The Evolution of Food Rationing

One of the scariest things about COVID-19 hitting America’s shores last winter was what we saw at our grocery stores.

Or more accurately, what we didn’t see. Food items and other supplies we always took for granted quickly became either scarce or non-existent.

Many of us had never seen empty shelves in our neighborhood stores before. But suddenly they were right in front of us.

And then meat-packing workers started getting sick by the thousands. The beef, chicken, pork and other meats we’d grown accustomed to buying were unavailable. Or priced much higher than normal. And the “R” word – rationing – took effect.

COVID-19 second wave coming?   

Over time, most of our grocery store shelves filled up again as the supply chain was strengthened.

But now there’s talk of a second wave of the coronavirus coming this fall and winter. I’m very concerned we’re going to see even worse shortages and stricter rationing.

Dr. Chris Murray is the director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. He expects a “huge surge” of the virus to begin in America this month. And he says it will get even worse in November and December.

Once word gets out about this prediction, people are going to start hoarding again. Which means more shortages and more rationing.

U.S. Food Administration established

Rationing is not new in America. It occurred during World Wars I and II. But it is new to most Americans these days.

Today I’d like to take a look at the evolution of food rationing through the decades. Some of you are probably familiar with some or most of this. In fact, you might have lived through it.

But for others it could be an eye-opening experience. Either way, it’s a fascinating history with possible implications for the future.

The first major example of food rationing in the U.S. began in 1917 after we entered World War I.

In order to provide U.S. troops with the sustenance they needed to fight overseas, President Woodrow Wilson established the U.S. Food Administration.

‘Food will win the war’

Future President Herbert Hoover was tasked with overseeing this voluntary program. The success of the initiative would depend on the compassion and patriotism of Americans.

The goal of this new administration was to manage the wartime supply, conservation, distribution and transportation of food. 

American citizens were asked to reduce their consumption of meat, wheat, fats and sugar. They were encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, which were difficult to keep fresh when transported overseas.

Among the slogans people saw on billboards and heard on radios were, “Food will win the war.” Promotions included “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.”

Voluntary program works

In order to help American families prepare meals without meat and wheat, local food boards were established.

These boards offered guidance, recipes with suitable replacements and canning demonstrations. 

So, did the plan work? Absolutely. Within a year, food shipments to our troops in Europe doubled.

Between 1918 and 1919, food consumption in America was reduced by 15 percent. And to top it off, following the war Hoover organized shipments of food to millions in Europe who were starving due to the effects of the war.

Mandatory rationing begins

Fast forward to World War II. It was obvious from the start that U.S. involvement in this global conflict would last longer than it had during World War I.

Voluntary conservation wasn’t going to be enough. So, the U.S. government put restrictions on imported foods. And placed limitations on the transportation of goods, due to a shortage of rubber tires.

In early 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act was established. Price limits were set and food rationing began.

Three months later, Americans were unable to purchase sugar without food coupons issued by the government. Additional foods that were soon rationed included meat, cheese, canned fish, canned milk and other processed foods.

War ration stamps prove popular

Citizens who wished to obtain rationed foods registered to receive war ration books containing stamps that could be used to purchase restricted items.

These stamps were very popular. In fact, 91 percent of Americans registered for the stamps, which were issued on a point system.

For example, people were allowed to use 48 “blue points” each month to buy canned, bottled or dried foods. And 64 “red points” to purchase meat, fish and dairy products.

Many people ended up trading one type of stamp for another. Forged and stolen stamps were also sold on the black market.

‘Do with less so they’ll have enough’

During World War II, the slogan changed from “Food will win the war” to “Do with less so they’ll have enough.”

Many people planted what became known as “victory gardens” to supplement supplies they bought at stores.

Sugar was in short supply because much of it had come from Hawaii and the Philippines. Those imports were cut off in 1942.

Some people saved some of their stamps for special occasions, such as holidays. But that often backfired when stores did not receive shipments in time.

Rubber products in demand

We can all figure out why food rationing was needed during World War II. But why were rubber products so sparse?

It was because the primarily supplier of the world’s natural rubber products was Southeast Asia. Japan occupied rubber tree plantations after the U.S. entered the war.

American factories got busy trying to produce products needed for the war effort. So, citizens were asked to turn in their garden hoses, raincoats, old tires, gloves and rubber shoes for recycling.

Very few new tires were seen on cars during the war. Some people even lined the insides of their tires with newspapers to try to make them last longer.   

If food rationing returns, you can be prepared

It’s been a long time since food and other items were rationed in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean it will never happen again.

There are many threats in our world today. Hostile governments and terrorists would like nothing better than to see Americans scrambling for their next meal.

Like everything else in life, the best way to prepare for a food shortage is to stock up on food with a long shelf life.

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  • Jonas Muennich - November 30, 2020

    Cool Article!

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