What Britain Eats

Planned diets compensate for rationing and Britons "were never healthier"

FLOYD S. CHALMERS March 1 1942

What Britain Eats

Planned diets compensate for rationing and Britons "were never healthier"

FLOYD S. CHALMERS March 1 1942

What Britain Eats

Planned diets compensate for rationing and Britons "were never healthier"


ASK ANY Englishman—or Englishwoman — what is the most efficient phase of Britain’s " whole war organization. In most cases you will get the answer “Food Supply.” This is a remarkable tribute to that north country retail merchant, head of the Lewis department stores, who is now Britain’s Minister of Food.

Lord Woolton’s job of feeding Britain has been a tough one. Before the war, two thirds of all Great Britain’s food was imported. It had to be brought across the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. Britain imported all of its tea, coffee and cocoa, three quarters of its sugar and its fruit; nine tenths of its flour, butter, lard and margarine; seventy per cent of its cheese; forty per cent of its eggs and over half of its meat.

When the war came, food supply became a critical problem. Ships were sunk by submarines and dive bombers. Other ships that used to carry food had to be turned over to carrying war weapons and raw materials.

Britain set up a system of food control without delay. She plowed up park lands, heaths, private estates to raise more food. By this summer six million new acres will be in cultivation (equivalent in area to a quarter of all the wheat acres of our Prairie provinces, or to the whole of the field crops in the Province of Quebec). Today Britain is providing half of her own food requirements against the one third she provided in prewar days.

Then she surveyed the dietary needs of the population and drafted plans to utilize ships to bring in only those foodstuffs that were needed for adequate nutrition. Oranges, except in rare instances, are imported only to supply the needs of children under six. I came across the Atlantic on what used to be a banana boat. It carries no bananas today; it carries only bacon from Canada. Imports of sugar, cocoa and butter were slashed very greatly.

The result is a diet that is less diversified than it used to be but just as healthy. There has also been an “evening up” of the diet of the British people. Workmen’s families enjoy a higher standard of nutrition in their diet; the wealthier people have to be more ingenious—and pay high prices for unrationed foods—if they are to maintain the variety on their tables.

The test of British food policy is, in the end, the health and energy of the people. Measured by this

test the results to date have been favorable. There was every reason why Britain should have expected epidemic disease and a lowering of vitality, particularly last winter. The blackout keeps people at home and causes many of them to sleep in illventilated rooms. Everyone is working harder. Physical fatigue becomes a factor when hours of work run up to as much as seventy a week in many trades. Men do fire-watching and special police or Home-Guard duties, in what would otherwise be their hours of leisure. Women are working in munitions plants or giving long hours to volunteer services. Soldiers—both the fighting men and Britain’s vast army of women soldiers in the WAAFs, WRENs, and A.T.S—are crowded in barracks. The transport problem, to and from work, is serious in many areas. Workers often spend twelve hours a week or more simply getting to their jobs and home again.

All of these things could have produced—and were expected to produce—a serious decline in public health. Instead, British health has improved. Epidemics—such as colds and influenza—have been less widespread than normally Early in the war, the average weight of the people declined; it is now coming back. I talked to dozens of people who had noticed this in their own cases. Invariably they said they felt better for it; they had taken off flabby pounds and put on tough and muscular ones.

On every hand in Britain one hears people say,

“The British people were never healthier than they are now. They never ate so sensibly nor enjoyed such a healthy diet.”

One of Britain’s greatest authorities on nutrition told me that he believed both statements to be true. Other experts were more cautious, but all agreed that the British people are eating sensibly and getting enough food.

But there are great changes in eating habits, brought about by the need to ration the key foods in order to ensure equality of distribution to every home in the nation.

A “Joint” a Week

THERE is much less meat consumed in the average house. The members of the family (and the servants, if any) lump their meat rations together. If there are five or six of them they will be able to buy a good sized “joint”—what we in Canada call a roast—once a week. The meat ration works out at about a pound a week per person, including bone. The joint will appear once on the table and may provide a shepherd’s pie for one other meal. When it is finished there will be no more meat in that family for a week.

The meat ration is “tuppence” worth of meat per person per day. Ina family of five that means about $1.30 worth of meat—say four pounds after the bone has been removed—per week. It doesn’t go far. It means that steaks or chops are rarities.

Bacon is additional. Enough is allowed (four ounces per week per person) to give every member of the family a couple of slices for breakfast three or four times a week.

