A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Eating in Canteens and British Restaurants .

In order to supplement the rations of workers, the Ministry of Food encouraged the eating of at least one meal away from home by setting up or facilitating the opening of canteens and British Restaurants. Canteens as such are not new institutions and their number has steadily increased since before the war. What is new, however, is the regulation that every factory employing more than 250 workers must have a canteen.

The canteens are run either by the firm with or without a committee on which the workers are represented or by some outside catering firm and all now come under the supervision of the Ministry of Labour.

British Restaurants are an innovation. They are run on a non-profit basis, the majority by local authorities and some by voluntary bodies.

The prices in canteens and British Restaurants vary slightly but centre round 11d. and 1/1d. for the main dish consisting of meat, potatoes and one vegetable.

The menu consists of one main dish (meat, potatoes, and other vegetable); often soup, and always a pudding and tea can be bought. The quality of these dinners varies considerably as it is dependent on a strong personal factor, the efficiency of the head cook or manager. There is no doubt that because canteen cooking has increased so rapidly there is a serious shortage of properly trained personnel. Due to wartime conditions equipment cannot always be ideal or even adequate, and the interior of the dining halls is sometimes rather austere and drab, though there are many which are cheerful, well decorated and furnished.

In February, 1943 an investigation was carried out with the purpose of finding out where working people ate. 4,490 working men and women were asked “Where did you take your meals yesterday?”

Where Meals are eaten - by Meal-time

Breakfast Mid-morning Mid-day Mid-afternoon Evening Late Evening
% % % % % %
Home 92 3 42 8 84 65
Café - 4 11 3 2 1
Brit. Restaurant - - 2 - - -
Canteen 2 15 22 21 3 1
Packed meal 2 21 15 11 3 1
Packed meal and Canteen * 1 9 4 5 - -
No answer - 1 1 1 2 4
Nothing to eat 3 47 3 51 6 28
Sample 4490 4490 4490 4490 4490 4490

* consists of packed meal brought from home and a drink and/ or bun bought from canteen.

Very few people had nothing to eat on the day of the inquiry at the three main meals, breakfast, mid-day and evening. About half of the sample had something at mid-morning and mid-afternoon and nearly three-quarters had a snack in the late evening before going to bed.

Breakfast, evening and late evening meals are taken at home by nearly all the people in the sample.

The mid-day meal is eaten by more than 40% at home; if those who bring packed meals from home are added, two-thirds are provided with their mid-day meal in one form or another from home. This means that about one third of all working people rely for their mid-day meal on canteens, British Restaurants and cafés.

22% of the workers in the sample ate in the canteens on the day of the interview although for 61% there was a canteen serving hot meals available. Those who could have had their dinner in the canteen were asked why they did not.


If works has a canteen and meals are not taken there - why not?

Male Female
% %
Easy to go home, prefer to go home 35 40
Don’t like the food 32 25
Used to packed meal 14 8
Overcrowded, dirty 7 5
Too expensive 7 3
Have to use lunch-hour for other purposes, can’t leave bench 3 8
Prefer British Restaurant or Café 3 4
Particular shift canteen not open 3 1
Need a break, fresh air 2 4
Miscellaneous 4 3
No answer 7 8
All who do not take meals, where there are canteens * 870 390

* One person can give more than one reason.

More than a third give as the main reason for not going to the canteen that they prefer to go home, their wives do not like them to stay, and it is easy to go home because they live near, etc. The argument that the wife wishes them to come home is particularly frequent.

Dislike of the food served at the canteen is numerically the next most important reason for not eating one’s main meal there. It is difficult to come to a definite decision as to the cause of the dislike. It is true that in some canteens the food is bad, but there are other canteens which keep a good standard of cooking, and still certain people dislike them

The strong force of habit in feeding behaviour is shown in the relatively high figure who bring packed meals instead of going to the canteen, in spite of the fact that, as is shown in a number of inquiries, housewives complain about the shortage of fat, spreads and sandwich fillings.

Other reasons for not going to the canteen are the wish to have a break and to be away from the factory for a while, and the necessity to do errands during the lunch hour.

A small number of people say that they do not like to go to the canteen because they are too shy to eat with other people. Incredible though it might sound, interviewers came across people who had hardly eaten out in their life; the “pub” was the only social meeting place they visited, and they never went to cafés or restaurants. They ate their packed meals in solitude behind their machines.

A small number of people think canteen meals are too expensive. An analysis of the prices charged at their canteens shows that the prices are no higher than the average.

Women and men do not differ very much in their reasons for not using canteens.

The people who take meals at the canteen were asked what they thought of them.

Satisfaction and dissatisfaction with canteen meals by those who took it on the day of the interview

Male Female
% %
Satisfied 69 76
Don’t like food 17 10
Not enough variety 7 9
Not enough to eat 11 4
Too expensive 2 -
Too overcrowded 6 1
Miscellaneous 1 -
No answer 1 1
All who take meals where canteen is provided 965 534

* More than one reason can be given by the informant.

About three-quarters of the people who use the canteens are satisfied with them.

Those who are not satisfied complain mainly about the food. Relatively few say that they don’t like the surroundings.

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20% of the working people eat in canteens. This figure is far from the maximum catered for by existing arrangements. The reason for not using canteens lies partly in the fact that the food provided is not liked - this dislike based on objective facts (bad cooking or the inferiority of mass cooking generally) and partly on subjective tastes (which do not always include the food in the particular canteen).

