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The British government’s role in feeding British prisoners of war (POWs) during World War I are the subject of Chapter 4. It investigates the widespread uncertainty around whether British POWs were starving in the German camps and the troubling questions this raised about whom was ultimately responsible for their maintenance. This stimulated debate about how to provision them adequately within international agreements, how to evaluate objectively what constituted a sound diet, and what food was culturally acceptable to prisoners and their governments. This chapter argues that throughout the war the British government often made surprisingly impractical and costly decisions around the provisioning of their own POWs. Its agencies often acceded to the requests of combatant and civilian prisoners who manipulated charitable food aid and called on their government to supplement their rations with British food products. Far from following recent advances in the nutritional sciences, such as the identification of calories and the nutritive components of food, this chapter reveals that the British state privileged these demands for familiar, comforting foods. This chapter reveals that the state’s actions can only be explained by unpacking shared, cultural meanings around food that were far from irrelevant in the context of the war.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century debates over prison dietaries in Britain and in its overseas colonies are the subject of Chapter 2. Although uniformity could easily have been imposed through the issue of a single dietary mandated across the nation, and then converted into local ingredients for use in all the colonies, differences of sex, race, and ethnicity were central considerations in the preparation of prison diet scales. This chapter explores gendered understandings of bodily labor within the British prison system and the impact of these ideologies on the dieting of different incarcerated populations. It then investigates how the racial and ethnic taxonomies deployed within a range of colonial prisons shaped the feeding of prisoners and in turn shored up broader imperial ideologies. It argues that prison authorities were animated by, and in the process reinforced, a variety of bodily imaginaries that distinguished British subjects from each other and thus had effects well beyond the walls of the prison. While in theory all might be equal before the law, after the law had passed its judgment, the bodies of criminals played an active role in performing, inhabiting, and thus reinforcing the categories of difference that structured British society.
Chapter 5 explores conflicts over the provision of school meals during the interwar period. It discusses the public’s resistance to school meals as a legacy of stigmatizing forms of government relief. However, its main focus is on a 1934 policy shift whereby the Board of Education instructed local education authorities to focus their feeding efforts on schoolchildren suffering from malnutrition rather than feeding poor children “indiscriminately.” These pupils were to be identified, the Board mandated, through a process of clinical examination rather than by assessing their parents’ income. This was not matched, however, by any attempt to ameliorate the quality of school meals themselves. Despite considerable advances in the study of nutrition in the interwar period, the Board of Education rarely interfered in local decisions about the components of the meals. This chapter demonstrates that the government’s policy of “medical selection” paired with its lack of commitment to standardizing the nutritional requirements of school meals undermined any stated goal to address malnutrition. This was not lost on proponents of “economic selection” who successfully argued that using an income scale was instead a more objective and humane method of serving the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
In 1968 Magnus Pyke argued that what “human communities choose to eat is only partly dependent on their physiological requirements, and even less on intellectual reasoning and a knowledge of what these physiological requirements are.” Pyke, a nutritional scientist who had worked under the chief scientific advisor to Britain’s Ministry of Food during World War II, illustrated his point by recounting that, in preparing the nation for war, military officials had demanded that land be allocated to grow gherkins. They had insisted, Pyke recalled, that the British soldier “could not fight without a proper supply of pickles to eat with his cold meat.” The Ministry of War had apparently been “unmoved to learn from the nutritional experts” that pickles offered little of material value to the diet, as they had almost no calories, vitamins, or minerals. The Ministry of Food, Pyke asserted, nevertheless designated precious agricultural land for gherkin cultivation.
Chapter 3 examines the provision of cooked food as famine relief in late nineteeth-century India. Famine relief was undertaken at the local level by officials who interpreted policies and managed the balance between cost saving and lifesaving in different ways. But by the 1890s, there was widespread consensus that government “kitchens” should provide aid in the form of cooked food to children, as many local officials claimed that they were victims of parental neglect. Feeding the “field labourers of the future,” rather than expecting them to be sustained out of their parents’ relief wages, was a way to maximize the future utility of these “units.” For by the end of the nineteenth century, imperial revenue production and saving colonial subjects from starvation were no longer seen to be in tension with each other rather they were intimately linked projects. This chapter demonstrates that the provision of cooked food was a central element of famine relief precisely because it was part of late-Victorian attempts to reconcile humanitarianism and the ongoing economic development of the British Empire.
