Britain is a nation of snackers. According to the 2019 State of Snacking report, 69 per cent of us depend on snacks to get through the day, with the UK’s average daily snack intake exceeding average meals consumed. We are time poor and snack rich; stealing moments on the fly to glut, gulp, and groan.
Last October, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies called for a ban on eating on public transport. It was a two-prong rationale: cut back on rubbish left on trains, and help curb the nation’s obesity problem.
Though it sparked an uproar at the time, a snack-free commute could soon be the reality. After all, with face masks mandatory on public transport since June 15th, feeding on a bacon sarnie or knocking back a can of M&S gin-and-tonic will be a difficult thing to do. Is this the death of snacking “on-the-go”?
On the Littlehampton train out of Brighton, twenty-somethings Jess and Alex are unconvinced. Masks pulled down to their chins, they devour a punnet of tomatoes with gusto; distinctly blase about the whole thing..“It hasn’t made me feel any different, to be honest”, Jess shrugs, when asked about the mask, before adding “perhaps it’s the privilege of youth”. Ironically, they had just finished their shift distributing PPE in a local hospital.
Passing through the carriage I spot several passengers ignoring mask orders to tuck into sandwiches ‘visage libre’. All offenders declined to comment. But not everyone flouts the rules. I met Marion, who’d travelled to Sussex from Scarborough – a five-hour journey – with her mask on the entire way. So strict was she with the policy, that she made sure only to eat and drink when she changed trains.
From a technical perspective, it’s nigh on impossible to eat whilst wearing a mask. Only foods which can be imbibed through straws – smoothies and soups – are in line with the government’s face mask directive. The race is on to find a solution. In May an Israeli inventor premiered a mask with a pump-controlled “hinged mouth” which was met with curiosity and ridicule on social media. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable enough, so who would want to look like a human pac-man – or a character from Sesame Street – inhaling a bag of pop chips on a packed train? Clearly we need to reconsider how we eat on trains, if we are to eat on them at all.
There was a time when “eating on the train” summoned visions of lovingly packed hampers, duffel bags stuffed with homemade sandwiches and boiled eggs, washed down with a comforting thermos of tea as the scenery rolls by. In the 1930s, in first class, you would have been treated to damask and silverware, served delectable three-course meals by nimble, swaying waiters. The restaurant galley could whip-up all manner of alimentary delights: from afternoon tea to braised beef and quivering blancmange.
But the buffet car is a rare sight these days. In 2015 Southern Rail retired its on-board food trolleys as the service was overshadowed by in-station kiosks that provide fresher foods for snacking, and fancier takeaway coffees.
In the pandemic, Big Snack has been hit hardest in stations as footfall dropped dramatically in the spring’s blanket stay-at-home orders. The first snack business to break under Corona is Upper Crust, with branches mostly found in stations. At the time of writing, UC are expected to cut 5,000 jobs in the UK.
Before Corona, Britain’s snack industry was thought to be worth £21.7 billion, with a forecast rise to £23.4 billion by 2024. It’s not that we have to eat on trains; but Brits see it as a special pleasure, being able to spoil yourself while trudging from A to B. That the average UK commute time falls just short of an hour simply adds to the temptation.
Though stealth breakfasts may now be trickier, a decrease in snacking would be a boon for the anti-plastics movement, and a relief for severe allergy sufferers, spared the stress of constantly being on their guard. However, with trains largely unpoliced, most will continue to take matters – and their snacks – into their own hands.