THEY were once popular across the country and now a call has been made to bring back public diners in Scotland to tackle food insecurity, unhealthy diets and social isolation.

In the 1940s, there were around 2000 state-funded restaurants in Britain – with 16 alone in Edinburgh – but they have become a forgotten piece of social history, according to Anna Chworow of Nourish Scotland.

“They were designed as a piece of social infrastructure and although they were subsidised, they were not targeted at any particular group – there are pictures of women in them wearing fur coats,” she said.

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“They had a universalist principle like public transport and public libraries except they were places where you could get a healthy, nutritious meal.”

Now there is a move to bring them back and a conference organised by Nourish Scotland in Edinburgh last week attracted nearly 200 representatives from community groups, the farming industry and health and environmental organisations.

“There’s massive interest in them and a lot of enthusiasm about bringing them back,” said Chworow. “People working on climate issues, for example, are interested in them as places where you could start to help people feel more comfortable with a climate-compatible diet in a way that does not come with all the patronising messages.

“Public funding support would be necessary but a pricing model could be worked out to allow people to contribute to the cost of the meals, with mechanisms for subsidising certain groups such as those used for public transport. It’s about giving people good food and I see them very much rivalling the takeaway market or the ready-meal market,” said Chworow.

“There’s a massive social aspect to it as well. Places where people can meet informally are being dismantled from society because everything is online these days. People have not got opportunities to meet each other so public diners could be places for that as well as addressing food insecurity and poor nutrition.

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“If you have places where people from different social groups can bump into each other, you can create more social cohesion.”

As well as tackling social isolation and poor nutrition, Chworow said the public diners could also help support food producers in Scotland so that food produced here is eaten here rather than being exported.

“It’s also about taking pride and pleasure in the food we eat and the shaping of our culture,” she said. “They could model something really excellent.”