Discover more from Vittles
Vittles 6.23 - The Lunch Break
Naked Lunch, by Jamie Parkinson
If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286, which ensures all contributors are paid. Any donation is gratefully appreciated.
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and problematic lunches. I hesistate to characterise my own propensity for long lunches as an act of resistance (they are just poor time keeping) but I remember in my first job I made sure never to eat where I worked (where I was entitled to a free sandwich) and instead removed myself from the toxic atmosphere to take time to steel myself for another shift. My obsession with Wong Kei in Chinatown is only reflective of my belief that it is the perfect canteen; a cheap, hot meal is important to mental health, and it is possible to both be alone and be with people simultaneously there. My lunchtimes got poorer when I succumbed to the quickness of the nearest Pret, where I would use my time to write rather than take a rest.
Unlike breakfast, the most private meal of the day, lunch is an irritant particle in the cogs of capital that drive the working day. If capitalism could reform circadian rhythms and eating patterns then the institution of lunch, and, by extension, the lunch break, would surely be abolished. It is an aberration in a day that is increasingly given over to work, and it’s no mistake that the lunch break itself has been under threat: from employers who whittle it down to the minimum, to companies who entice us and convince us to do anything other than eat: exercise, shop, or even - in my case - keep working. But did we fare any better during the pandemic, when the lunch break, for many, was completely taken away?
Bee Wilson has explored the surface of the lunch break phenomenon parallel to her book The Way We Eat Now in the Financial Times and on The Splendid Table Podcast. She ably identifies the symptoms: the fact that we no longer eat communally at the same time, that our lunch hours or half hours are spread through the day, that we either don’t have time or feel we don’t have time to eat properly. But the diagnosis is more difficult. As Jamie Parkinson says in today’s newsletter, perhaps the problem isn’t lunch at all. The problem of lunch is a useful lens to examine modern capitalism ─ the shifts that Wilson describes in the UK, from commensality to the atomised way we eat now are also the shifts from the post-war consensus to the gig economy and the increasing power of predatory companies. It’s a daunting thought, but you cannot start to change lunch without fighting to dismantle that power first.
Naked Lunch, by Jamie Parkinson
As our most public meal of the day (and the one we are most likely to purchase already prepared), how we lunch has always been inextricably tied to our background, our privilege and our class. Many of us learn this at school when we find out that the politics of lunch aren’t just about who we get to sit with. We might find that they’re also about comparing lunchboxes, or collecting free school meal tokens, or the immigrant kids’ ‘weird’ packed lunches. If we manage to escape this lesson at school, the politics become inescapable when we start working.
Years ago, I worked a summer job in a BHS next to an Ikea in a depressed out-of-town retail park. It was a hot summer, but for several weeks the air conditioning in the shop was broken. We continued to work despite customers turning on their heels as soon as they were confronted by the wall of stale heat. Nearby was a large Boots where I would buy a meal deal for lunch, and where the sympathetic staff would sometimes give me a discount along with commiserations over our working conditions. We would eat in the dingy back room, enumerating the wrongdoings of difficult customers, and – with a glance over the shoulder – managers. It was depressing, but the shared experience was validating and made it bearable.
Since then, I’ve paid for lunches I couldn't really afford under pressure to join higher-paid colleagues. I’ve witnessed management – under the guise of fostering better relationships – invite underpaid employees to expensive restaurants where they were then expected to foot their portion of the bill. I’ve learned that lunch has the ability both to solidify shared experience and to highlight and exacerbate workplace inequalities. Lunchtime can be a time for solidarity and community, but can also be a time when we are reminded of where we stand in the pecking order, during which we inhabit an ecosystem of complex and fragile tensions that cover much more than food. These tensions may reflect individual workplace social dynamics, but more broadly they are between invisible labour and those who rely on it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused our workplaces to move into our homes, thrown people out of work, or forced people into longer hours. So what happens to lunch? The pandemic has extended the joy of food and cooking to some, but for many others it’s served only to introduce a new stress of an extra meal in difficult circumstances.
This distinction lies in the removal of choice: to choose to cook for leisure can be empowered, joyous, self-improving; to perform the exact same actions out of necessity can be drudgery, monotony, tedium. Well-paid and privileged furloughed workers have been able to find respite from the pandemic in cooking, to take joy in their newly available time to spend on food and sourcing ingredients. However, those on lower incomes have not only lost the solidarity that they could once find in the break room, but must now procure an extra meal from a diminished income. Those whose lunchtimes were reminders of their disadvantage may well be relieved to have escaped the office pressure cooker – but without exception, the negative effects of the collapse of lunchtime as we knew it has hit poor and disadvantaged people harder than anyone else.