There are fewer eggs. The average Britisher is happy if he gets one or two eggs a month for breakfast with an occasional egg for cooking purposes. I slept for four weeks within two miles of Piccadilly Circus and heard more crowing roosters than anti-aircraft guns. Many people keep chickens. If more than forty-nine chickens are kept the hennery becomes “commercial” and the output has to be sold in the open market. And even if fortynine are kept, the output per hen will not be large, particularly in winter, because chopped feed and prepared poultry foods are hard to get.

There are adequate supplies of vegetables such as potatoes, brussels sprouts, cabbages, “swedes,” beetroot and carrots. Fish is scarce because so many of the little fishing boats are in the Navy now —acting as minesweepers or “flak ships.”

There are many unrationed foods but they are Continued on page 34

What Britain Eats

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expensive; oysters, chickens, partridge, grouse, rabbits, pheasants. They are very helpful in enabling the ; swank restaurants to maintain variI ety in their menus but—as in Canada —these are luxuries to the average person.

Another profound change in Brit! ish food habits, particularly in the ! families with medium and lower j incomes, is the greater reliance upon I canned foods. The Canadian house| wife has for a generation known the j dietary virtues, the economy and the ! variety to be obtained from canned foods. The British housewife has ! used them less enthusiastically. Lord Woolton has built up enormous stocks of canned beans, fish, stews and meats. He recently issued to every family an additional “pink ration book,” which gives everyone the opportunity of buying satisfactory quantities of them at reasonable cost. The coupons would enable a

housewife to buy for her family every month half a pound of, say, canned tongue, four ounces of sardines, and a pound of beans for each member of the family. These rations are additional to rations previously provided.

Much of these new supplies of canned goods comes from Canada, and much more from the United States under “Lease-Lend.” On a food shop in London I saw chalked up these words:

Thanks To Lord Woolton,

The Generosity Of The American People And The Might Of The British Navy We Have The Goods

Under a “national milk scheme,” milk is provided at reduced prices for expectant and nursing mothers and small children (free if the family

income is very low). In addition every school child receives a glass of milk every day at low cost (one cent a glass, or free if the small charge strains the family budget).

There is similar distribution of concentrated orange juice, black currant purée and cod-liver oil.

Britain has made available a “national loaf”made from flour in which the vitamin B content has been preserved and, in fact, supplemented. All margarine has also been vitaminized.

What about the cost of food in Britain? There has been an increase of about twenty per cent in the cost of food since before the war. This is just about the same as the average increase in full-time wages in the same period.

The great increase in wartime shipping costs would have upped food prices even more if the Government hadn’t fixed maximum retail prices and subsidized the important foods. The Government spends a hundred million pounds a year to keep retail food prices down.

Eating Out

PERHAPS the most remarkable change in British eating habits is the increase in eating outside the household.

Nearly everybody who goes to Britain has made up his mind on one point at the end of his first day there. He sees crowds in the London restaurants, buying meals for which they require no coupons or ration cards. And he says, “This is most unfair. People who can afford to go to restaurants for their meals have an advantage over the rest of the people.”

People who had been to Britain had expressed the same opinion to me. But by the time I had been there six weeks I realized that it was an unfair judgment.

I found that Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, was encouraging people to “eat out” at least once a day. “Eating off the ration” is what Lord Woolton calls it. “We were great wasters of food in times of peace,” he says. “And while we were wasting it, there were thousands who were not getting enough to eat.” The Minister of Food estimates that food that is served in “bulk” in restaurants and canteens goes farther; there is less waste in preparing and serving it.

Today one pound in every twelve of food in Britain is eaten in restaurants, clubs, canteens, etc. No coupons are asked when a meal is bought in a restaurant. Lord Woolton told me the reasons for this policy.

In the last war, if the head of the family or other working members had a meal during the day, they had to take their meat and sugar coupons along. By the time the weekly ration coupons had been surrendered, one by one, to the restaurant keeper, there were usually so few left for the housewife that she had a hard time providing a satisfactory “table for her family. But in this war, the ration allowances cover only food eaten in the home. If meals are taken out there is no drain on the allowances in the family ration book. But what about that charge that

this favors the well-to-do; that they can afford meals “off-the-ration” while the average person can not? The canteens in factories, the travelling canteens in blitzed and other poorer areas, and over a thousand new public restaurants represent the Ministry’s answer; its effort to ensure that the privileges of extra food through eating outside the household are shared by rich and poor alike.

