World War I
Following nearly three years of intense combat since the onset of World War I, America’s allies in Europe were facing starvation. Farms had either been transformed into battlefields or had been left to languish as agricultural workers were forced into warfare, and disruptions in transportation made the distribution of imported food extremely challenging. On August 10, 1917, shortly after the United States entered the war, the U.S. Food Administration was established to manage the wartime supply, conservation, distribution and transportation of food. Appointed head of the administration by President Woodrow Wilson, future-President Herbert Hoover developed a voluntary program that relied on Americans’ compassion and sense of patriotism to support the larger war effort.
In order to provide U.S. troops and allies with the sustenance required to maintain their strength and vitality, posters urging citizens to reduce their personal consumption of meat, wheat, fats and sugar were plastered throughout communities. Slogans such as “Food will win the war” compelled people to avoid wasting precious groceries and encouraged them to eat a multitude of fresh fruits and vegetables, which were too difficult to transport overseas. Likewise, promotions such as “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” implored Americans to voluntarily modify their eating habits in order to increase shipments to the valiant soldiers defending our freedom.
To help families prepare meals without these former staples, local food boards were established to offer guidance, canning demonstrations and recipes with suitable replacements for the provisions that had become so limited. As a result of these conservation efforts, food shipments to Europe were doubled within a year, while consumption in America was reduced 15 percent between 1918 and 1919. Even after the war had ended, Hoover continued to organize shipments of food to the millions of people starving in central Europe as head of the American Relief Administration, earning him the nickname the “Great Humanitarian.”
World War II
Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entrance into World War II, it became apparent that voluntary conservation on the home front was not going to suffice this time around. Restrictions on imported foods, limitations on the transportation of goods due to a shortage of rubber tires, and a diversion of agricultural harvests to soldiers overseas all contributed to the U.S. government’s decision to ration certain essential items. On January 30, 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act granted the Office of Price Administration (OPA) the authority to set price limits and ration food and other commodities in order to discourage hoarding and ensure the equitable distribution of scarce resources. By the spring, Americans were unable to purchase sugar without government-issued food coupons. Vouchers for coffee were introduced in November, and by March of 1943, meat, cheese, fats, canned fish, canned milk and other processed foods were added to the list of rationed provisions.
Every American was entitled to a series of war ration books filled with stamps that could be used to buy restricted items (along with payment), and within weeks of the first issuance, more than 91 percent of the U.S. population had registered to receive them. The OPA allotted a certain amount of points to each food item based on its availability, and customers were allowed to use 48 ‘blue points’ to buy canned, bottled or dried foods, and 64 ‘red points’ to buy meat, fish and dairy each month—that is, if the items were in stock at the market. Due to changes in the supply and demand of various goods, the OPA periodically adjusted point values, which often further complicated an already complex system that required home cooks to plan well in advance to prepare meals.
Despite the fact that ration books were explicitly intended for the sole use by the named recipient, a barter system developed whereby people traded one type of stamp for another, and black markets began cropping up all over the country in which forged ration stamps or stolen items were illegally resold. By the end of the war, restrictions on processed foods and other goods like gasoline and fuel oil were lifted, but the rationing of sugar remained in effect until 1947.
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