BY THE THIRD week of March 2020, visiting the local grocery store had become a precarious undertaking. Part of it was the sheer strangeness of distanced shopping. I had become acutely aware of my physical distance from other people. Soon I noticed them eyeing me from behind their carts with a similar wariness.
In the produce section, I hovered a body length or two behind fellow shoppers, waiting for them to bag their bundles of bok choy, unsure how much buffer was considered polite. Nobody wanted to risk the skirmishes over the last rolls of toilet paper we’d seen in videos circulating online; purchasing small cabbages should never be an event that goes viral.
Things grew even stranger in the meat section, where paper signs affixed to refrigerated cases told customers they could have only a few pounds of ground beef and pork at a time. Likewise at the milk case. When I finally got to the canned beans section, it was picked clean; my neighbors had apparently decided legumes would get them through the biggest, weirdest public health crisis any of us had ever seen.
Across the country, the story was the same: Once-common food items became difficult to obtain. Grocery delivery services were suddenly impossible to book and rarely yielded a full order when they did arrive. Grocery stores shelves weren’t completely bare. But they were short on many items I’d come to expect would always be available.
The quantity limits and distancing rules were an inconvenience for office workers confined to work from home. For those already struggling with poverty and those who had abruptly found themselves unemployed, the situation was more dire.
For the first time in nearly a century, Americans across the income spectrum were dealing with widespread food shortages and uncertainty brought on by a crisis. Widespread fears and state-enforced lockdowns combined to shutter production facilities and break supply chains to an extent few had ever contemplated.
In response to those closures and the novel challenges they created, Americans changed the food they bought and the meals they ate in ways that are likely to echo for generations to come. As the virus spread and tens of millions of people were forced to stay inside, many of them turned to home cooking projects that would have been unimaginable—or at least unnecessary—just a few months earlier.
Yet as unusual as all this was, it also wasn’t entirely new. Just as pandemic lockdowns and COVID-driven shortages reshaped food culture in 2020, government rationing and food restrictions during World War I and World War II changed how Americans shopped, cooked, ate, and thought about their meals for a century after. For better or worse, the same is happening today.
WHEN AMERICA ENTERED World War I in April 1917, its food supply was thrown into disarray. At the time, nearly a third of Americans lived on farms. All at once, large numbers of able-bodied agricultural workers entered military service.
Transportation disruptions also made supply chains less stable than before. The government suddenly had to build capacity to deliver food to soldiers stationed in combat zones abroad. President Woodrow Wilson created the U.S. Food Administration, which deployed slogans such as “food will win the war” to convince American families—primarily women, who shouldered the majority of the cooking burden—of the necessity, and even virtue, of restraint.
The government limited the amount of sugar that could be bought by wholesale producers and industrial manufacturers, but it chose not to ration sugar or other foods for American households. Instead it relied on propaganda campaigns appealing to patriotism to spur voluntary efforts. As Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University, details in Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity, the voluntary measures largely worked. From 1918 to 1919, American food consumption dropped by 15 percent.
But then as now, the impact was unequal. Voluntary measures were honored more by wealthy households than by the working class. When the government encouraged people to abstain from wheat and meat on certain days of the week, richer housewives largely complied. But some poorer households actually prospered in wartime and their consumption reflected that: “Immigrants and those in the working classes, whose war industry-related jobs produced higher incomes, increased their food intake,” writes Bentley. “Beef consumption, for instance, actually went up during the war.”
When World War II arrived, food supply issues became even more critical. As before, the government needed to supply high-energy foods to troops stationed abroad. At the same time, the lend-lease policy, enacted in 1941, committed Washington to providing food, oil, and weaponry assistance to Allied countries, which ended up accounting for 17 percent of U.S. war expenditures.
Some policy makers worried that advertisers—the powerful Madison Avenue ad men—would spur people back home to hoard food and other supplies by stoking fears of shortages. Others fretted that Americans would refuse to participate in voluntary consumption cutbacks because of a post-Depression psychological aversion to going without.
People “were understandably wary of a government requesting them to reduce their food intake, when during the depression people had watched it destroy millions of tons of food in the quest to stabilize agricultural prices,” Bentley notes—a reference to the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal legislation had authorized the federal government to buy and cull livestock and to pay farmers to limit the planting of basic crops.
To drive up food prices for the benefit of the agricultural sector, people across the country were allowed to starve. As John Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath, “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all....The smell of rot fills the country.”
The feds concluded that in order to reduce food consumption on the scale needed to meet their wartime obligations, coercive measures would be necessary.
PRICE CONTROLS AND RATION BOOKS
IN JANUARY 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act let the Office of Price Administration (OPA) set price limits and impose mandatory rationing on a wide array of goods during wartime. The goal was to discourage the twin evils (in the government’s telling) of hoarding and gouging so that there would be enough for everyone. By spring, Americans could no longer buy sugar without a ration book. By November, coffee was added to the list. By March 1943, meat, cheese, oils, butter, and milk were all being rationed.
The buying and selling of gasoline, shoes, clothing, rubber tires, and medicines such as penicillin—which was distributed via triage boards in hospitals—were all controlled by the government. Propaganda attempted to convince Americans that fresh meat ought to go to men at war, not their own dining room tables. “American meat is a fighting food,” read the pamphlets. Fresh meats “play a part almost on par with tanks, planes, and bullets” in the war effort.
The system worked like this: People would line up at the local school to get their ration book, which included a certain allotment of stamps. Teachers were entrusted with the distribution.
In the beginning, stamps entitled the holder to a specific amount of a specific product, such as sugar or coffee. Each person was allotted one pound of coffee every five weeks, or roughly a cup a day.
Point-based rationing was introduced a bit later. The OPA would issue every American five blue stamps and six red ones per month, with each stamp worth roughly 10 points. The agency then allotted points to different food items, such that blue points could be used for canned or dried foods and red points could be used for meat, fish, and dairy.
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