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Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Thursday, 7 January 2010

Should we bring back rationing?

Children eat carrots on sticks instead of lollies
Children ate carrots on sticks instead of iced lollies

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

It's 70 years since WWII rationing was brought in and many pass comment on the contrast between the current obesity epidemic and those healthier days of dearth. But how did people handle rationing and could we use the lessons to fight obesity now?

On 8 January 1940, the UK tightened its belt and entered a period of privation that was to percolate through every layer of the national consciousness.

Rations fluctuated throughout the war - these are the lowest they fell, with the peak figures in brackets
Bacon and ham: 4oz (peak of 8oz)
Sugar: 8oz (1lb)
Tea: 2oz (4oz)
Meat: One shilling-worth (2s 2d)
Cheese 1oz (8oz)
Preserves: 8oz a month (1lb for four weeks)
Butter: 4oz (8oz)
Further ration of cooking fat and margarine

As the system gathered momentum, the ordinary ration came to encompass meat, cheese, butter, margarine, bacon and ham, tea, preserves, sugar and cooking fats such as lard.

There was also a separate points system for canned food, dry goods and other groceries. Clothing and petrol were also rationed.

But it is perhaps the food ration that looms largest in the nation's memory.

Every week the nation's housewives would queue with their ration books - at shops they had registered with - to buy their allowances of groceries.

The man charged with making the nation accept the idea of eating less was Lord Woolton, a department store boss brought into the government as minister of food.

Social rancour

"Woolton had this genius for publicity," says Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum who helped create the forthcoming Ministry of Food exhibition. "[The ministry] had a wonderful PR organisation, which thought up Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete.

"People welcomed the advice that was given, although some of it today looks very patronising."


Set against World War I, when there was often an atmosphere of social rancour over the idea that some people were doing well out of the conflict, the rationing of the next war had a binding effect.

"By and large it was accepted as part of the war effort. It was a way of bringing the nation together. Rationing meant that there was no avoiding the war," says Stewart Ross, author of Rationing: At Home In World War II.

Modern rations

Yet there are many parallels between a generation having to go short because of the war and one now being told to change its eating and purchasing habits by the government and environmental campaigners.

The author Philip Pullman told a newspaper last year that he advocated WWII-style rationing for environmental reasons.

Created at Savoy
Recipe printed in Times, April 1941
Take 1lb each of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots, three or four spring onions, if possible, one teaspoonful of vegetable extract and one spoonful of oatmeal
Cook together for 10 minutes with just enough water to cover
Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking
Allow to cool, put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and cover with a crust of potato or wholemeal pastry
Bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely browned and serve hot with a brown gravy

But could we bring back rationing to fight obesity or save the planet? Would people accept the state forcing them to eat less?

The pioneering television chef Marguerite Patten, who worked as an adviser to the Ministry of Food during the war and who broadcast her recipe ideas on the radio, is not sure it would work.

"There is no point in bringing back rationing, but there is in bringing back healthy eating and bringing back 'no waste'. That was one of the golden rules."

And yet for many people there were great positives in rationing.

"So many of the foodstuffs that bring about obesity were in short supply," says Mr Charman.

Of course that's not to say every aspect of the rationing diet was wonderful.

Most fresh vegetables, like most fresh fruit, were not rationed, but could very often be in short supply, despite the Dig for Victory allotment campaign.

Boring diet

There was an occasion where a raffle for a single banana raised £5, then a healthy weekly wage, says Mr Charman, and another occasion where £4 worth of tickets were sold for the raffling of a single onion.

"When we look back we can say it was healthy in the amount of vegetables, although I wouldn't say fruit, they had. And they hadn't too much fat or sugar," says Ms Patten.

Children rush for sweets
Children welcomed the end of the sweet ration in 1953

"But it was boring. It went on week after week, with very much the same ingredients. People had to be very enterprising."

From a nutritional point of view there was both good and bad, says Anna Denny of the British Nutrition Foundation.

"Offal was quite a rich source of some nutrients we tend to lack in our [current] diet such as zinc. Teenagers tend not to get enough zinc."

A downside would have been a lack of some types of fish. Fish was not rationed, but its price was not controlled, says Mr Charman, meaning that it was often expensive.

And many of the rations do not seem that measly, such as 4oz of margarine and 2oz of butter. "100g of margarine per person - it isn't that limited," says Ms Denny.

Sedentary life

What would surprise most people is that, according to the government's National Food Survey at least, the amount of calories each person consumes a day has steadily declined since the rationing era.

Admittedly excluding alcohol, soft drinks and confectionery, the figure was 2,269 in 1942 and only 1,750 in 2000. The Expenditure and Food survey, which replaced the NFS in 2001, suggests a figure of 2,320 calories per person a day, including food and drink, in 2007.

