dig for victory

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With toilet rolls now back on our supermarket shelves and the long arm of the law no longer necessary to keep us in strict queuing order, talk of food rationing has perhaps slipped from our after-dinner conversations but, with a long-term and underlying fear of fragile supply chains, how long before it returns?

Currently, 53% of food eaten in this country is produced here and we import exactly eleven billion’s worth of fruit and veg every year. Thirty years ago, the UK’s food retailers carried somewhere between ten and twelve days of stock and produce whereas now, with just-in-time procurement systems ruling the roost, they have just 24-36 hours’ supply. As a result, the nation’s food experts have written to Bumble demanding a health-based food rationing scheme to see the country through this and future crises.

Rationing was first imposed on civilians towards the end of the first world war but it wasn’t until twenty years later that it became a feature of everyday life for anything more than an interim period. And somewhat surprisingly, we have a future Labour Prime Minister to thank for this: the slogan ‘Dig for Victory’ was penned by a then little known London Evening Standard leader column writer, Michael Foot, who was responding to intelligence reports that described food queues as a greater threat to public morale than air raids. Well I never, and kinda puts his much-criticised Cenotaph ‘donkey-jacket’ into some perspective.

In late 1939, Cambridge physiologists began experimenting upon a diet consisting of solely home-grown and home-produced food: one egg, 450g of meat (four bacon rashers and four sausages), 113g of fish (a large mackerel) a week; a quarter of a pint of milk per day; no butter but margarine; and as much veg and bread as they could find. After three months, they were not only fit and healthy but shown to be stronger, more agile and more alert than before, though all participants noted a marked increase in whiffy flatus!

Consequently, in January 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were rationed, followed, in 1942 by tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, canned and dried fruit, lard and milk being added to the books. And it proved to be a rip-roaring success. While upwards of twenty million people around the world died from malnutrition, the British thrived. Most ate less but, with provisions made for children and expectant/nursing mothers, everyone received essential nutrients and we blossomed. Infant mortality rates declined and the average age at which people died from natural causes increased for the first time in generations. Admittedly, many of the populace bolstered their somewhat meagre rations via the black market, and by 1945 there had been 114,000 separate prosecutions for such activities, but the underlying evidence is clear. Every cloud and all that.

So, is rationing needed now? Thankfully not. At least, not just yet. After the initial aggressive and self-centred panic-buying of late, the food supply chains have shown themselves to be relatively flexible and adaptable. There are shelves still devoid of specific product (Arborio rice for my favourite risotto for one!) and there remains serious concern wrt food poverty, labour shortages at harvest-time, price inflation, under-production and potential international import/export restrictions. At the risk of initiating another run on sun-blushed roasted tomatoes cask-conditioned in premium virgin olive oil, perhaps COBRA cabinet meetings should indeed look at implementing such measures as the nation has never been as healthily fed as it was in wartime.