Concrete criticism of the food provided is only one motive for not using canteens. More important is the fact that canteen meals are not a strong enough incentive to overcome the traditional ways of eating at home or bringing packed meals from home. The leading force in keeping these traditions up appears to be the housewife. Additional factors for not using the canteen are economic reasons. Canteens often mean spending more money, if not in relation to the food value obtained, in the actual amount spent on a meal.

To make any prediction about the future changes in the numbers using canteens is difficult, but it seems safe to assume that figures will increase slowly if the cooking is improved, as conditioning of taste to new and different dishes takes place and as new canteens are opened since there is, in every factory, a certain proportion of the workers who are prepared to dine in a canteen.

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School Canteens

A small investigation was carried out with 780 school children and 236 mothers in Scotland. The children were asked to write essays on school meals independently of whether they had the meals themselves or not. The sample of mothers consisted of women whose children had school meals provided at their school but did not take them. They were asked why their children did not participate in the scheme.

The results are representative only of Scotland, but they show trends so similar to the general canteen investigation that it seems worth while to give them here. The analysis of the mothers’ answers to the question why their children do not take school meals gives the following table:-

Why does your child not take school meals?

It is easier for the child to come home, we live near, prefer to have child home 67
Child does not like school meals 20
Too expensive 7
Only special children are allowed 4
Miscellaneous 2
Sample 236

The sample is not very large, but it is most illuminating to read through the comments of the 67% who say that there is no need for their children to take school meals.

It becomes clear that these mothers’ attitude to school meals is that they are not bad for children who need them - this need only exists, however, for three group those who are too poor, those whose mothers are out at work, and those who live some distance from school. Otherwise, they think that all children should come home, the reasons being that the mother wants to see them, she needs company, nobody knows better than herself what is good for the child, and she cooks anyway, so why not cook for the one child more.

From all these answers one gets the impression that mothers have no real aversion to school meals, but on the other hand they have no strong incentive to let their children take part in them. Children hold very much the same views as their parents hold.

48 children who took school meals expressed an opinion as to whether they should go on after the war or not. Of these, 43 (or 90%) wanted school meals to continue. Of 55 who did not take school meals and who answered the question, 23 (or 42%) were for continuation. The reasons which were given are not uninteresting:- school meal should be continued for those living at a distance; to get poorer children better food; to help working mothers; to help ill parents; to help people who dislike preparing meals; for people who are bombed out; refugees from Europe; because food will still be rationed and dear; people will be poorer; it will be good for mother-less children; because children will be used to them.

The mothers who say that their children don’t like school meals possibly rationalise their own dislikes in this way, and think that their children are fond of certain foods which they can’t have so often in school as at home.

A number of mothers think that the meals are too expensive for their pockets; though they may not be able to give their children the same nutritious meal for the same money, they can fill them up with bread and potatoes, which are probably cheaper.

Figures and quotations show that mothers recognise the material advantages of school meals, but the food situation is such that these advantages are only of limited value to the mother.

The children themselves when asked what they felt about school meals seemed to be rather ambivalent in their attitude. Of the children who took the school meals each made on an average 5 comments of which slightly more than half were favourable (56%) and the rest unfavourable (44%).

Negative comments on the school meals by the children are mainly centred round three groups of problems; the quality or quantity of the food is bad, service is unsatisfactory, and the atmosphere of the school canteen is somewhat cheerless. These comments are made either in the form of direct criticism of school canteens, or as praise of home meals by stressing their advantages over school meals.

Two thirds of the criticisms deal with shortcomings in quality and quantity of food. 18% complain about the service in the school canteen and about 9% say they feel unhappy in the atmosphere of the dining centre.

It is interesting to note that the opinion of the children who do not take school meals corresponds very closely with those just described held by the children who do take them. It seems that both groups of children influence each other strongly or that both are influenced by the same factors.

British Restaurants

British Restaurants are new institutions in so far as they provide cheap meals on a non-profit basis. They are intended to serve all classes and in many cases can be used by housewives to take food home on the cash and carry system. A great number of these restaurants have been opened and in very many places there is quite a strong demand for more such restaurants.

The number of people who frequent the restaurants regularly, varies from place to place. In a sample of 4,490 working people about 2% had their meal in such a restaurant, but this figure varies in the different occupations.

In an investigation carried out in June, 1942, 22% of a general sample had had some experience of dining in a British Restaurant. A considerable percentage of these had only dined there once or a few times, perhaps out of curiosity to see what the new restaurant was like.

On one occasion, 441 people out of a sample of 2,036 who had had some experience of eating in a British Restaurant, were asked “What did you think of it?” The answers are shown in the following table:-

Very good 60
Good considering the circumstances price, locality 21
Bad 15
Miscellaneous 4
Sample 441

The majority were satisfied with what the British Restaurants had to offer them.

The 15% who criticise complain mainly about the food - only 4 people in this sample did not like to go to the British Restaurants because they found the dining hall not clean enough, too smelly or crowded. Here, just as in the criticism of canteens, people seem to worry very little, at least consciously or in a formulated way, about the surroundings in which they take their meals.

One thing is certain, that British Restaurants have become quite an accepted institution. In an inquiry in which 2,944 people were asked whether they would like British Restaurants continued after the war, only 9% thought they should be discontinued.

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