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How Capitalism Stole Your Lunch Break

At one time, lunch meant a real break from work and a hot meal. But for many of us in today’s workplace, it means a precious few minutes at your own desk wolfing down food before you go back to work. It’s time to take your lunch break back.

A fast and mostly joyless lunch break has become the norm in just about every corner of the world. (Getty Images)

When you imagine culture shock in Britain, a handful of stereotypes probably spring to mind. The British are cold and ironic, the weather is cold and wet. They love pubs and football and tea. These steadfast clichés are how we imagine the rest of the world views us, but in reality, it’s the small things that usually go unremarked that can seem the most abrasive to outsiders.

“Here everyone eats at their desks. It’s depressing.” That’s how one friend, an Italian who moved to London seven years ago, described the major difference between our cultures.

He wasn’t coming from the place of a stereotypical Italian, either. There are no long lunches around tables piled high with pasta; instead, my friend’s preferred lunch is a packed sandwich on a park bench while listening to podcasts about violent crime.

In the UK, employees are legally entitled to a twenty-minute work break every six hours. Most employers offer at least thirty minutes, with many giving a full hour in the middle of the workday. But in reality, less and less of us take the full amount we are entitled to.

Office workers are particularly vulnerable to “work creep,” as more opt for a rapid snack at their desk over a proper break. In 2018, one survey put the average office lunch break at just sixteen minutes, while the more hopeful end of the scale claimed a generous twenty-eight minutes before the pandemic. According to one survey of over seven thousand workers across multiple industries, 58 percent never took their full lunch break, while more than half regularly worked through their break.

The statistics are depressing, but it wasn’t that my friend had stepped into a uniquely desperate climate. Britain is no less joyless in its approach to lunch than other countries. In stereotypically relaxed Italy, the average lunch break is the same length as here. But as my friend went from a union job in Milan to an office block in Reading, he experienced what is increasingly common for millions across the world: the neoliberal lunch.

Early Lunches

Before the industrial revolution, people’s eating habits varied far more than they do today. Eating three times a day was still the norm, but what these meals looked liked depended heavily on your place in society. The classic ploughman’s lunch is a perfect example of the sort of thing many preindustrial workers would have enjoyed: a simple cold meal, eaten roughly in the middle of the day.

Some of the earliest industrialized workplaces were catered to by nearby cottage industries that set up stalls or sold food from their homes (such as miners’ wives who popularized the Cornish pasty). But as Britain rapidly industrialized, workers in newly built factories required a new form of food. Mass produced bread, pies, and other staples helped feed a hungry workforce, and soon factories and workplaces featuring large-scale kitchens and canteens became the norm.

According to food historian Ivan Day, “Britain was the first country in the world to feed people with industrialized food.” It became common for workers to eat at work in regimented periods, and soon the notion of a lunch break was born. Formed in the rapid shift toward production and profit, lunch was no longer just some food we ate when we felt hungry: it forever became tied to the binary notion of work and nonwork.

Outside of the industrial centers, lunch was changing too. No-frills restaurants serving middle-class professionals were common from the eighteenth century onward. These restaurants, called “ordinaries” or “chophouses,” catered to the proto-service-industry workers: the clerks, shopkeepers, and administrators. Unlike their industrial counterparts, they were a strictly for-profit enterprise, aimed at the increasing need for fast and comfortable dining.

By the 1900s, our contemporary understanding of lunch was firmly cemented. Most industrial workers ate in canteens, while the urban middle classes preferred cheap and easy restaurants. Across all industries, the notion of a lunch break that was defined by the employer was universal. From these norms, the workplace cultures of the rest of the industrially developed world soon followed suit.

As new victories were won by workers, our views on work-life balance shifted. The eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek were achieved through the struggles of trade unionists, and slowly the idea of a lunch break as part of someone’s personal time became widely accepted. Workers felt entitled to employers providing food and space to eat, or the freedom to spend their breaks however they wanted.

The Lost Canteens

In the 1951 film Our Canteens, new Transport for London workers are welcomed to their new jobs as kitchen staff at one of TfL’s many (now sadly lost) worker canteens. Here the new staff are given a quaint introduction to one of the over two hundred “state of the art canteens” catering to workers across the transport network.

On YouTube, the black and white archive film is now accompanied by dozens of comments decrying their relative treatment in the modern day. “We used to take canteens for granted in the workplace, now it is a luxury,” reads the top comment.

During the war, workers’ canteens were viewed as an essential element of the British state. Though the more cynical may view the debates in Parliament as an extension of the war machine mentality, the comparative dignity of a guaranteed warm and hearty meal feels a long way from today’s workplace.

