Perceptions of our current food bank model couldn't be further from that of the "national kitchens". The anti-charity ethos of the national kitchens ensured they had widespread appeal and did not come to be viewed as havens for the idle underclass. By contrast, a cursory glance across Twitter reaction to programmes such as Junk Food Kids shows that disdain for the “undeserving poor” is now back with a vengeance.

The communal kitchens were so popular that large cities boasted several. Hundreds of thousands dined at them each week. They served good, nutritious food at very low prices. They were clean, safe and kept people alive during a time of serious food shortage. They fizzled out after war, but were successfully revived during the World War II as “British Restaurants”.

The model for these kitchens – a proud tradition started and revived in response to a social need – could find a place in today’s downturn. However, modern-day food banks have reverted to the exact same Victorian taint of charity rejected by earlier politicians and volunteers.

Barriers such as cost and storage mean that the majority of food banks also do not serve fresh fruit or vegetables; nor do they give people instruction as to how to incorporate the food they receive into meals. People lack cooking skills. but they don’t receive as much as a menu card at most food banks: they just get hand-outs of non-perishables like pasta and tinned foods.

A volunteer sorts through donations of food at the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank, run by the Trussell Trust. Image: Getty. 

What’s more, when people take the rice or pasta or whatever other non-perishable home with them, some can’t even afford to heat it up.

Most of all, though, food banks signify a return to the Victorian model of the church and rich people (in this case supermarkets, happy to dispose of their waste for free) doling out food to the humble but grateful. While some are moving towards the Food Bank Plus model, which uses the food bank as a conduit for other interventions, most don’t foster a sense of community and are plagued by the stigma of the handout.

Supermarket "waste"

So, let’s revive communal dining instead. Let’s have local authorities subsidising cheap cafes on-site or next door to food banks where people can get a cheap nutritious meal or simply an on-site kitchen where people can learn to prepare food as a meal. Let’s force supermarkets to manage the donation of fresh produce more efficiently, providing fresh fruit and vegetables rather than just non-perishables. Donating non-perishables is so much easier for supermarkets and hits waste targets easily, but fresh produce is where the waste really lies.

More importantly, let’s use communal eating to combat problems borne of social dislocation, depression and loneliness. Intangibles such as mental turmoil are surprisingly easily targeted via simply sitting down and breaking bread.

Today there’s no political will to nationalise food poverty by centrally funding national kitchens as there was during WWI. But there’s certainly a case for spending money to ensure food banks resemble community kitchens more – not just to feed, but to encourage better and more affordable eating.

In Peru, there is a system where the state provides basics (rice and cooking oil) and the communities provide and cook all the fresh food. The expense of doing this for the state is offset by long term savings in public health – and this is in a country where they don’t have free public healthcare. If the NHS is to pick up the long term tab for poor eating, then it’s surely more cost effective to spend a bit now to reap the long term rewards.

Above all, then, let’s overcome the idea of the handout. We did it 100 years ago, why not do it again? For that to happen, the state needs to step up to the mark, as do supermarkets. Otherwise the prospect of “junk food kids” will continue its monstrous yet unassailable waddle from media panic to social reality.

Bryce Evans is senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.