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December 12, 2023

Public dining

Although in serious decline, there remains at least some visible evidence of the social infrastructure that was originally created to support the nation’s collective wellbeing. Facilities such as public libraries, parks, social housing and the NHS were all at one time considered prerequisites of a healthy civic state. One component of that infrastructure however has disappeared without trace and Nourish Scotland are campaigning to have it restored – the public diner. In the 40s and 50s there were more public diners than there are MacDonalds today. There’s surely never been a better time to reprise the public diner.

Nourish Scotland

Scotland has extensive social infrastructure to support our wellbeing. From public libraries, parks and leisure centres, to housing and the NHS, the state invests in and maintains institutions and systems for our collective benefit. Yet, very little is in place in relation to food.

We believe we need a new piece of social infrastructure – a public diner – to make it easier for all of us to eat well.

Public diners are state-supported restaurants which offer nutritious price-capped menus.

They operated in the UK under the banner of ‘British restaurants’. At their peak in 1940s and 50s there were approximately 2,500 of these operating throughout the UK (nearly twice the current number of McDonald’s). Similar models can be found in other countries, for instance Mexican Wellbeing Public Diners or German and Dutch Mensas – subsidised canteens aimed at students and university staff, but open to the public.

How did the public diners operate in the UK?

Public diners were state-subsidised. The Treasury and the Ministry of Food ran a grant programme open to businesses and local authorities. A quarter of the capital grant could be used for start-up costs, such as equipment.

Public diners had a clear economic model. Although grants were awarded to get these enterprises off the ground, any future funding was conditional on the venues breaking even or tuning a profit. The diners also benefited from a central procurement of food, reducing the costs.

Public diners struck a balance between what people ‘should’ eat and what they would like to eat. The grants offered by the government were conditional on certain nutritional criteria, corresponding to the current Eatwell Guide. But, there was a tension between the government’s nutritionists, who were keen for people to eat more veg, and restaurateurs whose priority was to offer customers what they wanted to eat (meat and pudding!).

Public diners were desirable places to go to. They saved time and energy spent on cooking, making life easier particularly for women. The diners were designed as places where anyone – that is ‘you and I’ – might dine. They were well decorated, inviting, contemporary. Food historian Bryce Evans describes them as “centres of civilization where people looked forward to go and dine”.

What could public diners do for us today?

Public diners could provide a valuable avenue away from crisis response and charitable food aid and towards a universal approach. They could form an important part of our social infrastructure, alongside public libraries, leisure centres, and schools. They could become a valuable part of community life, enhancing social cohesion and reducing loneliness. They have the potential to contribute to many of the Scottish Government’s policy objectives including 20-minute neighbourhoods, ending the need for food banks, local food growing strategy, community empowerment, the Good Food Nation ambition, and healthy diets. They are firmly in line with the human rights centred approach which the Government wants to progress.