Posts Tagged ‘Rationing’

How rationing in World War 2 democratised the British table – and made us all healthier

January 8th, 2015

Though to most of us food rationing seems almost an infringement of liberty, nearly everyone agrees that the sale of food needs to be regulated to protect its quality (that it contains nothing harmful, is not adulterated, is appropriately described and labelled) and quantity (that it is not short measure). In any case, our current ideas of food rationing owe more to memories of Russians queuing at food shops during the Cold War period, or of the hungry refugees looking for nourishment that we see most nights on the television news. The very idea of rationing life’s chief necessity runs counter to most people’s views about the operation of the marketplace, and there is no way in which curtailing the consumer’s choice of what he buys and eats contributes to the aesthetic enjoyment of food or to morale. Wartime rationing was one matter; peacetime restrictions on what food you could buy was quite another, as Labour found to its cost.

Rationing was instituted to deal with food shortages, but these had many complicated causes. Imports had to be reduced drastically, to save merchant shipping for purposes directly related to warfare (and was retained post-war for essential contributions to economic recovery); grazing was ploughed over to grow vegetables rather than to feed livestock. Though demand for red meat was still widespread, caviar, anchovies, parmesan and exotic fruit were not then to the taste of the majority of the population, but remained available to the travelled, educated and rich through most of the war via an ingenious points system. Driver says it created a sort of stock exchange “in such luxuries as sardines and sultanas, too scarce to be distributed in bulk as a ration-book entitlement.”

As for the admin, Driver’s hero, who made rationing succeed, was the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, “one of the most powerful retailers in the land,” Armed with a social conscience gained from working in Liverpool before 1914, he was also the beneficiary of a scientific education. These qualifications were rare among the Tory ministers, but opened Woolton to listening to the advice of nutritionists and medical researchers. He was what we would today call media-savvy: he managed to convince housewives to cook his Woolton pie, despite its description by a Liverpool friend of his as “looking on the outside exactly like a steak and kidney pie, and on the inside just like a steak and kidney pie – without the steak and kidney”. The recipe actually relies on six ounces of “chopped spinach, or cabbage or carrots, or a good mixture of vegetables.”

Much of the nutritional know-how came from another hero, Sir Jack Drummond, “a fundamental scientist” and foodie avant la lettre, who had “a rare gift for popular exposition.” (Drummond and his second wife, Ann Wilbraham, wrote a major 1939 study of the British diet, The Englishman’s Food; they were more famous, sadly, as the victims with their daughter of a triple murder as a camping site in Provence in 1952.) With Drummond at his side, says Driver, Woolton was “Churchill’s most effective minister on the Home Front.”

The pair of them even managed to persuade Britons to buy the grey-crumbed 85 per cent extraction National Loaf, and got local authorities to establish “British Restaurants.” Frances Partridge’s diary describes a meal in one at Swindon: “Thousands of human beings were eating … an enormous all-beige meal, starting with beige soup thickened to the consistency of past, followed by beige mince full of lumps and garnished with beige beans and a few beige potatoes, thin beige apple stew…”

In 1954, of course, we neither appreciated the role of rationing-enforced nutrition in the general health of the nation, nor had any inkling of how dangerous it could be to have too much to eat.

Despite the points system, rationing also democratized food. For the first time members of all socio-economic classes were eating the same diet, even taking in about the same number of calories. The middle classes, though, were chafing under rationing. Even those women who had formerly employed them had seen their cooks recruited by factories and canteens; they now cooked themselves and they and their families were bored, demoralised, and some would say their tastes had coarsened. Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food inspired them and made them long to be able again to go to Europe. But when it was published in 1950, there were four years of rationing to go, and her abundant lemons, aubergines and olive oil were pure fantasy.

Though our supermarket shelves now boast ingredients unknown to Mrs David, and though we’re all foodies now, the truth is that our collective taste has managed to sink to the lowest common denominator, represented by American-origin fast food outlets such as KFC and McDonald’s. Somewhere in this tale there is a political message about the British reaction to austerity policies. Maybe we need today’s equivalents of Woolton and Drummond to read the foodie runes.

Paul Levy chairs the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery and co-authored The Official Foodie Handbook (1984)


World War Two

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Rationing in World War 2 increased intelligence of Britons

October 30th, 2014

Previous studies have suggested that the nation’s IQ rises by around three to four points per decade, a phenomenon known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, driven by increased prosperity, nutrition, hygiene and safety.

But researchers were astonished that the jump was so pronounced between the 1920s and 1930s.

“When you consider the life experiences of the two groups, those born in 1921 experienced the depression as teenagers and then World War Two,” said lead researcher Dr Roger Staff.

“Those born in 1936 were children during the war and experienced food rationing. Although rationing meant that the food was not particularly appetising it was nutritious and probably superior to the older group. In addition, post war political changes such as the introduction of the welfare state and a greater emphasis on education probably ensured better health and greater opportunities.

“Finally, in their thirties and forties the 1936 group experienced the oil boom which brought them and the city prosperity. Taken together, good nutrition, education and occupational opportunities have resulted in this life long improvement in their intelligence.”

The University of Aberdeen team examined two groups of people raised in Aberdeen, one born in 1921 and one born in 1936. These people are known as the Aberdeen Birth Cohort and were tested when they were aged 11 and when they were adults after the age of 62. The study consisted of 751 people all tested aged 11 and who were retested between 1998 and 2011 on up to five occasions.

Researchers compared the two groups at age 11 found an increase in IQ of 3.7 points which was marginally below what was expected but within the range seen in other studies. However, comparison in late life found an increase in IQ of 16.5 points which is over three times what was expected.

Professor James Flynn, who discovered the Flynn effect said; “The study is very interesting. It should raise our estimates of British adult gains in intelligence.”

Before the war, more than two thirds of British food was imported. But enemy ships targeting merchant vessels prevented fruit, sugar, cereals and meat from reaching the UK.

The Ministry of Food issued ration books and rationing for bacon, butter and sugar began in January 1940.

One person’s typical weekly allowance would be: one fresh egg; 4oz margarine and bacon (about four rashers); 2oz butter and tea; 1oz cheese; and 8oz sugar.

But it was the MoF’s Dig For Victory campaign, encouraging self-sufficiency, which really changed how Britain ate. Allotment numbers rose from 815,000 to 1.4 million.

Pigs, chickens and rabbits were reared domestically for meat, whilst vegetables were grown anywhere that could be cultivated. By 1940 wasting food was a criminal offence.

As sugar was in short supply, sweets were rationed from July 1942 to February 1953.

It is known that despite the stress of the war, the health of the lower classes improved as they were encouraged to eat vegetables, beans and fruit. Access to cigarettes and alcohol was limited.

“These IQ gains are probably not unique to Aberdeen with similar with similar environmental changes being experienced across the UK,” Dr Staff added.

The research was published in the journal Intelligence.


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