Food systems have always come under stress in wars. From the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians described in II Kings to the scorched earth policy of the Russians in both 1812 and 1941, food has played a major role in deciding the outcomes of conflict. In conflicts at the moment people are starving such as those in Syria. However even in a times of relative peace there are some lessons we can learn from the first and second world wars. By the time the first world war started the food system was starting to become fairly globalised and Germany and the UK were no longer completely self sufficient. For the UK these imports were disrupted by U-boats and for Germany by the Royal Navy blockade. In both countries this led to widespread hunger (Neil’s grandmother could remember this). In 1918 the UK introduced a system of food rationing, but also advice such as a cookbook to make use of what there was.
What happened during the second world war is perhaps not only better known but also more significant. In 1940 the UK government introduced a comprehensive system of rationing for basic foodstuffs which aimed to provide a healthy balanced diet (see appendix for the list and quantities). Not only that but the ministry of food did as much as possible to teach people nutrition and how to cook. This was undertaken by means of both free public cooking demonstrations and widespread publicity. School meals were introduced (the fear was mothers would be too busy after war work to cook). Wasting food was made illegal, the reason being that men risked their lives to bring it in. The irony is that despite stress and shortage the health outcomes in many ways were very good. There was a second very important lesson we could learn from this period. The population was encouraged to “grow its own”. Gardens, parks wasteland and even the Buckingham palace gardens were pressed into service. 25% of the nations food was grown in this way, a stunning achievement. There was an unintended consequence, growing your own food or cooking from scratch in this way came to be seen as part of post war austerity since rationing continued into the 1950’s for economic reasons.
Rationing was also introduced in the USA from 1942. The prices of a number of basic food commodities such bread and milk were frozen for the duration of the war. As in the UK 20 million Americans turned over parks and gardens to grow food producing a impressive 40% of the nations food in that way. One problem the USA faced was that internment of the Japanese Americans hit food production very hard in California. This group dominated the states food production.
Food in war still has something to teach us today as we increasingly face fossil fuel shortages.