1935: First plans for food ministry
November 1939: Ration books distributed
8 Jan 1940: Rationing starts
Basic rations required registering with single retailer
People still had to pay for food
No rationing on bread or potatoes during wartime
No rationing on eating out
Larger factories forced to open cheap canteens
Network of British Restaurants established with three-course meal for equivalent of £1.50
Source: Terry Charman/IWM

Whatever the statistical picture, the nature of our calorie consumption has changed dramatically. The UK has grown more sedentary over the years, shifting to office-based jobs and away from calorie-burning manual work. Even the housewife of 1942 would have worked much harder.

For Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, the current wave of overeating has its roots in the end of rationing in the 1950s and the shift to a society of plenty.

"We have a situation where food is available everywhere, open round the clock - cheaper, poor quality, bigger portions - a situation where food is ubiquitous. It is the first time really in history where food is limitless.

"We haven't developed an instinct that tells us when not to eat. Our strongest instincts tell us to eat."

He advocates taxes on high fat and high sugar foods and sweeping measures to promote physical activity, saying: "There is a place for the nanny state, especially when you look at kids."

Of course there is a lesson for current politicians in the way attitudes to rationing changed after the war, when privation continued because of the efforts to feed the liberated countries and Germany, as well as bad harvests and economic chaos.

Women protest against bread rationing
Post-war rationing often caused resentment and protest

"People made the best of it but were very horrified when it went on so long after the war," says Ms Patten.

"The majority did welcome it [during the war]," says Mr Charman. But rationing continued for nine years after the war, with some allowances dropping immediately after victory in Europe and some new things like bread, which had not been rationed during the war, being restricted.

"Whereas people were prepared to make the sacrifices when we had a very tangible and evil enemy, afterward people were saying 'we won the war, why are we still being rationed? Why is it still getting worse?'"

The Ministry of Food exhibition is on at the Imperial War Museum from 12 February 2010 - January 2011.

Here is a selection of your comments.

That recipe you gave us was called "Woolton Pie" not "Lord Woolton Pie". And very nice it was I still make and enjoy it. I remember Lord Woolton giving much good advice and I remember the little "poem" we used to say: "If the war you want to win, Eat potatoes in their skin. Because you know the sight of peelings Deeply hurts Lord Woolton's feelings".
Sheila Ellis, St Austell, Cornwall

As an American expat, I can see the benefits of doing this in the US, where not only have we lost control of how much we eat, but what we eat - both through merchandising and new, cheaper manufacturing methods. I have lost 10kg (22 pounds) since coming to Japan four months ago and haven't changed my eating habits drastically. The problem is, rationing would not go over well in the States because it would be seen as a removal of rights, which may be true to an extent - but American society needs to see that we were given this freedom to preserve ourselves and our world...and we're using it to waste both. Perhaps a voluntary rationing program? Though I doubt that would work.
Natalie B, Iwataki, Japan

Well I do not remember carrot on sticks. I remember all the rationing and getting 1/4 of cheese per person per week. However we didn't have all this terrible chemical spreads instead of butter, we had terrible margarine, we ate bread and dripping and lard with a sprinkle of salt. No-one was fat... No-one had asthma. Kids got chicken pox and measles and mumps and were not as sterile clean as they are today but they were healthier as far as I remember. I am 65.
Roz Rayner-Rix, Northampton UK

It wouldn't work, firstly that isn't how capitalism works and in a law abiding society it would ruin farmers and producers around the world, secondly it wouldn't be a law abiding society for long and a black market would spring up almost immediately and thirdly anyone suggesting it in politics right now wouldn't get elected. That said I'm not opposed per se, I just don't think it could possibly happen in the current political, social and economic climate... There may come a day when we have to ration again but now is not the time and imposition of rationing to stop obesity seems a little severe on those who aren't obese.
James Barber, Hornsea

This article, like so many, focuses very heavily on "calories in" and only touches extremely briefly on "calories out". Most people today drive to work, for example, whereas back then most people would walk or cycle to work (or at least walk or cycle to a station). Add in a much higher level of automation today in all areas of life, from farming and industry through to household appliances such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and it's clear that we simply don't use as much muscle-power as we used to. The issue isn't so much that we don't stop eating, but that we don't start exercising.
Graham Bartlett, Cambridge, UK

I can't believe anyone would want to bring back rationing, they must be crazy. Such an authoritarian regime is completely unacceptable in non-war situations. As for taxes on foods and the "nanny state", why is so many people's reaction to things to ban, tax or ration them? It's really none of our business what people eat, or how much they weigh, and so we should mind our own business and stop treating people as if they are stupid.
David, Ashford

I had a summer job as a school student giving out BUs (bread units). We had to explain time and again how they worked to people old enough to be our mother or grandmother, who did not want bread to be rationed. It was universally hated, but I do agree a government initiative on not wasting food would be welcomed and very helpful, as food must get dearer as it gets scarcer. I have never wasted food since the war years and my nickname in the States when I was a student there was "The garbage can" as I could not bear to see black bananas being thrown out even when the flesh inside was perfect.
Marion Monahan, Bristol

Rationing should not be brought back in, it is people's attitudes that need to change and it should start with the parents and in school. In elementary schools it would be a good idea for them to spend a good period looking at food and having the students creating ideal menus that cover all the human body needs. Food needs to be shown to be interesting and easy to make.

