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The Road to Rationing: Preparing to feed Britain in World War II


By the time the war broke out in September 1939 the British government had already been planning the distribution of food in wartime for several years. This was not a rare example of forward thinking on the part of the authorities, but rather a reflection of the lessons learned from the mistakes and failures of the First World War.

Then, government reluctance to take any action meant that supply and demand dictated food distribution in Britain; consequently, between 1914 and 1916 prices rose by about 60 per cent. Those on lower incomes went hungry and there were complaints about waste, hoarding, shortages and unfairness. News of food riots was suppressed; in some parts of the country local volunteers organised soup kitchens and similar schemes in the absence of any government initiatives. Eventually a Ministry of Food was established and rationing was introduced in February 1918, but it was generally too little, too late. Women volunteered to work on farms through the First World War, and the Women’s Land Army was created in 1917.

So in 1936, as war clouds gathered over Europe for the second time in twenty years, the government set up the Food (Defence Plans) Department. It began by stockpiling sugar and wheat, while making preparations for a national rationing scheme.

As a heavily populated but geographically small island, Britain, then as now, consumed far more food than it could produce: for instance, we produced only 20 per cent of the bacon we ate, the bulk of the rest coming from Denmark, Eire, Canada and the Baltic states. Other foods, such as bananas, could not be produced commercially here, owing to the climate. Large amounts of foods that could be produced at home, such as onions, were imported. In the years leading up to the Second World War Britain imported 20 million tons of foodstuffs costing £400 million annually (the equivalent of £1.2 billion today).

It was obvious to all that Merchant Navy ships carrying food would be the focus of enemy action. Britain’s reliance on imports meant that if those ships were stopped from bringing food into the country, shortages would lead to civil unrest as they had twenty years before. If this pressure could be kept up, the nation would starve and be forced to capitulate. Rationing, it was quite clear, would be essential.

The government encouraged individuals to set up their own food stores. On 2 February 1939 the President of the Board of Trade told Parliament:

‘I see no objection to the accumulation by householders in peace time of small reserves of suitable foodstuffs equivalent to about one week’s normal requirements … Household reserves of this kind would constitute a useful addition to the total stocks of the country.’

Advice and training courses proliferated. Leaflets advising on home storage of food were issued as part of the country’s civil defence preparations. The emphasis was on tinned food, but people were also advised to preserve stocks of essentials such as flour, tea and sugar. The Canned Foods Advisory Bureau issued ARP Home Storage of Food, a booklet suggesting several lists of food costing 5s, 10s and £1, along with menus and recipes for their use. These stores included flour, tea, cocoa, coffee, sugar, cereals, baby and invalid foods and dried fruit, to be kept in metal containers with tightly fitting lids. The booklet suggested that, in the event of war, ‘the Nation would be immediately rationed with a limited supply of meat, butter, cheese, milk, flour, tea, sugar, potatoes and cereals’.

When war was declared on 3 September 1939, the preparations stepped up a gear. Within a week the Food (Defence Plans) Department became the Ministry of Food, with W.S. Morrison as the minister in charge.

Rationing in wartime was not seen simply as a way to keep people fed so there would be no repeat of the unrest of the last war. New discoveries about nutrition meant that by the 1930s the importance of diet and health was explicit in theory, but largely untested. Government scientists realised that the circumstances provided a unique opportunity for a major social experiment, and one that the First World War had shown was necessary.

During the First World War large numbers of conscripts were found to be unfit for duty because of ill-health related to poverty and, especially, malnutrition, and this led to government-backed research into the subject. Other research demonstrated the contribution of a poor diet to the ill health of poorer people in this country.

The food eaten by poorer children was of particular concern and interest. In 1934 the School Medical Officer for Glossop had designed a free school meal to make up the nutritional constituents missing from the normal diet of malnourished children. During the war this was reintroduced as ‘the Glossop Sandwich’ or ‘the Glossop Health Sandwich’. It consisted of:

1 pint of milk and 1 orange (when obtainable)
If no fruit then ¼ oz of chopped parsley included in the sandwich filling
3 oz wholemeal bread
3/4 oz of butter or ‘vitaminised’ margarine
3/4 oz of salad; mustard and cress or watercress, or lettuce and tomato or carrot
1 1/2 oz of either cheese, salmon, herring, sardine or liver
3/16 oz of brewer's yeast          

Early in the Second World War plans to feed the nation a ‘basal’ diet were discussed. This was worked out by nutritionists to ensure that everyone received the basic nutritional intake essential for their needs. This basal diet was to consist of 1lb of potatoes, 12oz of bread, 6oz of vegetables, 2oz of oatmeal, 1oz of fat and just over half a pint of milk per day – and no meat. The idea was that this would form the basis of a person’s daily food intake and other items would be surplus to their nutritional requirements.

In 1940 the plan was vetoed by the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who enjoyed his food. Appalled at the idea of such a spartan approach, he wrote to the new Minister of Food, Lord Woolton:

‘The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes etc. washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.’

The wartime diet was not as stringent as Churchill feared, especially as campaigns to encourage people to grow their own food gathered pace and the convoys bringing supplies from Canada and the United States also carried new types of food such as Spam and soya flour. For many people the problem was more to do with the lack of variety. A long list of items remained unobtainable, such as lemons and other citrus fruits, fish and imported spices.

The government’s scientists, though experts in their field, were not necessarily always able to appreciate the need to make their ideas acceptable for the general population. Not that they were entirely insensitive to the views of the public. Magnus Pyke, a government food specialist, later recalled a proposal that the government should encourage people to eat their pets. The plan was never pursued as the effect on the nation’s morale would, it was decided, far outweigh the nutritional benefits from eating one’s cat or dog. And despite Churchill’s veto, the basal diet influenced a lot of scientific thinking and so the nation benefited from a diet that was nutritionally ahead of its time.

Extracted from The Ration Book Diet

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