When my dad, Staff Sergeant Allen Spencer, was serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, rationing was not an unusual thing. Nevertheless, most of us think of rationing to be in the form of gas rationing. That is pretty much the kind of rationing we have heard being used these days, but on January 8, 1941, the government of the United Kingdom began a different kind of rationing…food. I can see the value of such a thing, because by limiting the amount of food each person could have, they could ensure that everyone was able to get enough food to sustain them. People weren’t going to gain weight on the amount of food allowed, but they could survive. I suppose the fact that there were so many extra people, in the form of the military forces, just added to the need to ration.
Of course, some food rationing occurred before this date too. Rationing was introduced temporarily by the government of the United Kingdom several times during the 20th century, during and immediately after a war. At the start of World War II in 1939, the United Kingdom was importing 20 million long tons of food per year, including about 70% of its cheese and sugar, almost 80% of its fruit and about 70% of its cereals and fats. It also imported more than half of its meat and relied on imported feed to support its domestic meat production. The civilian population of the country alone, was about 50 million. It was one of the principal strategies of the Germans in the Battle of the Atlantic to attack shipping bound for Britain, restricting British industry and potentially starving nations into submission. Siege tactics were not unusual and have been used throughout history by several countries.
So, to deal with the various forms of shortages, and sometimes extreme shortages, the Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing. Basically, the Ministry of Food would buy most rationed items, forcing anyone who wanted some of these items to register at chosen shops. Upon registration, they were provided with a ration book containing coupons. The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. Purchasers had to present ration books when shopping so that the coupon or coupons could be cancelled as these pertained to rationed items. Rationed items had to be purchased and paid for as usual, although their price was strictly controlled by the government and many essential foodstuffs were subsidized. Basically, rationing restricted what items and what amount could be purchased, as well as what they would cost. To make matters worse the items that were not rationed could be scarce, because the Ministry of Food did not purchase said items. The priced for some of the unrationed items were also controlled by the Ministry of Food, and for many people those prices were too high for them to be able to afford, causing people to try to cheat the system, and merchants to try to either assist the people or to gouge the public in order to make a buck. This brought penalties for breaking the laws of rationing.
During the World War II, rationing was not restricted to food, and was part of a strategy including controlled prices, subsidies, and government-enforced standards. The goal for this controlled pricing and rationing was to manage scarcity and prioritize the armed forces and essential services with the supplies they needed first. They did still try to make available to everyone, an adequate and affordable supply of goods of acceptable quality. I suppose that how well they accomplished their goal, would be a matter of opinion. Of course, like all wars, World War II ended, as did the rationing of the time, but rationing has returned a number of times, and will again, should the need arise.