The burden of preparing an additional meal at home has been particularly painful for parents who have extra mouths to feed, more often and with less money. The responsibility of food preparation is one that primarily falls on women, who are likely to be lower paid and in precarious service industry roles. Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to continue free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays is partly a story of this responsibility being recognised, but its existence is an indictment of a government that is hostile to disadvantaged families. Those without family to feed or be fed by have been deprived of the respite of the break room, as well as social eating in restaurants or community kitchens. Even having that same food delivered is still a solitary experience, devoid of the communion that lunchtime provides.
Outside of home, key workers – who are likely to be low-paid and working unsocial hours – have been struggling to find places that are open and selling food for lunch. As people trickle back into their workplaces it’s interesting to see the hesitance and the struggle of the big café chains to reopen as compared to the relative constancy of restaurants serving diaspora communities: it looks an awful lot like the former had no communities to serve and that the people they did serve didn’t (and perhaps still don’t) really need them in a time of crisis.
Among all key workers, the most invisible may well have been those who produced, prepared and distributed our lunches. These are the care home chefs who are now the sole providers of lunch to the most vulnerable; the delivery drivers who risk illness for unstable and underpaid employment; the factory workers propping up sagging supply chains for the rest of us; the beleaguered supermarket staff. We couldn’t have had lunch without these people before – but being forced to think about our lunch has brought their necessity into uncomfortable clarity. Not only has the pandemic been a lesson on the value of lunch to us personally, but also the labour that we have been reliant on and the lack of value that we have given to it.
But what can we learn permanently from our lockdown lunches?
It’s likely that the slow return to work will mean a return to our familiar lunchtimes, with minor cosmetic changes. The Prets and the Greggs have reopened with added queues and flimsy partitions. The meal deals and our national obsession with packaged sandwiches will resume. For a few weeks, your boyfriend will make his packed lunches with the sourdough that he got into baking during lockdown, but after that perhaps he won’t have time anymore. Our privileges and prejudices will fall back into well-worn grooves, and it’s likely that many of those who struggled with lunchtime during the pandemic will be glad of that. But can't we aspire to something better? Why shouldn't we strive to remove the stratification and extend the joy and solace that can be found in food to as many workers as possible?
Employer-provided food in the form of private workplace canteens seems to fulfil a lot of these desires: heavily subsidised, quality food provided for all; stable jobs for those who make the food; and a separate space in which workers can take their full lunch breaks. This is unworkable for smaller organisations, but it’s likely to turn out flawed even where it’s possible. A canteen can still reinforce inequalities, resulting in a divide between (precarious, underpaid, poorly treated) service staff and those (permanent, well-paid, pampered) whom they serve. Plus, if you’re choosing to provide food for your employees, are you doing it because it’s right, or because it maximises the amount of time they spend in the office making you money? If it’s the latter, then you’ve recognised the power of lunch but you’ve chosen to wield it against your employees. If it’s the former, then there comes a time where the right course of action will diverge from what’s profitable and financially sustainable, and your choice will be made for you.
Even in the best case scenario – a government that wasn’t actively hostile towards disadvantaged people, tax-incentivised vouchers, public canteens and the nationalisation of the meal deal – lunchtime would still hold every bit of significance that it does today, and every tension would be just as painful. The well-oiled machine of the workplace might run a little smoother, but this would also be serving to make it more efficient at creating the inequalities in the first place.
Ultimately, the problem is not about lunch at all. Lunch is simply a magnifying glass under which the ways we treat service workers and the ways companies treat employees become briefly more visible. We’ve seen the consequences of these dramatically worsen during the pandemic, and we must use clarity to demand better. The improvements that we might make to lunch alone are not only financially and politically impractical, but they are treatments of symptoms of capitalism: they are limited, and they end up being motivated by their potential to extract more value from workers.
We can begin to effect change by valuing the labour involved in the provision of food – and of service work in general – particularly where this is invisible and underappreciated. Valuing this labour must come in the form of concrete action: of permanent employees advocating for stability and better wages for their precariously contracted colleagues in canteens, of speaking with feet and wallets against restaurants and chains which are known to exploit their staff. If we can stand together and claim control over our workplaces and the terms of our work, we will have achieved much more than just making these changes practical: we will have begun to create the conditions under which lunchtime at work is truly leisure time, during which the joy that food can bring is available to all.
Jamie Parkinson works as a software developer at the Wellcome Collection but spends most of his time thinking and learning about food. You can sometimes find him on Twitter or Instagram. Jamie donated his fee for the newsletter back to Vittles.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ . Ada was paid for her work.