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Should we bring back rationing?

It's 70 years since WWII rationing was brought in and many pass comment on the contrast between the current obesity epidemic and those healthier days of dearth. But how did people handle rationing and could we use the lessons to fight obesity now?
On 8 January 1940, the UK tightened its belt and entered a period of privation that was to percolate through every layer of the national consciousness.
As the system gathered momentum, the ordinary ration came to encompass meat, cheese, butter, margarine, bacon and ham, tea, preserves, sugar and cooking fats such as lard.

There was also a separate points system for canned food, dry goods and other groceries. Clothing and petrol were also rationed.

But it is perhaps the food ration that looms largest in the nation's memory.

Every week the nation's housewives would queue with their ration books - at shops they had registered with - to buy their allowances of groceries.

The man charged with making the nation accept the idea of eating less was Lord Woolton, a department store boss brought into the government as minister of food.

Social rancour

"Woolton had this genius for publicity," says Terry Charman, a historian at the Imperial War Museum who helped create the forthcoming Ministry of Food exhibition. "[The ministry] had a wonderful PR organisation, which thought up Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete.

"People welcomed the advice that was given, although some of it today looks very patronising."

Set against World War I, when there was often an atmosphere of social rancour over the idea that some people were doing well out of the conflict, the rationing of the next war had a binding effect.

"By and large it was accepted as part of the war effort. It was a way of bringing the nation together. Rationing meant that there was no avoiding the war," says Stewart Ross, author of Rationing: At Home In World War II.

Modern rations

Yet there are many parallels between a generation having to go short because of the war and one now being told to change its eating and purchasing habits by the government and environmental campaigners.

The author Philip Pullman told a newspaper last year that he advocated WWII-style rationing for environmental reasons.

But could we bring back rationing to fight obesity or save the planet? Would people accept the state forcing them to eat less?

The pioneering television chef Marguerite Patten, who worked as an adviser to the Ministry of Food during the war and who broadcast her recipe ideas on the radio, is not sure it would work.

"There is no point in bringing back rationing, but there is in bringing back healthy eating and bringing back 'no waste'. That was one of the golden rules."

And yet for many people there were great positives in rationing.

"So many of the foodstuffs that bring about obesity were in short supply," says Mr Charman.

Of course that's not to say every aspect of the rationing diet was wonderful.

Most fresh vegetables, like most fresh fruit, were not rationed, but could very often be in short supply, despite the Dig for Victory allotment campaign.

Boring diet

There was an occasion where a raffle for a single banana raised £5, then a healthy weekly wage, says Mr Charman, and another occasion where £4 worth of tickets were sold for the raffling of a single onion.

"When we look back we can say it was healthy in the amount of vegetables, although I wouldn't say fruit, they had. And they hadn't too much fat or sugar," says Ms Patten.
"But it was boring. It went on week after week, with very much the same ingredients. People had to be very enterprising."

From a nutritional point of view there was both good and bad, says Anna Denny of the British Nutrition Foundation.

"Offal was quite a rich source of some nutrients we tend to lack in our [current] diet such as zinc. Teenagers tend not to get enough zinc."

A downside would have been a lack of some types of fish. Fish was not rationed, but its price was not controlled, says Mr Charman, meaning that some families could sometimes not get hold of it economically.

And many of the rations do not seem that measly, such as 4oz of margarine and 2oz of butter. "100g of margarine per person - it isn't that limited," says Ms Denny.

Sedentary life

What would surprise most people is that, according to the government's National Food Survey at least, the amount of calories each person consumes a day has steadily declined since the rationing era.

Admittedly excluding alcohol, soft drinks and confectionery, the figure was 2,269 in 1942 and only 1,750 in 2000. The Expenditure and Food survey, which replaced the NFS in 2001, suggests a figure of 2,320 calories per person a day, including food and drink, in 2007.

Whatever the statistical picture, the nature of our calorie consumption has changed dramatically. The UK has grown more sedentary over the years, shifting to office-based jobs and away from calorie-burning manual work. Even the housewife of 1942 would have worked much harder.

For Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, the current wave of overeating has its roots in the end of rationing in the 1950s and the shift to a society of plenty.

"We have a situation where food is available everywhere, open round the clock - cheaper, poor quality, bigger portions - a situation where food is ubiquitous. It is the first time really in history where food is limitless.

"We haven't developed an instinct that tells us when not to eat. Our strongest instincts tell us to eat."

He advocates taxes on high fat and high sugar foods and sweeping measures to promote physical activity, saying: "There is a place for the nanny state, especially when you look at kids."

Of course there is a lesson for current politicians in the way attitudes to rationing changed after the war, when privation continued because of the efforts to feed the liberated countries and Germany, as well as bad harvests and economic chaos.

"People made the best of it but were very horrified when it went on so long after the war," says Ms Patten.

"The majority did welcome it [during the war]," says Mr Charman. But rationing continued for nine years after the war, with some allowances dropping immediately after victory in Europe and some new things like bread, which had not been rationed during the war, being restricted.

"Whereas people were prepared to make the sacrifices when we had a very tangible and evil enemy, afterward people were saying 'we won the war, why are we still being rationed? Why is it still getting worse?'"

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

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Added: Jan-8-2010 
By: boomersooner
Tags: Food, Rationing, Goverment, boomersooner
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