WWII Rationing Challenge: lessons for today?

womens land armyCambridge Carbon Footprint’s World War II Rationing Challenge has certainly caught the imagination! Over 700 participants have signed up to follow wartime rations during June, and the entire BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Breakfast Show team signed up for one week of it, devoting a great deal of air time to it on some programmes (the best bits are at 01:18:57 – 01:21:24 and 01:47:50 – 01:55:11). There was also a double page spread in the Cambridge News. One of the thing that I find most interesting from the point of view of sustainable food, is that, although rationing (which continued until the mid-fifties in the UK – I remember it!) was very unpopular, it had two very positive results (apart from preventing starvation when the county couldn’t get its usual imports):

  • people were healthier than before (and fitter than many people in the UK today) because foods which are known to cause health problems (sugar, high-fat foods such as meat) were strictly rationed
  • food was distributed more fairly than previously, as everyone, rich and poor alike, got the same rations (even the Queen had a ration book), which meant that poorer people often had a better diet than previously

rationing book2The wartime government considered food to be essential to the war effort and rationing was very strictly enforced – this required a very top-down approach, which changed growing and eating habits in a very short time. (How different from today, when governments don’t want to “interfere”, even in the face of a health and environmental crisis! But it does show how much can be achieved very quickly when the political will is there.) The newly created Ministry of Food (which later morphed into the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF), which morphed in turn into Defra and the FSA), initiated a very successful campaign with iconic images of “Dig for Victory” and “Waste not want not” which we are still familiar with today. There were “Food Flashes” in cinemas (this one was included in the CCF WWII email last week.)

These facts came out very clearly from an excellent talk “Healthy and Sustainable Diets: Lessons from WWII” by Carine Henry, paediatric dietician, and member of the Cambridge Sustainable Food committee, at our AGM. She also mentioned the scientists who personally tested out whether people could remain healthy on rationed food by trying it out on themselves before rationing started (they reported that the main problem was flatulence!) You can read the full story in this fascinating Guardian article, mentioned in CCF’s excellent weekly rationing challenge email bulletins.

As part of CSF’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign, I’m about to take part in the challenge myself (almost no food was wasted during the war). The challenge has been going on for the whole of June and I’ve opted to do the last week of it, which means I have the benefit of reading everyone else’s blogs! I particularly enjoyed Clare Heal’s post (and the accompanying photo of her in a 40s headscarf! – You need to scroll down till you get to her June 15th post “Rational”).

Loose-Kabuki-Marrowfat-2400x1600_grandeI’ve been warned that planning is important, as it’s easy to get caught out if you haven’t done your shopping in advance, and it will mean cooking from scratch all week, so I’ve decided to cook batches of things that will last 2 or 3 days (which means I’ll also be able to take part in the #leaftoverlunch selfie social media fest next week. I’m planning to source as much as I can locally (or at least from the UK), as imports were difficult during WW2. As I can’t eat dairy products, I’ll have to source my non-meat protein from Hodmedod’s, which provides British beans and peas by mail order – they also do quinoa from Essex, a boon for me, as I am gluten intolerant, so have to avoid a lot of cereals. I know this means that I won’t be eating a typical wartime meal, as some of these things were not available in the UK at that time – some other participants have made a particular point of using wartime recipes to see what they were like, which makes for an interesting read (see here for Ann’s Carrot Roll) – but at least it means that I will be eating local, seasonal fruit, veg and pulses, which is definitely in the spirit of the challenge! I’ll also see if I feel healthier at the end of a week (in one of the rationing bulletins, one participant was pleased to note she had lost 5 pounds!)

Barilla pyramidWe don’t have to eat spam fritters and stodgy potato pies these days unless we want to, but we could certainly take some lessons about the health benefits of eating in the way we did in WWII, and eating in this way also benefits the planet – food-associated GHGs, a major contributor to climate change, could be cut by half. The excellent ration book given out to participants by CCF makes much of the fact that eating in this way is also good for the environment, largely because of the enormous reduction in meat and dairy consumption, but also because of the need to eat local, seasonal produce, which cut down transport and storage emissions – see the Barilla Centre’s double pyramid “good for us, sustainable for the planet”

And just think what it would be like if that wartime spirit could be harnessed to combat climate change!