What WW2 Rationing Can Teach Us About Food Waste
Just a few hours before I caught my train home from Edinburgh, I decided on a whim to visit the People’s Story Museum, a completely last-minute excursion in place of exploring Edinburgh Castle, tickets for which annoyingly weren’t available for the morning, though looking back I’m thankful for this. Not only was the museum educational, it was also inspirational, as one particular exhibit prompted me to write on today’s topic – rationing. It might seem like a regression for many of us who probably learnt about World War II rationing in primary school – ration books, spam, and all that – but I think there is an environmental lesson to be learned from this historic practice.
Rationing was introduced in January 1940 for goods such as bacon, butter, and sugar, and two years later other products including meat, milk, cheese, eggs, cooking fat and more were also rationed. Weekly rations were meagre, so new, innovative foodstuffs were invented to replace the essentials, for example dried egg and dried milk – however, fruits and vegetables were never rationed. As a result, people had to be creative when it came to mealtimes. “It was like health food now. We had to learn to use vegetables, pulses and lentils. It was in magazines and papers at work and we got passing around recipes,” reads one quote from the People’s Story exhibition. Waste was also not an option; “If your neighbour had something left over she’d send it through to your mother ‘for the bairns’. There was never any waste that way,” remembered Joan Williamson, born 1924.
When food scraps couldn’t be consumed, there were food waste collection services in place in some areas that could dispose of scraps in a sustainable and fruitful manner. One scheme known as ‘pig swill’, allowed families to recycle food scraps to give to farmers as pig food; waste bins were placed around communities to be filled with meat scraps, vegetable peelings, and whatever else went uneaten, then once full were regularly transported to local plants to be processed into ‘pudding’. This ‘pudding’ was then sold to farmers who mixed it with water to create a tasty meal for their pigs. While pig swill was banned in 2001 over fears that it was a key contributor to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK, new research suggests there may be a need to return to the practice as a way to reduce both farming costs and demand on agricultural land for pig feed.
While trying my best not to come across like your great-grandma at family gatherings reminiscing on the days of no phones and rampant polio outbreaks, saying ‘those were the days’, I do think that we can learn an important lesson from the act of rationing in today’s society. In 2017, UK households were throwing away a yearly average of £13bn worth of food, much of which was still safe for consumption. In breaking this down, one would find that the average family scraps about £700 worth of food – that’s a lot of money to throw in the bin. The issue of food waste is even more present at this time of year, as many of us will have a fridge stocked full of Christmas goods that could feed a whole community let alone a nuclear family; as a result of the festive supermarket sweep, we will waste 4 million Christmas dinners (or 2 million turkeys, 74 million mince pies, and 5 million Christmas puddings), according to Unilever. When we place this into the wider context of world hunger, figures for which suggest around 795 million people ‘do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life’, food waste can be seen as one of society’s most prevalent and concerning issues.
But lessons from the war show us that it doesn’t have to continue this way. While the government have not introduced legal restrictions on the amount of food we can buy, we can still practice rationing in our own lives. Here are some ways we can help:
Buying less and not shopping to excess.
Using up old veg in a stew or soup.
Composting food scraps.
Freezing food (I like to chop up old bananas and freeze them so I can later food process them to make healthy 'ice-cream').
Growing your own produce.
Smell your ‘best before’ produce – I go by the rule that if it doesn’t smell it’s still good to eat, but obviously be safe.
So let’s stop banishing rationing to Key Stage 3, and start thinking about how we can apply its principles into our own lives.
Image from: Oleg Magni