What can we learn from wartime rationing?
By Lizzie Collingham
In 1939 Britain was dependent on 22 million tons of food imports a year. It was not U-boats that were the greatest threat to the food supply, however, but rather a new lack of shipping space. For the government, which had expected neutral shipping to be widely available as it had been during the First World War, the scarcity came as a surprise. Within a year, as ships were diverted to troopcarrying duties and industrial raw materials increasingly claimed cargo space, food imports fell to 11 million tons.
As soon as war was declared in September 1939 Neville Chamberlain’s government took over the food supply. Thus, the government immediately took responsibility for ensuring that every member of society was able to access sufficient food. Although the War Cabinet, and in particular the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, were reluctant to restrict civil liberties, the government brought in rationing. The Ministry of Food was determined not to repeat the mistake of the First World War, when rationing had been introduced only after shortages had already become a problem. By the summer of 1940 meat, fats, dairy products, eggs, sugar and tea were all rationed. For the first eighteen months, however, the government lacked a clear food supply strategy, and found itself solving one food shortage at a time. The recommendation to eke out the meat ration with oatmeal, for example, created a secondary shortage as it failed to take into account the limited facilities for milling oats. Wheat stocks fell first and eggs became scarce as the government prioritized milk production. Two-thirds of Britain’s farmland was pasture and the country’s livestock was also dependent on imports of feed. Cabinet Office economists warned that livestock was “eating shipping space”. Beef and mutton shortages became a serious problem. By the end of 1940 the government was forced to make up the meat ration with offal, which until then had been unrationed.
In January 1941, the journalist Maggie Joy Blunt wrote:
We are not starving, we are not even underfed but our usually well-stocked food shops have an empty and anxious air. Cheese, eggs, onions, oranges, luxury fruits and vegetables are practically unobtainable… Housewives are having to queue for essential foods. We live on potatoes, carrots, sprouts, swedes, turnips, artichokes and watercress… The meat ration was cut at the beginning of the month… Prices are rising.
At first the working classes were suspicious of the government’s talk of sacrifice, fearing that the poorest would bear the brunt. (Then as now, Britain was riven by social inequality.) During the painful period of initial adjustment it was indeed the poorest and those in low-priority occupations who were worst affected.
After the anxious winter of 1940–41, the Ministries of Agriculture, Food and Health finally developed a comprehensive food strategy. Price controls were introduced to prevent inflation, pasture was ploughed up to grow wheat and potatoes, and the importation of condensed, high-calorie foods was prioritized. The ability to draw on the food resources of Britain’s trading empire was the real strength of the wartime food policy. Canadian bacon, New Zealand butter and cheese, West African palm oil, Argentinian de-boned and corned beef, American Spam, sausage meat, condensed milk and dried egg all provided 56 per cent of the population’s calories. And in order to secure 2 million tons of these crucial imports, Churchill cut shipping to the Indian Ocean by 60 per cent. This exported hunger to the colonies, where a reduction in supplies left millions of Mauritians, East Africans and Indians to face malnutrition and famine.
Goods for which there was an erratic supply, such as tinned meat, fish and fruit, rice and biscuits, were given a price in points. The government was able to steer consumer choices by adjusting the number of points an item was worth. At the same time the system gave shoppers a psychologically beneficial illusion of control. Each ration-book holder was allocated sixteen points for four weeks. They could be sensible and spend everything on a pound of tinned sausage meat, enough to create several main meals, with the bonus of a thick layer of nearly half a pound of fat; or they could splurge eight points on a packet of biscuits. Indeed, the knowledge that the government felt responsible for ensuring a reliable and fairly distributed food supply made a significant contribution to wartime morale.
Lord Woolton was a gifted speaker. He recognized that if rationing was to work the government needed to be seen to distribute food equitably across the population. For this reason every adult no matter what his or her occupation received the same allocation. The wartime diet replicated the prewar working-class diet in that it relied heavily on bread and potatoes, which were not rationed. The idea was to stave off hunger by filling up on starchy staples. Rationing and rising wages gave even the poorest access to adequate quantities of meat, egg (albeit dried), butter and milk. Indeed, pregnant and nursing women as well as children were given priority access to milk. Children were allocated cod liver oil, orange juice and tins of blackcurrant purée. The health of the poorest third of British society markedly improved, and by 1945 the stubborn pockets of deprivation in the industrial areas worst hit by the Depression had been virtually eradicated.
Rationing had the effect of levelling out the diet of everyone in the country to the standard of the prewar skilled worker. The dinner of lamb, potatoes and cabbage followed by date roll and custard that a lab technician enjoyed in September 1942 was remarkably similar to meals he had enjoyed in the 1930s. But while this kind of meal represented an improvement for the poor, used to scraping by on bread and margarine, a bit of bacon or cheese and copious amounts of sweet tea, to the upper and middle classes meals of this kind were a form of deprivation. The rich were able to circumvent rationing by buying expensive unrationed foods, including lobster and salmon. The middle classes experienced the most restrictions and complained the most. The government’s call to “Dig for Victory” was patchily received: while the working classes tended to grow root vegetables and a few runner beans in their allotments, the rural middle classes cultivated the spinach and peas they missed, and bemoaned the lack of anchovies and lemons.
The wartime British were as removed from the danger of starvation as the panic buyers of today, who have the means to empty supermarket shelves. Which is not to say that wartime food was not stodgy and monotonous. In March 1943 one diarist complained, “How I grow sick of never-ending starch – bread, bread, bread”. The small luxuries – such as ice cream, imported oranges and bananas and, most importantly, onions – disappeared. Onions, the majority imported from France, had been British cookery’s ubiquitous flavouring, but when the crops planted by British farmers were afflicted by blight, onions became sufficiently rare that people considered them a delightful birthday present.