When a ‘status quo’ food system won’t cut it

The Second World War radically changed the Canadian food system. What can it teach us about what’s to come?

An employee prepares grocery orders for home deliveries in Montreal May 2.

Most Canadians probably never dreamed they’d spend so much time this year in line to get into Costco.

As COVID-19 shut down society mid-March, grocery stores became different places. Signage told customers to buy only one pack of toilet paper, bag of rice or jug of milk — if they were even on shelves. Headlines about meat shortage fears and vegetable farms without workers became commonplace.

Ian Mosby. photo: Supplied

“The status quo won’t be enough to get us through this,” historian Ian Mosby recently said.

For many Canadians, particularly the young, food lines were an unheard-of experience. For the old, it may have reminded them of another time and another crisis.

Mosby spoke to the Co-operator about how the Second World War, another great national crisis, changed Canada’s food system — and what we can learn from it today.

Prewar: rationed by price

As war dawned in 1939, Canada was just emerging from the Great Depression in which deflation and other economic factors flattened the food system.

“(The Depression) hit farmers particularly hard,” Mosby said. “Farmers already, during that period and up to the present, operate on pretty thin margins and so as prices dropped, a lot of farmers found it really hard to continue.”

Consumers, many unemployed or underemployed, had very little buying power and often couldn’t buy as much food as they needed or wanted.

Mosby said nutrition surveys done in the 1930s found widespread malnutrition, especially in cities and among unemployed or underemployed workers. Women and girls in particular suffered, as their nutritional needs often came after those of working-age men and boys.

[AUDIO CLIP] Ian Mosby talks about food system efficiencies and how government helped protect farmers during the war effort.

A 1960 MacLean’s magazine article titled “How did we ever get through the depression,” says that in 1934, a family of seven in Toronto got food relief payments of just under $7 a week (about $130 equivalent in 2020). In Newfoundland, not yet a Canadian province, each family member got six cents a day (or about $8 a week in 2020).

“Relief recipients were in no danger of putting on weight,” the article says.

The working-class person was accustomed to meat, vegetables, butter and sugar being “rationed by price,” said Mosby.

Canadians from coast to coast are suddenly embracing online grocery shopping and curbside pickup. photo: Reuters/Adrian Brown/Sipa USA

The war effort

After the Second World War began, Britain began to rely more and more heavily on Canada and the Commonwealth for supplies.

To cope, the Canadian government took control of many aspects of food production and distribution.

“Canada sort of experimented with a command economy,” said Mosby.

It was important to the war effort that goods get to market efficiently, he said. There were transportation bottlenecks of getting soldiers, munitions, and food through the rail lines. It needed to be normalized and centralized.

The federal government also didn’t want farmers and food producers to go bankrupt, Mosby said. In Nova Scotia, for instance, apple growers had suddenly lost much of their market. The government stepped in and began to market both to ordinary Canadians.

“In December 1939, for instance, the Department of Agriculture began running glossy advertisements with the message: ‘serve apples daily and you serve your country too,’” Mosby writes in an essay titled Food on the home front during the Second World War.

The government also began several programs for farmers, including subsidies and price floors. It made marketing wheat through the Canadian Wheat Board mandatory to facilitate sales to Britain.

[AUDIO CLIP] Ian Mosby explains how food rationing for fairness during the war effort worked.

British food needs and other wartime demands also changed what farmers grew.

“By the end of the war, it was estimated that Canadian exports accounted for 57 per cent of British wheat and flour consumption — down from its 1941 peak of 77 per cent — as well as 39 per cent of bacon, 15 per cent of eggs, 24 per cent of cheese, and 11 per cent of evaporated milk,” Mosby writes.

Between 1940 and 1943, wheat acreage decreased by 42 per cent due to subsidies, price guarantees and other controls. Other agricultural gaps had to be filled. Feed grains increased 72 per cent, hog marketing by 250 per cent, and flaxseed production increased 800 per cent.

Oilseeds were needed to produce glycerin, used in bomb making, Mosby said.

Because the government took direct control of the food system, they were able to make big changes quickly.

“They didn’t know how the war was going to go,” Mosby said. “Canada had to do all it could to make sure this war effort was going to succeed and part of that meant taking control of the economy.”


Early in the war, Canadians were asked to avoid foods Britain needed and to consume more foods whose European markets had disappeared — like apples. Canadians rallied behind food conservation causes, Mosby writes. This included the “Victory Garden.”

However, rationing was less a function of food conservation than it was a function of fairness, Mosby said.

As the war effort ramped up, more Canadians were employed and farmers were getting better prices for crops.

“As people got more money and were able to purchase more food, they did,” Mosby said.

People wanted to eat more meat, butter, vegetables and sugar. The food system couldn’t keep up.

“Suddenly there were shortages in stores, prices began to go up pretty dramatically, and a big part of that demand was consumers more than the war effort,” Mosby said.

Photo: Supplied

The government introduced a universal price freeze in December of 1941. Rationing began with sugar in 1942, followed by tea and coffee, then butter and other goods. Penalties for breaking the rules ranged from small fines to imprisonment.

Mosby explained that rationing was actually popular with Canadians.

“Under rationing you would go to the store and you would know that there would be sugar there. You’d know there would be butter there,” Mosby said. “Prior to introducing rationing, you’d go to the store and the shelves would be empty.”

It may have been less popular with the middle and upper classes who were accustomed to buying what they liked.

“(Rationing) asked for sacrifices for some while actually providing more to others,” he said.

“Ultimately, the language of sacrifice, austerity, and thrift that dominated much of the wartime discussions of food contradicted the reality of many Canadians’ wartime diets: that they were typically eating more, and better, than they had for more than a decade,” writes Mosby in Food on the home front.

Lessons learned?

Rationing, as popular as it was, was lifted after the war ended. Other changes were much more long lasting.

The Canadian Wheat Board remained the only buyer and seller of Canadian wheat and barley up to 2012.

Farmers fought for many of the subsidies and protections to remain after the war, and they largely succeeded. State support for agriculture was one of the big shifts that stuck around when the war ended, said Mosby.

“During times of national emergencies, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” said Mosby.

During emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, latent issues in the food systems are suddenly easier to spot.

“A lot of the issues… both for producers and consumers, become matters of life and death,” said Mosby. “Whether or not you can get your cattle to market, for instance, will determine whether or not your farm will continue to exist.”

Having a handful of giant packing plants processing the majority of meat is efficient, said Mosby, but suddenly it’s unsustainable. This pandemic has shown we need to think differently about our food system and fix problems that have been a long time in the making, he added.

Some Wendy’s fast-food restaurant chains temporarily pull hamburgers from their menu as COVID-19 pandemic 
affects workers in the meat supply chain in the United States. photo: Reuters/Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

That being said, it’s too early to say what a post-COVID food system will look like.

“You can’t predict the future,” Mosby said. “The past can teach us lessons about what works and what didn’t work, but Canada in 2020 is not Canada in 1940.

“The important lessons we can learn are more about that massive change can happen relatively quickly and it can be successful,” Mosby said. “Canada did this huge mobilization for war, the government took control of the economy, and we came out stronger economically afterwards.”

About the author


Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.



Stories from our other publications