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Food shortages during World War II had a huge impact on the diets of British people both during and after the war. Here, John Lowery describes the food his mother cooked and explains why he thinks people were healthier then than they are today.
“My mother used to come up with some wonderful food on our allowance, on our rations and she used to manage it very well. I used to grumble, because I was a child I suppose, that there didn’t seem to be a lot of variety. But I think, in those days, the powers that be, the Ministry of Food or whatever it was in those days, got it right because everybody during the war years certainly appeared to have a balanced diet and I think those of us that came through the war – again, I keep saying – without any personal tragedy or anything like that, came out almost a little bit better. Because the food that we were allowed was certainly enough to live on and I think, certainly reflecting and looking back as we are now, we were a lot better for it. We used to eat loads of potatoes, we used to eat loads of bread and butter and bread and lard – all very plain food, plenty of it. Plenty of fruit – like I say, mother used to make her own dishes – she used to make suet puddings, steak and kidney puddings with thick, thick suet and gravy – all the things that aren’t good for you these days. Roly poly puddings, spotted dick, bread pudding she used to make with all the bread that, when it was a bit old – she used to soak it and make a lovely wedge pudding which we used to eat a lump of that when we came running in from school – always something to eat. But it was good, plain food and a lot of it was food that people would throw their hands up in horror. They’d say we ate excess amounts of that in those days but, it didn’t do us any harm. But I’ve got a theory about that – I did say earlier that we used to go everywhere on the bus and on our bikes – unfortunately, now, we’ve got no way of burning this food off. We could still eat roly poly pudding, and suet pudding and all this, that and the other, and loads of potatoes, if we were still running to catch the bus or on our bikes or walking to wherever we go.”
Rationing and digging for victory
During the Second World War, serious food shortages led the British Government to establish a strict program of rationing. The threat of enemy forces meant that the seas around the British Isles were dangerous and, as a result, imported food was highly restricted. In addition, manpower and production at home were diverted into the war effort.
The government therefore implemented a rationing system, ensuring that key goods were shared out equally. Every adult in the country was issued with a ration book. Rationed ingredients included fresh meat, cheese, sugar, butter, jam and tea – even sweets and chocolate. Queues outside grocers and butchers were common – a British housewife might wait hours outside her local grocer just to get a small bag of onions. Ingenious recipes suggested ways to imitate unavailable foods – flour, water and vinegar were mixed together to make mayonnaise for instance. It was not uncommon for people to eat powdered egg or tinned meat – even on occasion horseflesh and whalemeat.
Amazingly, however, the war years were a period of greatly improved nutrition for most people. Indeed, many were healthier than they had ever been before. During the First World War, the government had been shocked to find that 40% of 2.5 million men tested were unfit for military service – mainly due to malnourishment. This led the government to invest time and money into dietary research and, over time, public awareness of nutrition-related issues has spread. The outbreak of WWII sparked similar concerns, and the Ministry of Food was established to deal with the problem.
The ministry set up a wide range of schemes. These included giving free milk to school children; establishing public canteens, restaurants and school kitchens to ensure most people ate at least one healthy meal a day; administering advice about healthy and affordable eating and spreading information and advice about growing your own vegetables. Slogans like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’ appeared on posters all over the country, and became watch words of the nation’s war effort.
British Library (2016) British Food. Available at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/resources/pdf/foodstories/herbertgodeeper.pdf (Accessed: 20 April 2016).