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Food Rationing Systems during World War II

Food rationing policies were introduced in most European countries as an early measure, even before scarcity had time to develop. Rationing systems were designed to secure an equitable distribution of the available supplies of essential food to the entire population, regardless of their level of income. They were a strategy for preventing the waste of essential foodstuffs by means of the control of foreign exchange, shipping facilities and manpower. In addition, food rationing sought to supplement and reinforce measures of price control and production planning, something necessary for managing the economy of war. Without effective coordination between the various phases of social and economic policies, and more particularly between the availability of supplies, an organised system of distribution, and price control, food rationing could not have worked smoothly. In this case, thanks to the experience gained with the Great War and the Spanish Civil War, on the basis of the latest developments in the experimental science of nutrition, European governments were in general remarkably successful in managing their rationing policies, a central aspect of the political economy in war time.

Two main models of rationing were applied during World War II, conceived by the experts according to their suitability to the economic situation of the country involved. One was the German-type, also called Continental, and the other one the Anglo-American-type.[1] The German system represented an improvement on the rationing schemes that were applied during the Great War. This system was adopted all over the European continent with some particular modifications. It was conceived according to a supply situation that was more stringent than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Food imports to Europe accounted for 10 per cent of the supplies before the world conflict, but due to the exceptional situation of the war period they were entirely cut off, whilst the production of domestic crops contracted to approximately 80 per cent of the normal standards by the end of the war.[2] Therefore, the problem in continental Europe was the capacity to satisfy the nutritional requirements of the whole population, the total food consumption, according to nutritional requirements. The solution of this challenge was sought by introducing a reduction in livestock, particularly pigs and

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poultry, transferring to human consumption a greater part of the crops released from animal feeding. This policy resulted in a lower animal- vegetal ratio in the human diet, with a higher proportion of vegetable calories being consumed.

However, in considering the nutritive value of the diet, it was extremely important not to excessively reduce the proportion of animal proteins and calories, since some of them - such as milk for children - were deemed to be essential for health, to maintain organic defences, avoid undernourishment and secure the adequate organic development of infants and children. Indeed, economies of scale were required in the distribution not only of animal foodstuffs, but also of vegetable foods. Under the German or continental rationing system any important foodstuffs or groups of foodstuffs were particularly rationed in amounts per person, per day, per week or per month. Rationing was the system applied by nutritionists to guarantee both the quantity and quality of diets. It must be kept in mind that the logic of markets in times of scarcity tended to increase prices and produce maladjustments. As a counterbalance strategy, rationing tried to avoid foodstuffs becoming too expensive and diets too low in daily calorie intake.

A plurality of factors had to be considered in order to adjust rationing to the needs of the population groups. Physiological needs for food varied in a significant degree according to sex, age and occupation. Attempts were therefore made to make rationing differential in order to minimise inequalities. To do so, consumers were divided into several broad categories, each one receiving rations in proportion to previously calculated physiological needs. But the number of categories was limited for practical and administrative reasons, and the system did not fully eradicate inequalities, at least in terms of calorie needs. The system was considered to be “cumbersome, inelastic and altogether devoid - at least in theory - of a free consumer’s choice”.41

Experts were aware of the negative social attitudes towards rationing. Therefore, to be successful, rationing required a highly efficient administrative apparatus and also the support of public opinion. When those fundamentals were missing - and this applies especially to the procurement of food from farmers - an increasing proportion of the total food supplies were shifted to the more attractive and more lucrative black markets. The smaller and less popular the official rations, the greater the alternative paths. When they were accepted by public opinion, this was an incentive to use and supply black markets as a normal practice. Economists and public health experts associated the failure of rationing systems in guaranteeing an adequate diet with the spread of black markets.

The efficiency of rationing was directly proportional to the amount of calories that the rations afforded: the bigger the rations, the less important the black market. Qualitative or cultural elements (the prestige or bad reputation of certain foodstuffs associated with consumption by upper or lower social groups) were not taken into consideration. On the whole, rationing proved efficient throughout the war in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, and also in the Netherlands for most of the time, but it was less successful in countries such as Belgium, France and Norway. On the contrary, in southern and eastern European countries, rationing collapsed altogether at the end of the war. Official records about actual consumption were hard to collect, since under conditions of extreme scarcity, as was the case with Greece in 1943, black-market supplies entered the scene.[3]

The situation was quite different in the United Kingdom, and rationing was never stopped during the war. Although access to overseas supplies was seriously threatened, rationing was chiefly introduced in order complement the scarce shipping space and foreign trade. The domestic output was directed towards the production of bulky or perishable foods, such as wheat, vegetables and milk, whilst food imports were primarily directed towards providing concentrated animal products, such as fats, meat and other dairy products. Throughout World War II no absolute limitation on the supply of total calories took place in Britain. The consumption of bread and most vegetables remained free, operating as a sort of budget regulator and permitting consumers to purchase as many calories and foodstuffs as they required if they could afford them. On the other hand, rationing was designed to distribute scarce foodstuffs, animal products, sugar and fats equitably.[4] It was devised so as to meet the average needs for all the main nutrients and it was considered that there was no need for differential calorie rationing (the Continental rationing style), with basic rations being based on an equal per caput allocation.

Some specific population groups required quality foodstuffs. This was taken into account by special distribution schemes, complementary but separate to the general rationing system. In this respect, reference must be made to special rations of milk and protective foods for children, nursing and pregnant women, to communal feeding and industrial canteens. Additional, non-essential rations were also supplied by the so-called point-rationing system. This method ensured a fairly wide consumer’s choice between different commodities. Indeed, the Anglo-American system remained more flexible than the German or continental system throughout the war and, therefore, it was better adjusted to individual choices and family habits. On the whole, rationing was limited to animal foodstuffs, mainly to prevent the uneconomic expansion of animal farming products, while providing for a sufficient amount of export, lend-lease and military needs.[5] In the USA, the British system was adapted to a separate rationing of meat, fats and canned goods, with little restriction to consumer’s choice.

  • [1] [Lindberg, J.], 1942.
  • [2] [Lindberg, J.], 1946.
  • [3] For more detailed information, see the Appendix “Legal Food Rations by Countries,1940-1945”, [Lindberg, J.], 1946, pp. 121-159.
  • [4] Ibidem, p. 3.
  • [5] Ibidem, p. 4
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