One thing I really like about being in Japan is that a lot of the food here is seasonal, you can't get it all year round and because of that the food tastes better, I enjoy my vegetables and fruits more than I did in the UK and therefore I want to spend more time seeing what recipes I can make from the foods that are in season. If you are seriously thinking about rationing then perhaps consider this step first. Also you can't change people's ways, if they like eating junk and sitting watching TV rather than eating more healthy and getting exercise then nothing (aside from themselves) will change their ways.
Claire, Japan

I was born in 1938 so remember the rationing. The first banana I had was in 1944 and thought how horrid it was, no one told me you do not eat the skin. The same thing happened with my first orange, I ate skin and all. Although the food ration was not much people stretched the rations by eating a lot of wild food, especially fruit, blackberries and sloe being top favourites. Most people dug up their lawns and grew their own vegetables. Lots of folk kept chicken for eggs and meat, ducks and geese and Christmas and Easter treats. People walked or cycled so got a lot more exercise. We were certainly much more healthy.
Ann Haimes, Salisbury, England

I was born in 1944. I remember being given half a fried egg. I shared it with my brother. He always got the yolk. This was the late forties. Were eggs still on ration then? They were certainly in short supply and when my aunts visited they would bring an egg. Eggs were seasonal anyway as the hens stopped laying in cold weather and when the light levels were low. This was the reason that the hens were kept indoors as they would lay longer due to artificial light. In due course this gave rise to battery farming. All part of the political quest to feed the masses cheap food and plenty off it. Times change... or do they?
Jennifer Edgell, Emsworth, Hampshire

Why would a state want to organize a food rationing system when it is not necessary? What should be done however, is to heavily tax food products that only serve to make us more obese - and use the money to offer a lot more sports facilities and classes to both kids and adults.
Franziska Holzner, Wels, Austria

When Britain had local grocers and green grocers serving the community, governments supported the notion of supermarkets, hypermarkets and out of town shopping centres and local shops died as a result. Now governments are telling us that we're greedy and wasteful when it was they who imposed these supermarkets on us - no doubt with many lucrative side deals being made, lining many pockets in the process. The job was done too well, our supermarkets now bombard us with BOGOF offers and deals meant to entice us through their doors, and we're left wondering "if they can give it away, why can't they sell it cheaper?". Don't get me wrong, I stock my freezer and fill my larder with these offers. I look for bargains that will feed my family as economically and as nutritionally as possible and with as little waste as possible. Nothing gets wasted in my house, a chicken will provide a Sunday lunch, some sandwiches and the bones will be used for soup.

I just object to the notion that it's always the fault of the people; the consumer and when there's a price to pay, it's the consumer that has to pay it. It's never the fault of governments that have all but eradicated the local shops in favour of supermarkets. We get raked over the coals for not recycling waste that is given to us by the supermarkets who often have so much packaging, you can hardly get to the food itself.
Derek Arnold, Bromley, UK

Too much junk food is being produced and too many people eager to buy it if this was stopped and people forced to buy decent food and at last learned to cook it we would have a far healthier nation many decent meals can be cooked in less time than it takes to open packages or remove foil tops.
J Rice, Liverpool UK

I think rationing would definitely be preferable to hiking up the taxes on things the government thinks we are eating too much of. I completely fail to understand why it's acceptable to stop poorer people having access to things, while the wealthy are unaffected.
Jenni, Sheffield, UK

Honestly I do not think this rationing idea will work because people will get upset that they will not be able to have the things that they want. Also here in the US many people have a hard time affording the foods that are good for them and thus resort to eating at fast-food restaurants because it is cheap. Rationing only will work to make people thinner if a country decides to shut down any fast food industries and only give the people good food to eat. And that is something that just will not happen.
Keri Loch, Grayson Ky, US

I after living in France for a number of years and comparing their lifestyle with that of the UK, it is clear as to what the problem is. We British have become lazy and addicted to fast (junk) food. If you look at our French counterparts, they exercise more, eat more fresh foods, eat more slowly and drink far less beer. I think that in order to maintain a healthy population we need to re-educate. People need to become more active, get out more, take their time over meals (enjoy what you are eating) and most of all, cut down on junk. When I left the UK, I was overweight. After just a few months living in the South of France, my eating and drinking habits changed and I became more active. Now, my weight is back to normal and, at 47, I feel fit and healthy and would think nothing of taking a 20 mile hike in the hills. It is just a matter of changing ones habits.
Terry Millins, Manching Germany

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