TfL no longer employs catering staff. The last kitchen was privatized in 1993. The majority have closed or been converted into cafes that sell overpriced sandwiches to Central London office workers. For the drivers, cleaners, and engineers that work for TfL, the matter of a hearty lunch is now an entirely private concern.

In postwar Britain, the government built a welfare state that centered the needs and dignity of all people. It was flawed and imperfect, but the golden age of Britain’s new economy would stand head and shoulders above the standards that were just around the corner.

Enter the Meal Deal

As Britain shifted from an industrial economy toward the service sector, the early foundations of neoliberal ideology were also forming. Factories closed; those that remained cut costs, and canteens were often the first to go. In urban centers, offices closed the catering they had, or sold them to private companies that ran a service too expensive for most people’s everyday use.

With bosses no longer feeling obliged to cater to their staff, small-time enterprises once again stepped in. Burger vans became the new cottage industries, greasy spoons the new chophouses, packed lunches the new ploughman’s lunches. The culture of regimented lunch breaks remained, but the provisions for workers were fading quickly.

In the early 2000s, the first meal deals arrived in British stores. They found modest success at first, catering to on-the-go types at petrol stations and motorway services. But as smaller businesses across the country were swallowed up, minimarkets also became widespread, especially in the cities.

The model of a uniform selection of lunchtime options was adopted across multiple chains, and for many years the formula (and even the price) has remained unchanged. The meal deal is such a staple of British cuisine that it has welcomed the semi-ironic love of thousands in Facebook groups dedicated to tongue-in-cheek discussions of bad sandwiches.

When the UK went into lockdown in 2020, the proliferation of meal deals became apparent. Tesco alone sold over £160 million’s worth in 2019, falling to less than £64 million as offices and workplaces emptied. As lockdown eases, hundreds of thousands of units are once more being sold everyday.

It’s obvious that the cheap and easy convenience of the meal deal has filled a requirement of the modern worker that other forms of food have not. Nearly half of workers regularly eat at their desks or workplaces, and the expectation to reach increasing levels of productivity at your own personal expense is widespread across practically every industry.

But it isn’t just market forces that have led to this proliferation. Cheap restaurants in the cities have closed, employers are no longer required to provide for workers, overstretched workers don’t have the time to take breaks, and even outside of work, finding a chance to make a packed lunch is rare. Britain’s miserable lunch culture isn’t one formed through preference — it’s the narrowing of options at the expense of workers’ freedom and comfort.

The Food of the Future?

In the modern workplace, lunch is routinely viewed as an inconvenience for boss and worker alike. This attitude has been internalized by millions, who now view their own well-being and comfort as an impediment to their workday. This attitude is seen not only in the way we lunch but the new forms of food being created to address this shift in attitude.

Huel was founded in 2015, and is in every way the picture-perfect start-up success. The company set off to make the world’s first nutritionally balanced all-in-one meal: the idea wasn’t new — the company’s “human fuel” was essentially a rebranded protein shake created by a former bodybuilding supplement expert — but its pitch to a new form of worker made it a rapid success.

Huel’s promise was simple: a meal in seconds that was easier, cheaper, and, most importantly, more nutritious than any fast-food alternative. In its first five years, Huel grew from a £3 million turnover to over £72 million in 2019.

It found success initially in finance and start-ups, where thousands of “Hueligans” took up the all-in-one meal slurry as an attempt to maximize their productivity. Its advocates loved the chance it presented to cut out their lunch breaks while also providing the nutrients and vitamins needed to give them the productivity edge.

Soon the brand broke out of the Silicon Valley circles and into the ordinary offices and workplaces of the world. Imitator brands quickly sprang up, and in 2020, customers queued around the block for the launch of Huel’s latest line of “hot and savory” dried meals.

With workers feeling the pressure to disregard their own human needs as an inconvenience to be put aside for the sake of profit, products like Huel find a comfortable niche within our workplace environments, enabling us to maximize a neoliberal model of personal efficiency. A fast and mostly joyless lunch break has become the norm not just in Britain but in every corner of the world where workers toil.

Something New

As lockdown forced many of us out of the office, it also shook work’s grip on our human lives. It has presented a chance for workers across all industries to reevaluate how we spend our time: a chance to step back from miserable norms and examine the influences which drive us toward them.

In the case of food, it’s a chance to push toward a model that allows us space for breaks and leisure, and that does not treat us like human machinery responsible for our own maintenance. We have the opportunity to reject what we’ve been served for something altogether new.

Just as unions fought for countless positive shifts in our work-life balance, we must look at what else we can achieve for the benefit of all. We must strive for a workplace culture where joy, comfort, and freedom are considered essential parts of our lives.