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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960

Food Consumption Levels during the War

The surveys conducted by the Economic and Financial Department of the League of Nations indicate that an adequate consumption of foodstuffs - just as satisfactory in calories and quality as before the war-was maintained in the Americas, the British Dominions, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland until the end of the war. In other countries, such as Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary, even the pre-war intake, though adequate calorie-wise, was of lower nutritional quality, and was maintained during most of the war. In the rest of Europe, critical local shortages were identified, mostly affecting urban areas and population groups that were too poor to access the black market. Even in those cases, farmers were little affected by food rationing and apparently managed to maintain their pre-war consumption level, except in areas directly exposed to warfare. But the critical situation of many rural areas in Europe in the years previous to World War II must not be overlooked: their marginality, famine, underdevelopment and exclusion, especially as a consequence of the economic crisis that hit the rural districts in the 1930s.

In Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, calorie consumption in urban areas was slightly lower than before the war, but not much shorter than 3,000 calories per day and consumption unit. In Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, rations varied from 2,300 to 2,800 calories per consumption unit a day approximately, although the intake per consumer was a bit lower, in some cases 20 per cent lower than before the war.[1] These figures did not point to a truly critical deficiency of calories, but local shortages became more severe at times.

A total of between 1,500 to 2,300 calories per consumption unit was the level found in the Baltic States, Slovakia, France and Italy, although the experts thought it convenient to include substantial additions coming from the black market, especially in France and Italy.46 The situation was much more critical in other European countries. In Poland, Greece, and some areas of Yugoslavia and Albania, food distribution was not regular, and consumption fell for shorter or longer periods to levels of semi-starvation or outright famine.

Generally speaking, milk consumption in Europe was relatively well maintained during the war, but the proportion of most foodstuffs of animal origin, particularly meat and eggs, decreased; fats were scarce, whilst the consumption of vegetables increased both in absolute and relative terms. The nutritional composition of the diet, especially regarding vitamins and minerals, was not much worse than before the war, and in some exceptional cases it even improved. However, absolute deficiencies of specific nutrients became more frequent as the calorie intake dropped below safe levels, with malnutrition appearing as a consequence. Calorie rations in the Soviet Union were about 1,800 calories per head per day, a figure apparently similar to that in Germany, but the diet included almost no milk and dairy products, fats and eggs, and very little meat. Severe local, temporary shortages arose in the low- consumption areas in the Far East. Some parts of India suffered a famine in 1943, as well as several regions of China, and rations were reduced in Japan during the war, which led to a dramatic food situation at the end of the Pacific war.

The European feeding situation, food availability and the efficiency of the rationing policies varied enormously across countries and between social groups within the same country. Therefore, drawing general conclusions may involve a risk of misinterpretation and an oversimplification of a plural reality. While it was true that peasants, farmers and other country dwellers were less affected by nutritional problems, it must also be noted that living conditions and nutritional health were considerably worse in many rural areas of Europe than in the cities. The most evident critical food shortages arose mainly in urban areas, proportionally taking a greater part of the fall in national food supplies. The average level of food consumption depended on the size of the official rations, but also on the extent to which these rations were made available and on the purchasing power of incomes that could obtain additional food from other non-rationed sources, including the black market. All those factors were very difficult to assess by the experts, who estimated that contributions to food consumption from the black market generally exceeded deficiencies derived from low incomes and hindered access.

The urban populations suffered shortages in varying degrees in the different countries. The League of Nations reported that the calorie level was maintained at 3,000 calories as the daily consumption unit or slightly below in Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Hungary. This level was in general slightly lower than in the pre-war period, but it was not physiologically deficient. In Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway rations were lower than before the war, representing 2,300 to 2,800 calories per consumption unit a day, as much as 20 per cent below normal calculated requirements.

Severe partial shortages affected the lower income groups in urban populations, those who were too poor to patronise the black market. In the Baltic States, Slovakia, France and Italy, rations shrank, ranging from 1,500 to 2,300 calories, to which those obtained in the black market were added. “Where such additions were not forthcoming in any significant amount, however, the rations were too low to permit full working capacity and health”.47 In Poland, Greece, some parts of Yugoslavia and Albania, distribution was very irregular, and consumption levels fell for shorter or longer periods, even in agricultural regions, to levels of semi-starvation. In some regions and during certain periods, especially in Greece in 1942, famine prevailed.

