Less Is More
Food rationing during the Second World War
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore our understanding of self-denial, considering it in relation to the effects of food rationing during the Second World War.
Preparation and materials
- You will need the words of Jesus found in Matthew 16.24: ‘Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”’
- Did you have a good feed over the Christmas period? Let’s start with Christmas Day. Maybe you kicked off with a full English breakfast; snacked on some mince pies and sweets; had a traditional lunch of roast turkey with roast potatoes, carrots, peas and sprouts (you've got to have sprouts); tucked into Christmas pudding with brandy cream for afters; and then snacked on chocolates, more mince pies, pork pies, cream cakes and trifle for the rest of the day. Personally, I have to admit I made a bit of a pig of myself.
- The Christmas of 1939, the first Christmas of the Second World War, was probably also a feast, but this time with a hint of desperation and regret. The population knew that, because of the German blockade of imported food into British ports, rationing was about to start. On 8 January 1940, adults were required to register with shops of their choice and to obtain a book containing ration coupons. Each time they went shopping, they were permitted to buy only a specific amount of certain foodstuffs. For each purchase, a ration coupon was cancelled. When they had used up their allocation of coupons, they weren’t allowed to obtain any more. Everyone was treated equally, regardless of gender, status or wealth. Only children, pregnant women and adults involved in certain types of important work were allowed extra.
- At first, only bacon, butter and sugar were rationed, but the list of rationed goods increased over subsequent weeks to include meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, cooking fat, milk and tinned and dried fruit. Vegetables and bread were the only foods that didn’t require a ration coupon, but they were often in short supply. It wasn’t a famine. People could eat enough to survive, but variety was severely limited. They were denied the diet they had enjoyed for recent decades.
- One of the aims of the German army’s blockade of Britain was to starve the country into surrender. Their actions certainly made the population fed up and sometimes, morale was pretty low, but subsequent research came to some surprising conclusions. First, the general health of the population improved. People did not display symptoms of illness as frequently. Second, infant mortality was reduced (indicating that expectant mothers and their babies were not at risk) and life expectancy rose (not including deaths by bombing and other fighting). Research suggests, however, that there was a significant increase in flatulence and human waste production!
- Food rationing didn’t end completely until almost a decade after the end of the war, in July 1954. The time of government-imposed denial was over. Your grandparents and great-grandparents may be able to tell you something of what the experience felt like. They might even be able to show you a ration book.
Time for reflection
Denial wasn’t something that the British people chose during the war. It was an imposition that they’d rather not have experienced. Yet in the end, it had its benefits. Many entered peacetime as healthier, more robust human beings, ready to face the future.
Denial was also a key concept for Jesus. He declared that anyone who wished to follow him must first of all deny themselves. He meant that his followers must incorporate self-denial into their lifestyle. When Jesus was asked to expand on this, he explained that for one person, it might mean sharing their wealth, whereas for another, it might mean loosening over-restrictive family ties. His followers might have to deny themselves the security of a home or even face martyrdom. Yet, Christians believe, to be a follower of Jesus, to be accepted by him and to share his life, would be worth all the self-denial. It wasn’t a denial imposed by Jesus. It was a denial chosen and embraced by his followers.
What might self-denial represent for us and what might be the benefits? It would be easy to confine our thoughts to diets and the health and fitness benefits after the excesses of the Christmas period. Yet there can also be a benefit for others in what we choose. If global warming is to be slowed down, some experts say that we must reduce the amount of meat we eat and consume more locally sourced foods so that we can reduce food miles and therefore transport use. Mahatma Gandhi summed it up in this command: ‘live simply so that others may simply live.’ It’s an idea that goes beyond food and into our whole lifestyle.
Self-denial is also about choosing not to put ourselves first all the time in our relationships. At its simplest, it’s about saying, ‘After you,’ in the queue. It’s about allowing someone else to take a share of the glory or choosing the good of the team above personal success.
What might be the benefits? The first and most important benefit is that self-denial widens our horizons: we become more conscious of the needs and expectations of others, both near and far. When we do so, we are likely to find that they do similar to us. Self-denial also makes us feel good. It’s guilt-free. It makes us feel in control of our lives rather than pressured to conform. Nobody is imposing it, as the government did with rationing during the Second World War. It’s our choice.
Thank you for the vast range of choices we have before us,
Not only in food, but in many other areas of life.
Remind us of the consequences of each choice we make,
Both for ourselves and for the society and world population of which we are a small part.
May we be thoughtful in all we decide.
‘Something got me started’ by Simply Red