At 10AM on a Wednesday morning, a delivery van arrives outside a church community centre in Islington, north London. It carries a consignment of unwanted food donated by nearby supermarkets: vegetables, fresh fruit, bread and milk. A team of volunteers brings the food inside and surveys their haul. They are well drilled. It only takes a few minutes of discussion before a menu is decided. Everyone moves quickly to prepare the banquet, anticipating the lunch hour throng when a crowd of diners will arrive and fill the hall with noise.
All this takes place courtesy of Food Cycle, a charity that provides free community meals in cities up and down the UK. It works alongside other food redistribution charities such as The Felix Project, all in an effort to stop edible produce rotting in the aisles while over eight million people in the UK go hungry.
“As a charity, we tend to focus on reducing hunger and loneliness,” explains Camilla James, Food Cycle’s communications manager. “A lot of our outreach is for people experiencing food poverty on a low income or people who are isolated in other ways, living by themselves or homeless.”
This figure – and the service that Food Cycle and The Felix Project are forced to provide in lieu of an adequately funded welfare system – is at odds with Britain’s view of itself as a civilised nation. It’s not just food that many are forced to make do without. A 2018 report by Lloyds Bank found that 12 percent of 11 to 18 year olds don’t have an internet connection at home, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently revealed that four million Britons are living in poverty despite having jobs. Add to this the growing crisis in housing and homelessness, and it poses some uncomfortable questions. In a country as wealthy as Britain, why are so many living without the basic necessities of shelter, food and internet access?
Questions like this are welcome among academics at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), based at University College London. Back in 2017, they released a report that called for a major overhaul in how we think about welfare provision in the UK. It introduced ‘Universal Basic Services’ (UBS), the idea that everyone’s basic requirements – food, shelter, public transport and access to the internet – should be completely free.
This would mean every household in the UK being given £20 per month to cover the cost of a basic internet broadband package. Local authorities would have a budget to extend existing food programmes like ‘Meals on Wheels’, providing free mass catering as required by the needs of individual communities. The existing stock of social housing would be doubled, offering homes on a needs basis at zero rent, with a utilities allowance included. The ‘Freedom Pass’ given to over-60s would be extended to all ages, so that bus travel became completely free.
Andrew Percy is co-director of the IGP’s Social Prosperity Network, which produced the report. He understands that the idea of free food and housing might seem fanciful to some. “The biggest barrier we’re up against is trying to combat a mindset which, in the last two decades of the 20th century, became very individualistic,” he tells me. “The idea, generally speaking, was that economics helped us achieve a competitive advantage in a world of unlimited resources. In the 21st century, it’s actually a matter of mutual survival in a context of limited resources.”
Of all their proposals, Percy says that people find the idea of free meals the strangest. “Most people’s immediate reaction is to think of it like a food bank with trays of tinned food or something like a Victorian soup kitchen. We have to tell people, ‘No, open your minds a bit more, use your imagination.’”
At the Food Cycle lunch in Islington, the scene couldn’t be further away from a Victorian soup kitchen. In less than two hours, the volunteers create a gazpacho starter with fresh croutons, vegetarian chilli with tortillas and two side salads, as well as a dessert of rice pudding and fruit salad. Around 20 people attend; some are pensioners who enjoy the social aspect as well as the cooked meal, while others are experiencing homelessness. The volunteer hosts ensure that everyone is made welcome, and many guests come simply because the food is so good. “Who made the gazpacho?” asks one diner, approaching the kitchen to offer his thanks, “it just made me smile, it really did.”
Free community meals are not a new idea. Hindu temples have been providing this service for centuries, and Finland began its Shared Table programme in 2014, helping communities to turn donations of surplus food into free weekly meals. Food Cycle itself now has 12 kitchens in London and many others around the country.
“It's a small, light team,” project leader Anna Hargreaves tells me of the volunteers working in the kitchen today. “Food Cycle are great at picking the right people, they empower you to do things the way you want and they're super supportive. They encourage you to figure out how you want to do it.” Indeed Food Cycle can be seen as a blueprint for how UBS might work. Small, localised teams being empowered to cater for their own communities.
The biggest question mark over UBS concerns its financing. The Social Prosperity Network cost free meals and bus travel at £4 billion and £5.2 billion annually, which is about 1 to 2 percent of government spending in a typical year. But their more ambitious proposals – free internet and a huge increase in social housing development – are costlier. To fund all of it, the Social Prosperity Network recommends a significant reduction in the personal tax allowance, cutting its current threshold of £12,500 to just £4,300 each year.
Of course, this would require a major change in outlook from the taxpayer, one Percy recognises would be challenging. “The original question behind UBS is: how do we orientate human society for a sustainable 21st century?” he says. “It’s a way of looking at spending and resources through the lens of public good, not the satisfaction of a consumer impulse. When people criticise the idea, it’s usually by arguing that we’re taking personal choices away from them, but putting a free bus on the street doesn’t mean forcing anyone to ride it.”
In 2017, the IGP report suggested a time frame of five to ten years to roll out UBS. “Local governments would need to engage in consultations and design these services, but we’re not creating anything new,” says Percy. “It’s not that we don’t have the experience or capability to do these things, we would just need to implement everything gradually.”
As food insecurity rises in Britain and we search for community-led solutions to the climate crisis, perhaps now is the time for radical ideas like UBS.