What can we learn from the austerity of 1939-1945?

November 20, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is a writer and garden designer, a career that has won her two gold medals at Chelsea Flower Show.  She has written many books, mostly on gardening, as well as writing articles for a range of publications.  And yes, she is Hugh’s mother.  In 2010 she wrote a great book called The Ministry of Food – Thrifty wartime ways to feed your family today (now out of print), which combined a history of the period of wartime-imposed austerity between 1939 and 1945 with recipes and tips.  With our exploration this month of the theme of austerity, I was interested to hear Jane’s thoughts on the matter, and so we did the following interview via email.  

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You wrote in Ministry of Food: "if our mothers and grandmothers could provide good food on a tight budget and with the most basic equipment, it should be much easier for us".  Yet here we are, in a period of government-imposed austerity, with half a million families depending on food banks, a rise in health problems caused by poor diets and so on.  Why is it not so easy for families today?  What have we lost?  What is different about today? 

I think it’s partly the knowledge and skills that are lacking today. It was the same at the beginning of World War 2 when rationing was first imposed on the nation. A family could have an adequate and healthy diet on a week’s rations of meat, bacon, butter and margarine, cheese, milk, eggs, sugar and tea. But only if they knew how to eke out the meagre rations by using pulses, veg and fruit which were all available relatively cheap ‘off the ration.’ (Also, in the countryside, ‘wild’ meat: rabbits, pigeons, etc.)

At the outset of the war, many women had no idea how to achieve this. However, the government set up mobile units, which went round the country giving cookery demonstrations and handing out recipe leaflets. The much-loved, best-selling cookery writer Marguerite Patten started her career in this way.

Image RemovedLater, in the ‘never had it so good’ days of the 1960s, we all took enthusiastically to convenience foods – frozen food, ready meals, anything ‘on offer’ in the supermarkets. My children grew up on fish fingers, burgers, spaghetti hoops, oven chips, Angel Delight, etc etc. We more or less forgot how to cook, and how to budget. That’s how things have stayed until the present.  Now it’s not so different as it was in the days of rationing – we know what we should be doing, but not how to. But the info is there if we look for it.

We have also lost the pleasure of cooking together. Yes, we are all too busy during the week, in most families both parents are out at work, but we can still enjoy preparing and eating meals together at weekends. It enhances family life. We’ve also lost the pleasure of seasonal food, looking forward to new potatoes, say, and purple sprouting broccoli, or the first apples, or ripe blackberries in the hedgerows. From a practical point of view, seasonal food costs less.

In today’s period of austerity, we are told that "we’re all in this together", although many people don’t feel this.   History tells us that that was the strong sense during the war, but was it?

During the war there was certainly a feeling of shared hardship and people did feel they should pull together and make light of their troubles. But rationing went on till 1954 (the war ended in 1945), and by then everyone was sick of it. There was no longer the threat (and for many the reality) of being bombed out of your home, and the fear of losing loved ones serving in the forces. The reasons for ‘pulling together’ and not complaining were gone.     

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What role did advertising and propaganda play in creating that common sense of purpose, Dig For Victory and everything?

Hugely influential. Churchill and Lord Woolton (Minister of Food) both realised the importance of communication, in those days by radio and in cinema newsreels and in the press. Although Woolton was usually putting out unpopular messages about shortages of this or that, he was personally very popular, known as ‘Uncle Fred.’ Partly because of his engaging personality, but also because he believed in telling people the truth about what was happening.

One of the challenges today in terms of healthy diets and food justice is how our food is controlled by fewer and fewer larger and larger companies, who opposed much in the way of regulation and so on.  During WW2, how was the food industry made to play its part? 

Total government control. The food and farming industries were told what they could sell/grow and the government fixed the prices. Such strict regulation would never be acceptable in peace time. 

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What skills did the ordinary person have then that we have lost?

It was taken for granted children would help in the kitchen. We learned to peel spuds; prepare other veg; boil, poach and scramble eggs; and make other simple dishes, for example cakes, scones.  Adults were skillful shoppers, buying ingredients for good value, knowing how they were going to use them. Usually made a shopping list and stuck to it, but could also buy opportunistically, eg if a sudden supply of raisins or oranges had come in from North Africa.  People learned to shop and to plan meals so nothing was wasted. 

What were, if you like, the key ingredients, that made a basic, cheap diet such a healthy one?  How does that differ from what we eat today, and what can we learn from that diet?

Because meat and fish were in short supply, we relied on it far less than we do today. Lots of fruit and veg, specially potatoes, but the diet could be very monotonous. The wartime diet would not be healthy for today’s way of life. It was high in carbohydrates, designed for a population who walked or cycled to school or work, lived in much colder houses and flats. They needed fuel to keep going. 

In Britain in 2013, austerity is leading to a widening of the gap between rich and poor.  By 1945, when the war ended, that gap had actually closed significantly.  Why was that?

Rationing was a great leveler. Except for the black market which was surprisingly limited, being richer did not buy you a better diet. However, both rich and poor living in the country were better fed than those who lived in big towns and cities. Home grown fruit and veg, backyard chickens, goats, pigs. 

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If the housewives of 1943 were able to sit down with families today struggling to put healthy food on the table on very tight budgets, what advice do you think they would give them?

Waste nothing. Keep a stock pot going for soups and stews. Use up leftovers. Cook without meat several times a week, using eggs, cheese, lentils, pearl barley, rice. Use seasonal ingredients. Use cheaper cuts of meat, cooked long and slowly. Have fun foraging for wild food: mushrooms, blackberries, nettles; if you live near the sea, mussels etc. Share and barter: if you keep hens, swap eggs for your veg-growing neighbour’s glut of courgettes. 

Jane’s latest book is ‘The Pocket Book of Good Grannies‘ published by Short Books.  

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at transtionnetwork.org and robhopkins.net and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: austerity, rationing, Reskilling