Hunger: a Modern History | Reviews in History
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James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)
Poverty became recognised as a social problem around for several reasons. Most obviously, the rise of the labour movement gave the working class a voice at Westminster for the first time - though the Labour Party, representing the trade unions, was remarkably unsympathetic to the unionised underclass: until the Jarrow crusade in , the Party cold-shouldered earlier hunger marches.
This new political impetus was reinforced by an awakening middle-class realisation that charity was not enough. At the same time there was a growing imperial concern for the physical condition of the British race - exposed by the rejections of a high proportion of recruits for the army during the Boer War - leading to fears of a decline in 'national efficiency'. Meanwhile, developments in the science of nutrition led to a much more sophisticated understanding of the debilitating effects of poor diet, more complex than the simple lack of food.
This led during the First World War to the establishment of a Ministry of Food, which not only directed the nation's food supply - threatened by German U-boats - but ran canteens for key workers.
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Collective feeding was still associated with punitive regimes in schools, prisons and the workhouse, and still widely resented. Nevertheless, the state's responsibility for feeding the people was extended in by the institution of cheap and wholesome 'British restaurants' and the successful introduction of rationing, which actually improved the diet of most of the population. But compulsion was a blunt weapon. More effective in the long run was education.
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The proliferation of women's magazines in the s spread awareness of healthy eating more successfully than government canteens. But this worked only when people had money to spend. It was full employment, not welfare, that finally as it was thought banished hunger after Government's role was now reduced to enforcing food standards, leaving the market to work its magic, as Adam Smith - more optimistic than Malthus - had said it would years earlier. Behind its wealth of social and scientific detail James Vernon's book has a clear political agenda.
As a professor of history at Berkeley, California he takes a distinctively American slant on British history, challenging what he regards as social democratic orthodoxy by arguing that hunger was conquered less by political action and the welfare state than by science and the success of capitalism in diffusing personal choice.
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But his book stops in the s. When mass unemployment returned in the s, so did widespread hunger, if not actual starvation. The poor still eat badly, and Jamie Oliver's efforts to get schoolchildren to like healthy food are as fruitless as the lectures of all those Edwardian charity workers a century ago. Love puzzles?
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