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Outrage: a toxic mix of snobbery and power governs eating in public

While we tell ourselves society has become less stuffy and rule-bound since the 1950s with regard to public eating, both legal and informal rules dictate who is allowed to eat, and where

Among the many cultural changes that have overtaken British society in the last three or four decades – contactless cards, gay rights, twitter trolls – one of the least remarked on is our changing attitudes to eating, especially in public. ‘We weren’t allowed to be seen eating in public in our school uniform,’ a friend of mine told me recently. ‘After school I had to wait an hour in town, yet if I’d been seen having a packet of crisps at the bus stop I would have got a detention. I was starving when I got home.’

‘the policing of food and eating is used to shape who can and can’t use space, usually under the rubric of “anti-social behaviour”’

While the arbitrary overreach of autocratic headteachers still exists, the idea that eating in public is distasteful might seem to have slipped away, driven from popular etiquette by dining trends and less social conformity. Yet eating in public spaces can still be a battleground, with both legal and informal rules dictating who is allowed to eat, and where. Indeed, the liberalisation of social attitudes more generally disguises an increase in illiberal policing and soft forms of control. Britain might like to tell itself it’s thrown off its old neuroses around class and gender, but the curtain-twitching remains in new and more-insidious forms.

One factor in this change is a shift in the nature of work. As the UK has deindustrialised, factory jobs with fixed breaks have been replaced by casual service industry and white-collar work. The workplace canteen is no longer part of the collective national experience; instead, grabbing a sandwich and eating at the desk has become the norm, replacing the lunch break with an ill-defined time when, theoretically, the office worker should rest but, instead, is pressured to spend the hour productively, squeezing out every last penny for the boss. It’s probably no coincidence that the pre-packaged sandwich debuted in the UK in the first year of Thatcher’s government, and has since boomed into an £8bn-a-year industry. 

‘Liberalisation is an uneven process that authority can turn in its favour, whether it’s extracting more value from workers under the guise of a casual workplace or furthering social segregation by ‘cleaning up’ communities’

As the caff and canteen disappeared from our life, eating on the move blossomed. In good weather, the City of London is, at lunchtime, filled with office workers with their salad bowls and avocado wraps. Yet these piazzas are far from the equivalent of their Continental counterparts. As new office developments have restructured London, many squares in the redevelopment have been parcelled off as ‘pseudo-public space’, ostensibly public space that is actually privately owned and regulated, with tight controls on the activities that take place there. As Sarah Gaventa, founder of Made Public, has noted, this includes eating. Visiting New Street Square as a juror for a public-space award, she noted two construction workers eating their lunch being asked to move on, as their overalls might transfer dirt to the suit of another, better-dressed member of the ‘public’. This casual, discretionary policing feels like it’s becoming a standard operating procedure in the UK, with those who fall outside the polite and well-mannered having little recourse to actual rights with which to protect themselves. 

Even in public space proper, the policing of food and eating is used to shape who can and can’t use these spaces, usually under the rubric of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Of course, as with most anti-social behaviour strategies – especially around public drinking – the rules are intended as both broad-ranging and discretionary, enabling authorities to create the ‘right type’ of public. Out go the homeless, clutching a tin of Kestrel, to create space for the bankers, clutching a bottle of Bolly. It’s a generalisation, but it’s also a trend: the discretionary nature of anti-social behaviour policing has seen entire street-food sites in Shoreditch approved by the council, while the Walthamstow Forest mobile soup kitchen had its licence revoked and Westminster City Council tried to introduce a by-law banning charity kitchens. 

Gettyimages 484802715

Gettyimages 484802715

Source: Tolga Akmen / Andalou Agency / Getty Images

Outside the law, social taboos militate against, for instance, eating on public transport. However, the strongest taboo on public eating is reserved for mothers who breastfeed in public. In his bid to roll Britain back to the ’50s, Nigel Farage suggested that restaurant proprietors should decide whether they allow women to breastfeed their babies, and that they should ‘perhaps sit in the corner’. Women are legally entitled to breastfeed in public, and to treat a breastfeeding woman differently is unlawful discrimination. And yet, according to a Public Health England survey, only 57 per cent of the public consider breastfeeding in a restaurant appropriate – dropping to 51 per cent for public transport. This public awkwardness has the expected effect: almost two-thirds of new mothers said they felt embarrassed about breastfeeding in public. As the Britain of the past knew, the informal power of social expectation can be more powerful than any by-law, especially when it’s implemented through shame. 

While we tell ourselves society has become less stuffy and rule-bound since the 1950s with regard to public eating, perhaps that’s only half the story. Liberalisation is an uneven process that authority can turn in its favour, whether it’s extracting more value from workers under the guise of a casual workplace or furthering social segregation by ‘cleaning up’ communities, and old habits of decorum and shame die hard. These twin forms of power now work together to continue to limit access to public space, control how people behave in it, and encourage an anxiety-inducing and highly gendered form of self-policing. Today, the rules around eating in public are not so much pointless and arbitrary, but pointed and discretionary.

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today