All the nations involved in World War II practiced food rationing. It was particularly severe in Great Britain because unlike the United States, which was self-sufficient in many things, Great Britain was self-sufficient in almost nothing. When World War II started in 1939, the country was annually importing 70 percent of its foodstuffs, including 50 percent of its meat, about 70 percent of its cheese, sugar, cereals, and fats, and almost 80 percent of its fruits. Food rationing began on Jan. 8, 1940. On July 26, 1942, Minister of Food Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton, all but banned sweets in Great Britain, cutting the sugar ration down to a half a pound per person every four weeks.
One would think that such a draconian action would make the Minister of Food the second-most hated man in Britain after Adolf Hitler. But unlike his predecessor, Woolton kept his popularity. When the war started, though most accepted the necessity of rationing, Britain’s first Minister of Food in World War II, William Morrison, made such a mess of things and became so unpopular that he resigned on April 3, 1940, after just seven months on the job. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain asked his director-general of the Ministry of Supply, Frederick James Marquis, Lord Woolton, to take over. Though the Chamberlain government fell the following month, the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, chose to retain Lord Woolton at his post.
A successful department store executive, Woolton’s appointment proved to be a godsend. In a short period of time, he transformed one of the most hated ministries into one of its most admired. Woolton quickly discovered that the ministry had a competent and dedicated staff that was more sinned against than sinning. Woolton’s first move was to boost staff morale. This he did by inviting the popular King George VI for an inspection. Woolton later said that visit “did more good for the internal morale of the Ministry of Food than anybody else could have done in a year.”
“Lord Woolton produced for the first time in modern history a food plan based on the nutritional needs of the people … the rich got less to eat, which did them no harm and the poor, so far as the supply would allow …”
– British nutritional expert Lord Boyd Orr
He won over the skeptical and hostile press through regular briefings of influential newspaper barons. With the general public, he made regular announcements and appearances on BBC radio and in newsreel films, and personally dealt with the ministry’s large volume of correspondence. These efforts, coupled with his honesty and genial personality, soon caused the public to call him “Uncle Fred.”
The ministry went on an information assault at every level. Newspapers printed the weekly feature “Food Facts” and theaters showed the short film series Food Flash, which offered food and food storage tips. BBC radio featured the program The Kitchen Front. To encourage children to eat their vegetables, the ministry created the cartoon figures of “Dr. Carrot” and “Potato Pete.”
From his experience seeing the effects of malnutrition in Liverpool, Woolton made good nutrition a mainstay of his program. To help make sure everyone was properly fed, he had the ministry establish “community feeding centres,” non-profit, low-cost pris fixe communal kitchens, where people could get a balanced meal. Their name was later changed to “british restaurants,” a patriotic switch that Churchill much favored.
Perhaps the most famous thing accomplished under Woolton’s stewardship was a dish named after him. Lord Woolton Pie, or Woolton Pie, was described as “a steak and kidney pie without the steak and kidney.” It was a vegetable dish created by master chef François Latry of London’s Savoy Hotel. Though ingredients varied, its basic recipe included potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, swede (rutabaga), onions, oatmeal, and vegetable extract. It was topped with a potato pastry and grated cheese and served with vegetable gravy.
Rationing continued in Britain well after the war, with the last item, meat, not coming off the list until 1954. Woolton was remembered with gratitude by former colleague Clement Attlee in his eulogy of Woolton in 1964. He said, “The ordinary people felt that here was a man who understood their wants. This was expressed to me by an old Devonshire dame, who said, ‘That Lord Woolton, he do sometimes right and sometimes wrong; but we poor folk are beholden to him because he thinks of us.’”
YouTube features a number of film clips of rationing in Britain during the war. Examples include Two Cooks and a Cabbage (1941) in which two young girls cook a cabbage: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2evv45stEHw&feature=related. A clip showing Woolton greeting a Lend-Lease food shipment can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QOsCk4nPtw.