There was an absence of official, statistically measurable calorie deficiencies, which does not imply that the diet was adequate and balanced in any respect. In wartime, the struggle to have access to foodstuffs and to obtain enough calories to prevent starvation sometimes overshadowed the composition of the diet, its balance and proportion of elements to maintain optimum health and the best efficiency. If we take into consideration not only calorie contribution, rationing diets in wartime did not satisfy the accepted standards of physiological requirements regarding a balanced composition and proportion of nutrients. Even in peacetime, balanced diets were the exception rather than the rule in many areas of Europe.

The official reports of the League of Nations identified fully adequate diets only in certain Scandinavian and North and Western regions. Considering the situation of the continent as a whole, it would appear that the deterioration in the balanced composition of the diet was less marked than what it was often assumed. The National Institutes of

Food and other similar agencies had been quite efficient in benefiting from the teachings of modern nutritional science and the experience of other countries circulated among experts, who were able to avoid the many mistakes made during the Great War.

In most of the countries that maintained their calorie intake, the composition of the diet was increasingly vegetarian. But since milk consumption was fairly well maintained, the nutritional efficiency of the diet was not impaired. However, the experts stressed the fact that, generally speaking, the diet was impoverished by the waning presence of fat, meat and eggs, and consequently a smaller variety of foodstuffs was available and palatability reduced. This gave rise to some discomfort among the population, but there was no evidence that the war-rationed diet had become much poorer in essential minerals and vitamins than before the war. Indeed, owing to the increase in the consumption of vegetables, the intake of these nutrients probably rose in some cases.

In the group of countries that reduced the calorie intake, the quality of the diet was not too different from the one previously mentioned, but as the number of calories available per consumer was lower, and distribution usually less uniform, a number of shortages were identified, not only in the amount of calories but also in that of proteins, minerals and vitamins. Regarding food shortages, a social division became evident, under-nutrition being on the whole limited to the poorer sections of the urban population.

Finally, in the third group of countries, mainly those in eastern and southern Europe, the problem with quality was almost completely subordinated to that of quantity. The diet was virtually composed of vegetables, and the calorie intake was so low that absolute deficiencies of almost all essential nutrients were common. In this case, deficiency was not only associated with calorie intake but to the poor composition and variety of the diet, which was a source of malnutrition, deficiency diseases and other clinical problems.

At the end of World War II, rationing records comparable to those discussed above were still unavailable in relation to the situation in the Soviet Union. It is well known that the German invasion resulted in a severe shortage of Russian crop production. Indeed, the occupied territories comprised some of the richest agricultural districts that usually supplied agriculture and farm products to the rest of the country. In addition, in 1941 and 1942 the country lost its best winter wheat- producing areas, its principal sugar beet regions, and much of its oil seed land.[2] It was estimated that, on a per caput basis, grains harvested in 1943 did not exceed 80 per cent of the normal pre-war production.[3] Such a deficit could not be overcome by a mere reduction in the grains used for animal feeding, in spite of a great reduction in livestock numbers, including: seven million horses out of a total 12 million in the invaded territory; 17 million cattle out of 34 million; 20 million hogs, 27 million sheep and goats, and 110 million head of poultry.[4] The situation severely affected diets, as it was estimated that normally at least 75 per cent of the calories for human consumption were derived from cereals. Neither pre-war stocks nor lend-lease imports were sufficient to make up for the deficiencies of home-produced supplies.[5]

The decrease in the supplies of crops and animal products in the free portion of the Soviet Union was in part compensated by potatoes and vegetable products, the supply of which, according to the information published in Bolshevik,[6] was larger than usual. Therefore, the majority of people survived chiefly on a diet based on black bread, boiled potatoes and cabbage.[5] The League of Nations reports stated that the system of distribution was less egalitarian in the Soviet Union than in most European countries. Rationing covered the staple foods and the rations were sold at fixed prices that were within reach of ordinary wage earners. In addition, there existed a legal free market in which privileged groups able to afford the high prices could benefit from their superior purchasing power in acquiring extra necessities and luxuries. Those food supplies in the open market were derived from the share received by collective farmers after the division of the harvest. Prices were 800 to 15,000 per cent above the ration prices.[8]