Virtually every factory with 250 or more employees, and many smaller ones, have a restaurant where the workers get one hot meal daily— usually with a good roast or stew. Usual cost is about twenty-five cents.

The Government has established over a thousand “British restaurants” in different areas, where the whole family can eat out at low cost.

A typical meal is celery soup, roast mutton, carrots or turnips, potatoes; steamed sultana pudding, custard or rice pudding; tea or coffee. Price: twenty to twenty-two cents.

The Government, too, subsidizes school meals so that every child can have one good hot dinner five times a week at small cost—and again “offthe-ration.”

These “communal”feeding schemes are of course additional to the farreaching arrangements made to supply food to blitzed areas, when people are homeless or when gas, electricity and transport services are temporarily out of action.

I saw queues in England, but not for food. Mostly they were for cigarettes or matches. People do not line up in front of food shops in Britain, waiting for them to open. They do not have to. If the housewife lines up to be served in the shops, it is only because of the shortage of help, due to enlistments, and the extra shopping time involved in stamping food coupons.

But, while food is in ample supply, the housewife’s problem is not simple. She has to adjust her habits—and her family’s tastes—to what is available. The shortage of fish and meat changes many lifelong habits.

It is difficult for the housewife to find time to shop. She probably has a war job—paid or voluntary. In London most of the shops close at four o’clock in the winter; and the shopping hours are short all over England. When she can spare the time to shop, she finds the stores crowded and the service slow because of the factors of labor shortage and coupon-stamping. For most rationed foods she has to shop where she is registered. Several women held the worst nuisance of all to be the difficulty of getting to the shops where they are registered at a time when the shops have a fresh and varied stock of foods.

What to Send

IF THERE is anything lacking in the British diet it is not the essentials of life but the “extras”—our bad habits that are pleasant habits just the same. The postal censor, foi some reason, will not permit British people to write to friends and relatives abroad suggesting sweetstuffs and foods that they would like to have sent to them in parcels. Perhaps the reason is that the Government thinks it unfair for people who have

friends abroad to gain advantages over those who have not. Perhaps it does not want space on cargo ships to be used up in carrying “nonessentials.”

Whatever the merits of the matter, I soon found that the British people appreciate parcels from abroad. Some of them have tried to get around the censorship by writing to friends to thank them “for sending the delicious chocolates.” Likely as not, the censor will return the letter with a warning. He suspects that that is just a way of writing to ask for chocolates.

On my insistent urging, a number of my friends in Britain gave me a list of things they would greatly value from overseas. Here are some of the items on the list. If you insist on sending parcels to British friends these are the things to send :

Olive oil



Tinned butter

Tinned marmalade

Condensed orange juice

Tinned lemon juice

Tinned grapefruit juice


Tinned tongue and ham Maple sugar Pickled onions Prunes

Milk chocolate



Bacon (specially wrapped for overseas.)

And there was one other item that some Canadian friends mentioned as so rare in Britain that arrival of a tin of it turns any day into Christmas: peanut butter. But I do not know that many British people have acquired a taste for it.

Everyone who sends a parcel from Canada puts in a pound of tea.

There’s a lot of tea in England—too much judging by the strength of the tea served to me. The ration is two ounces per week per person, which is ample. Most Britishers would rather receive some of the other items. Don’t send ordinary condensed milk, although the powdered milks that can be used for cooking puddings are appreciated.

And a final tip: if you want to be regarded as a real Santa Claus always put in a couple of lipsticks and some hairpins.

The British people are getting enough of the staple foods. Their diet is adequate in nutrition values even if lacking in prewar variety. Money is no longer the key to a rich larder in wartime Britain. The rich and the poor may not eat exactly the same foods; but the prewar disparity in their relative food standards has been levelled out of existence.

Thus, in its wartime food policy, Britain has not only solved the problem of national existence in the face of an effort by the Axis to starve out the nation. It has also achieved something approaching a social revolution.

And the revolution is not merely social in character. The British people have changed their eating habits—for the better.

“Britain,” one of the country’s greatest authorities on nutrition told me, “is becoming food-conscious.” What he meant was that the women of Britain, almost for the first time, are gaining the knowledge of true food values that most Canadian and American women have. He forecast that after the war the British food habits will quickly rise to the healthful North American standard. There will be more milk, more fresh fruit, more fresh vegetables on the British table. At the same time there will be less meat, less suet pudding, less grease in the cooking of food.