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Food Shortages Are Lessons From History

Your apron is your uniform, your wooden spoon your weapon.”

If you remember slogans such as this oft-cited in editorials and articles in newspapers and women’s magazines, then you have a living memory of the years of food rationing in Canada during the Second World War.

Food rationing was a way of controlling commodity consumption during shortages. You needed official tokens or stamps to purchase rationed commodities such as tea, sugar and coffee after raw imports were blocked at ports around the world.

Meat and butter were also rationed when domestic production could not feed both the folks at home and soldiers overseas. (Manitoba farmers of a certain age may recall programs like Bacon for Britain, when farmers raised 180-pound pigs in straw-stack housing for the war effort.)

Meanwhile, housewives across the country applied themselves to meeting wartime challenges with a “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” approach.

Canadians were urged to produce food for themselves during the war, with the production of Victory Gardens, as small acts of nation building in and of themselves. We also learned to substitute and stretch food ingredients in the kitchen and everyone had to become better meal planners. Cookbook authors, such as Kate Aitken, pictured wearing a winter coat and clutching a live chicken on the cover of her 1940 release of Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cook Book,had a huge following on radio and in print.

Canadians’ experience of food shortages was nothing compared to elsewhere in the world where food shortages, due to the devastation of agriculture led to real hunger and malnutrition. Here food rationing was over by 1947. In the U.K. the ration on bread was only lifted after 1948 and did not completely end until 1954, a full three years after Canada’s Wartime Prices and Trade Board had already been dissolved.

There’s another side to food rationing in this part of the world, and that was its unanticipated public health benefi ts. During times people were eating less fat and sugar they lost weight and were healthier. Where gasoline was rationed they walked more too.

Obesity in the population dropped. So did cases of Type 2 diabetes.

These are neither the observations nor speculations of a well-fed generation years after. Writing in theWinnipeg Free Presson November 7, 1942, Winnipeg medical doctor, Dr. Logan Glendening asserted, “I wish the sugar rationing had been a little more drastic and every nutritionist believes that the meat rationing, if kept to two meatless days a week, will be good for us.”

American dietitian Carolyn Berdanier writing much more recently inNutrition Today, also makes the case that all the imposed modifications in the daily lives of people resulted in a leaner population, and a healthier one.

There are lessons to be learned from this part of history in terms of public health policies. “Some of these lessons have been forgotten,” she writes. “But as we examine the health of the nation today, perhaps it is time to revisit these lessons, and learn them again.”

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