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Food and rationing

Advertisement in The Sphere, 23 March 1918

Advertisement for JC Vickery sugar boxes for taking sugar to restaurants and cafés when rationing came into force in 1918

Food shortages and rationing would increasingly impact on peoples’ daily lives as the war progressed. Prior to the conflict, Britain had relied on foreign imports for around 60% of its food, some coming from Germany and Austria. But the ruthless German strategy of using U-boats to target merchant ships resulted in an average of 300,000 tonnes of Britain-bound shipping being sunk every month, while a poor American harvest in 1916 served to exacerbate the situation.

To counteract the effects of the “submarine menace”, the government encouraged the population to save food, while also increasing production at the same time. A Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies, formed on 7 August 1914, aimed to fix maximum prices for key commodities; hoarding was strongly discouraged. In December 1916, the Ministry of Food was established, headed by Lord Devonport, and later by Lord Rhondda, as Food Controller. Its aim was to promote voluntary rationing and appealed to citizens to restrict their consumption to a weekly maximum of 4lb of bread, 2½ lb of meat and ½lb of sugar. Sir Arthur Yapp, Director of Food Economy, devised a campaign to discourage waste; householders could receive a badge (printed with “I Eat Less Bread”) and a certificate announcing their commitment to the cause.

Growing vegetables was also encouraged and any convenient plot of land was given over to cultivation — even the flowerbeds at Buckingham Palace. The feeding of stray dogs was forbidden, while people who kept pet dogs were regarded by some as draining valuable food sources. The first National Kitchen, an economical, mass-catering initiative to provide affordable and nutritious meals for the poor and war workers, was opened in May 1917.

Magazines began to publish recipes for economical dishes. The Bystander’s cookery column offered increasingly frugal ideas and food manufacturers such as Oxo advised on creating tasty meals using the most basic of ingredients enhanced by their product.

In February 1918, the threat of perilously severe shortages hastened a move towards compulsory rationing, first in London and the Home Counties before affecting the rest of the country. Meats, fats and sugars were all rationed and householders allocated a particular grocer or butcher to ensure equal distribution. The Sphere printed diagrams on how to dig an allotment to supplement the rations.

The wartime measures taken to guarantee food supply resulted in a nation that remained relatively well nourished. In Germany, however, food shortages brought the country close to starvation and were a decisive factor in the eventual Allied victory.