Ordinary rationed consumers were divided into four categories: manual workers, office workers, dependent adults and children under 13, receiving a different amount of bread, cereals, meat, potatoes, sugar, vegetables and cheese. According to the estimations, the calorie intake per caput was about 1,800 a day, being higher for workers and lower for children and dependent adults. Other calculations indicated 1,600 calories. Although these rations were apparently as high as in Germany for the same year, they were of an inferior nutritional quality, containing almost no milk, dairy products, fats and eggs, and insignificant amounts of meat.[9]

Throughout the war, the nutritional situation in the United Kingdom and in the neutral European countries was more favourable than in the rest of continental Europe and the Soviet Union. Greater availability and a more flexible supply were reflected in the rationing systems. In the United Kingdom, rationing emerged out of the necessity of husbanding shipping space for war imports and as a result of restrictions on the supply of foreign currency.[10] Nevertheless, the food supply remained adequate throughout the war and stable rations were ensured. The British rationing system had greater adaptability to individual needs; it maintained an unlimited total consumption of calories of vegetable origin, though some vegetables and fruit were scarce and other imported stuffs were almost unobtainable. But all consumers could buy as much bread and potatoes as they liked. Rationing was chiefly intended to maintain a balanced diet in nutrients and not just to guarantee a minimum calorie intake.

As it usually happens in times of war, the agricultural strategy focused on reducing the consumption of foods that required a lot of shipping, land and labour. The policy stimulated the home production of bulky foodstuffs, such as cereals, potatoes, vegetables and milk, using the shipping space for imports of concentrated foods, such as fats and meat. Indeed, milk consumption increased by about 28 per cent in 1943, compared with pre-war levels. Wheat-growing land rose by 82 per cent, and all cereal crops by 86 per cent. Potato crops increased by 116 per cent.[11] Rationing included protein foods, milk and fats. Since the need for quality foods varied less than for energy foods between different social groups, a uniform basic ration per head was adopted for meat, bacon, cheese, fats, sugar and jam. These rations, together with the free foods, were adequate to meet average physiological requirements. The introduction of whole bread and the supplement of margarine with vitamins A and D contributed to safeguarding the nutritional adequacy of the ordinary diet.

Obviously, this system did not satisfy all the requirements of groups with special needs and therefore several additional schemes of communal feeding were implemented. While in continental Europe workers engaged in heavy work received additional rations, Great

Britain adopted the policy of supplementing useful additions out of the ration. Communal feeding adopted three main forms: industrial canteens in factories, mines and docks; school canteens for children; and British restaurants for the public. Industrial canteens were introduced early in the war. Employers of more than 250 workers and sometimes smaller ones were required to operate canteens, pooling resources together with other factories to operate a single canteen. School canteens also expanded during the war to supply school children with one well- balanced meal a day. The Board of Education paid between 70 and 95 per cent of the cost to local authorities. Sponsored by the Ministry of Food, and with the assistance of local authorities, the so-called British restaurants were initially conceived as an element of the emergency programme, but they became part of wartime living and by the end of the war more than 2,000 were in operation, serving about 600,000 meals a day on average.58 The government encouraged their establishment in areas where there were many small factories without independent canteens. The canteens were classified in two categories, the first catering to heavy workers and the second to ordinary workers.

Preschool children, nursing and pregnant women did not generally benefit from the communal feeding schemes. These special groups demanded diets rich in first-class proteins, minerals and vitamins, and therefore they received a special rationing card that entitled them to extra quantities of protective foods, such as milk, eggs and fruit. Vitamins were also supplied for free or at a very low cost, and children under one year had a priority right to two pints of milk a day, while nursing and expectant mothers and two to five-year-old children received one pint a day. Milk was supplied free if the parents’ income fell below a minimum. Schoolchildren received milk under the milk-inschool scheme inaugurated before the war.

A third measure called the point-rationing scheme was introduced in 1941, to distribute commodities whose supplies were too small to permit specific rationing. Each consumer received a card containing a set number of points and the commodities were priced not only in ordinary currency but also in points. This system allowed certain foods to be included, giving the consumer a much greater choice. Economic and financial calculations proved that such a rationing system would have been useless if part of the population had not possessed the income needed to purchase the legal rations. Certainly, the British system, and its aim of establishing a healthy minimum diet for all, required close coordination between price policy and social policy.