This compelling study explores food programs initiated by the British government across two centuries, from the workhouses of the 1830s to the post-war Welfare State. Challenging the assumption that state ideologies and practices were progressive and based primarily on scientific advances in nutrition, Nadja Durbach examines the political, economic, social and cultural circumstances that led the state to feed some of its subjects, but not others. Durbach follows food policies from their conception to their implementation through case studies involving paupers, prisoners, famine victims, POWs, schoolchildren, wartime civilians and pregnant women. She explores what government food meant to those who devised, executed, used, and sometimes refused, these social services. Many Mouths seeks to understand the social, economic, and political theories that influenced these feeding schemes, within their changing historical contexts. It thus offers fresh insights into how both the administrators and the intended recipients of government food programs realized, interpreted, and made meaning out of these exchanges, and the complex relationship between the body, the state and the citizen.
The introduction of the New Poor Law and the workhouse system in the 1830s allowed the British government to argue that it had solved the problem of poverty by inducing the able-bodied to work and by providing for the basic maintenance of those that did not. At the same time, Britain introduced the civil registration of births and deaths. This made it possible for the state to track mortality rates and causes. The confluence of these policies led to debates over the extent to which deaths due to starvation and exposure could and should be registered because to do so was an embarrassment to the state. It implied either that relief had been withheld from the destitute or that some had chosen to starve to death rather than to partake of government services.
The Welfare Foods Service, which supplied free and subsidized concentrated orange juice, milk, and cod liver oil to all expectant mothers and young children from 1942 to 1971, is the subject of Chapter 7. This benefits program began in the midst of World War II when fresh fruit was limited and anxieties about vitamin deficiencies mounted. In the postwar period, it was integrated into the Welfare State. Unlike milk and cod liver oil, orange juice could not be produced in sun-starved Britain. The government thus jump-started an orange-growing industry and juice concentrating plants in the British West Indies as part of a colonial development initiative. But once the industry for this highly specialized product had been established, the British state attempted to withdraw from its contractual agreements because it sought to reduce the number of welfare beneficiaries. This chapter traces the ways in which debates over entitlements to welfare orange juice pitted the needs of domestic British citizens who consumed the product against those of colonial British subjects who produced it. It reveals that domestic welfare policies were intimately bound up in the imperial politics of both colonial development and decolonization.
Chapter 1 examines the tensions that erupted in the 1830s and 1840s in reaction to the Poor Law Commission’s ban on serving festive meals of roast beef and plum pudding to workhouse inmates. It demonstrates that, despite the new drive to centralize relief policies in the 1830s, local authorities frequently overrode and undermined directives that interfered with their right to dispense aid in traditional ways that they felt enhanced social stability. This chapter explores the symbolic meaning of roast beef to the institutionalized poor, the Boards of Guardians that superintended them, and the communities in which they were imbedded. It argues that a study of when and why paupers were and were not furnished with what was often termed “Old English Fare” in the early years of the New Poor Law reveals that the transition from moral economy to political economy was far from complete. The tensions that erupted amongst local and central government officials, paupers, and communities in reaction to the Poor Law Commission’s attempt to ban these meals suggests that debates over food were part of much broader negotiations about both the role of the modern state and the place of the poor within local and national communities.
Chapter 6 analyzes the communal feeding centers opened during World War II that initially targeted the working poor in order to ameliorate their deficient diets and boost morale. They provided well-balanced, inexpensive meals that attempted to meet the nutritional standards devised by the state’s scientific advisors. These British Restaurants eventually came to serve a broad cross section of the civilian home front population, not merely the working poor. But this was not the product of a coherent government policy. Rather, this chapter demonstrates that it was the result of a proactive public who used these not-for-profit services for their own purposes and thus became not merely passive recipients of government food control policies but active agents in the project of mass feeding. This chapter explores these institutions as spaces of cross-class and heterosocial encounters, which were frequented by a range of people who generally enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. It concludes that British Restaurants were politically popular both because they reflected a wartime “fair shares” mentality and because they served a larger project that was bent on transforming the poor from beneficiaries of the state into citizen-consumers and thus full members of an economically healthy postwar society.
This essay inaugurates a new series in the Journal of British Studies titled “One British Thing.” This short essay uses a bottle of welfare orange juice distributed sometime between 1961 and 1971 to tell a larger story about the relationship between Britain's Welfare State and the colonization and decolonization of the British West Indies. The history of the Welfare State has largely been told as a metropolitan story severed from a wider global history of empire. The empty bottle of concentrated orange juice, however, tells a different story. It exposes Britain's own dependency on its colonial subjects to provide the means of furnishing welfare benefits to its metropolitan citizens. The history of welfare orange juice thus opens up a richer understanding of the politics and economics of the Welfare State and its relationship to colonial development projects on the one hand and the slow processes of decolonization on the other.