For many people who experienced World War Two on the homefront, their most vivid memories were of food. Rationing changed the way people cooked and ate - food shortages meant that home cooks often had to use their initiative to create meals out of meagre rations. This led to popular dishes such as Lord Woolton Pie, Vinegar Cake and Spam Hash.
The government rationed food in World War Two to ensure people got an equal amount of food each week. In 1939 Britain only grew enough food to feed one person in every three and with Nazi U-boats threatening to starve the country into defeat, the government had to take action to prevent a food shortage. It was also worried that as food became scarcer, prices would soar and people would hoard food.
On 3 April 1940, Baron Woolton became Minister of Food. He had been a social workers and former managing director of the Lewis store chain in Northern England. Woolton was the mastermind behind the recipe books and nutritional advice offered by the Ministry of Food - he knew that it wasn’t enough to ration food; the government had to advise people as well.
Woolton worked closely with his chief scientific advisor Jack Drummond, who helped the government’s rationing strategy. Woolton’s method communicating with the public was effective and by 1945 housewives had a much deeper understanding of nutrition. The Ministry issued many cooking leaflets, often dedicated to specific topics such as the health benefits of carrots.
The Ministry of Food employed 15,000 people at its height, with 18 Food Officers and 1,500 Food Control Committees. The Ministry became involed in every aspect of consumer life - from telling grocers where to get their supplies from in order to reduce pertrol costs to advising home cooks on recipes.
Unknown to the British population, the Ministry of Food also created secret food depot warehouses throughout the country in which it stockpiled food in the event of invasion.
The Ministry of Food issued ration books to every family. Each one contained coupons which allowed them to buy a limited amount. Petrol was the first commodity to be rationed in 1939, followed by butter, sugar, bacon, paper and meat in early 1940. By the end of the war, half of Britain’s food was rationed.
The following list was published by the Ministry of Food. It details the weekly rations for one adult:
There was also a points system which limited purchases of tinned or imported goods. Each person was entitled to 16 points every four weeks. Foods such as canned meat, rice, fish and vegetables, biscuits and cornflakes all used the points system.
The weekly rations were stretched with the help of unrationed extras such as cereal, potatoes, offal and fruit, vegetables and bread, which wasn’t rationed until after the war.
Women were usually in charge of meal planning, shopping and cooking - which could be quite a challenge when faced with limited ingredients. Even buying the food was a challenge during World War Two. Women had to walk or cycle to the high street and stop off in the bakers, butcher, fishmonger and grocer in turn. They usually had to queue for up to an hour at each shop, and with no fridges or freezers, this journey would be made several times a week.
Recipe books published by the Ministry of Food helped home cooks cook interesting meals with very limited ingredients. There was even a radio cookery show called “The Kitchen Front” which attempted to make mealtimes more interesting. Some of the recipes put forward were very bizarre, including pigs’ brains, cows’ udders, rosehip chutney, squirrel tail soup and chocolate truffles made using cocoa powder and mashed potato.
The Ministry of Food encouraged people to grow their own food to overcome food shortages. It launched its ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign in October 1939, one month after the start of the war. The agricultural economist Professor John Rareburn ran the campaign until the end of the war.
The campaign encouraged families to turn their gardens into allotments. This would ensure that Britons still had enough to eat in the event of a major food shortage. The German U-boat campaign made it difficult to import food and by the end of 1940, 728,000 tons of food making its way to Britain had been lost, sunk by German submarine activity.
In particular, there was a major egg shortage following a hen cull in 1940. Egg rationing was limited to one egg per person, forcing more and more people to keep their own chickens. However, the catch was that chicken-owners had to give up their egg ration to pay for chicken feed.
Fortunately rations were padded out with imports, but the government did run tests to see whether the nation would be able to survive if U-boats ended all imports. In 1939, researchers at the University of Cambridge went on a diet consisting of one egg, one pound of meat, and four ounces of fish a week; one quarter pint of milk a day; four ounces of margarine; and unlimited amounts of potatoes, vegetables, and wholemeal bread. They also did two weeks of intensive outdoor exercise to simulate the wartime physical work of Britons. The scientists found that the subject’s health and performance remained very good after three months, with increased flatulence being the biggest problem. In fact, during wartime the nation’s health greatly improved.Infant mortality decreased and life expectancy rose as everyone had access to a varied diet with enough vitamins.
See also: What to do if war breaks out
"Food in World War Two". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.