In addition to the previously mentioned initiatives, the Ministry of Food had almost monopolistic power over the distribution of all imported and most homegrown foodstuffs. It fixed the price of essential foods to the consumer based on social policy considerations. Prices were stabilised at low levels and the difference between the cost of production and the cost of import was contributed by the Treasury, sometimes from subsidies, sometimes from the profit made from the sale of other products. When the policy of price stabilisation was introduced at the beginning of the war, subsidies were already being paid at a rate of about 50 million pounds a year. At the end of March 1945 they were running at a yearly rate of 225 million.[12]

As a consequence of this social rationing scheme, the average consumption of milk, potatoes, vegetables and bread increased, while that of sugar, animal products other than milk, fats and imported fruit declined. Official figures indicated an estimated daily supply of 2,900 calories per caput per day, which was considered to be sufficient. Generally speaking, the nutritional level of the civilian population was deemed to be even better than before the war. The chief shortcoming of the nutritionally improved national wartime diet in Great Britain was monotony and the lack of palatability. But the general improvement in public health, even though the country was at war, testifies to the success of the British food distribution and rationing systems.[13]

Sweden was almost self-sufficient in food before the war, enjoying a high level of consumption, and did not suffer any serious food shortages during the war. Milk, potatoes, meat and fish were not rationed most of the time and they operated as budget regulators, permitting the population to satisfy their total needs for calories in a balanced manner. The proportion of animal and vegetable foods consumed did not really change. The foods rationed followed the German-Continental pattern, although a point-rationing system similar to the British one was intended to safeguard the consumer’s free choice.

The situation in Switzerland was a bit tighter than in Sweden, as the country was more dependent upon imported food. Bread was rationed and only potatoes remained free. The rationing system was gradually rendered more and more flexible by the introduction of certain adaptations and modifications of the German model. In 1943 lower income groups could not always afford to buy the full ration of the more expensive foods. Consumers were given a choice between two rationing plans at different prices but with equally nutritive calculations. In addition, coupons for certain foods could be legally substituted, at specific rates of exchange, for coupons of other food items. These modifications gave the Swiss rationing system with some flexibility, limiting a differentiation by consumer’s category.[14]

Conditions in Ireland did not require rationing of more than a few imported foodstuffs, and in Portugal domestic food production before the war rendered the country 90 per cent self-sufficient in cereals and 100 per cent in fats. Figures remained like that until 1943, when serious droughts reduced crops and forced the country to ration bread. By the end of the war, consumption was about 95 per cent compared to what it was before the war, but inadequate administrative control caused city dwellers to suffer all the impact of a decreased supply.

Spain was almost self-sufficient in food before the Civil War, although the standards of consumption were slightly low. As a consequence of the war, technical reports showed that the situation had impaired drastically, the amount of area sown and productivity were decreased to such an extent that Spain became dependent upon the importation of staple foods. By the end of the war, the total supplies, according to the estimates of the Department of Agriculture of the United States, provided some 2,300 calories per person a day, as compared to 2,650 before the Civil War. The reduction was unequally distributed, heavily hitting the lower classes in cities. Their official rations - less than 1,200 calories per head - were not always available. But non-rationed food, such as meat, fruit and vegetables, and additions from the black market perhaps, permitted an urban consumption of about 2,000 calories, this being valid, obviously, for those groups that were able to purchase these relatively expensive foods.[15]

  • [1] Ibidem.
  • [2] World Food Situation, Geneva, League ofNations, 1946, p. 103.
  • [3] Farnsworth, H.C., Timoshenko, V.P., “The Food Situation in Soviet Russia,1943/45”, World Grain Review and Outlook, 1945.
  • [4] World Food Situation, 1946.
  • [5] [Lindberg, J.], 1946, p. 56.
  • [6] Bolshevik, March, 1944, num. 5.
  • [7] [Lindberg, J.], 1946, p. 56.
  • [8] Ibidem, pp. 56-57.
  • [9] Ibidem, p. 57.
  • [10] Ibidem.
  • [11] Ibidem, p. 58.
  • [12] Ibidem, p. 61.
  • [13] Ibidem, p. 63.
  • [14] Ibidem, pp. 63-64.
  • [15] Ibidem, p. 64.
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