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World War Two: Food Rationing and Shortages


How Britain was kept fed in World War Two

basic home-grown food

Most people have heard of rationing as a way of keeping Britain fed in WW2, but the Government’s actions went much further than that. This page explains why drastic actions were necessary and presents the main spearheads of what they were. Rationing was only one and has its own page. Other pages in the above menu delve more deeply into other actions.

Why drastic actions were necessary

It was quite obvious to the Government that Britain would not be able to feed itself in World War Two without drastic action. The two main reasons were as follows.

Devastated supply chains for imported food

In 1939 before the war started, approximately 70% of all food in the UK was imported, a staggering 55 million tons of it. The key suppliers were located across the world and included, in order of importance, Argentina, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India Burma and the USA. Imported food provided more than two-thirds of the calories consumed and half of the total protein supply.

Once the war started, the German U-Boat blockades and the need to make best use of shipping capacity for the war effort devastated the supply of imported food. The worst period was the winter of 1940-41, when U-boats were sinking supply ships three times faster than they could be built.

British farming unable to supply enough food

Before the war, British farming was very traditional with little mechanisation or modern methods. It relied on massive amounts of unskilled labour and had a strong emphasis towards livestock.

These farming processes meant that there was a significant shortfall between food consumption and domestic food production.

Drastic measures were needed to improve Britain's own food production and for the country struggling under wartime conditions to become more self-sufficient.

The new Ministry of Food

A new Ministry of Food was set up to manage and control the distribution of food and ensure that scarce resources were allocated fairly and efficiently. There had been a Ministry of Food for the First World War but it was disbanded in 1921. This new Ministry of Food was established on May 8, 1940, under the leadership of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The first Minister of Food was Lord Woolton.

It was disbanded gradually after the final end of rationing in 1954 and in 1955 was merged into the new Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. The fact that it lasted so long after the end of the war in 1945 was further evidence of the food shortages and rationing in the aftermath of the war.

The Government campaign to keep Britain fed

The campaign to ensure Britain remained adequately fed during the war was instigated by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food from 1940 to 1943, and he gained most of the credit for its success. In 1943, though, the campaign was led by the agricultural economist, Professor John Raeburn, who had been previously recruited to the Ministry of Food.

The main spearheads of the Government's campaign

The campaign had a number of spearheads, and it is important to realise that rationing, although probably the best known, was only one of them. The main ones were as follows and have pages devoted to each of them - see the lower of the above menus:

and of course:

The rationing policy

Lord Woolton's rationing policy was simple - to ration nothing, however scarce, until there was enough to go round and then to ensure that the ration, however small, was always honoured. He had no sympathy with those who complained that others could get some luxury which many others never saw.

"Food control," he insisted, "does not mean preventing the other fellow from getting something. It is a means of ensuring that we all get all the things that are necessary."

"It is not comfort we are after. It is winning the war and using our food to keep us fit to win this war. That is the standard we are aiming for, a fighting standard. Food brings the reek of battle into the kitchens; all we ask for is that we should have enough of it and no more, to give us the sustaining spirit of battle." August 1942

John Stolarczyk
of the World Carrot Museum

Preparing the public for food rationing

It was a massive education and publicity campaign with considerable administrative requirements. Although war was not to come until September 1939, the Government realised months before that war was inevitable and started planning. As early as July 1939 the Lord Privy Seal's Office distributed leaflets to the public under the banner of Civil Defence. Public Information Leaflet no.4 was entitled Your Food in Wartime which you can read in full by clicking the image of its front page.

This page owes much to conversations
with John Stolarczyk from the World Carrot Museum

Text and images are copyright

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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