Rain in Spain brings rations back to Britain

Dig for victory: A British housewife weighs up her options in December 1941.

Bad weather in Europe has caused a shortage of lettuce, broccoli, and other fresh vegetables. Now some UK supermarkets are restricting what customers can buy — was rationing all that bad?

First there was the #courgettecrisis in January. Now, Britain is in the grip of a ‘national salad shortage’. Some supermarkets are selling lettuce at more than double the usual price. Others are restricting customers to no more than three broccoli heads per visit. On Gumtree, a box of 12 lettuce heads is selling for £50. And this is just the beginning, say experts; the scarcity could last until April.

Retailers have blamed a ‘perfect storm’ of bad weather in southern Spain, where heavy rain and a bitter cold snap has left 70% of farmland unusable. The Murcia region alone grows around 80% of Europe’s fresh produce during winter, causing shortages across the continent. Britain — which imports half of its vegetables — has been particularly hard hit. ‘Foreign produce is like gold,’ said one market trader.

For most people in Britain, the word ‘rationing’ is intimately connected to the second world war. In 1940, over two-thirds of food was imported from overseas — and the ships became easy targets for enemy submarines. The new Ministry of Food introduced strict rations to ensure fair distribution of necessities.

Each person had a ration book with a limited weekly allowance: for example, one fresh egg, 100g of margarine, four rashers of bacon, and 225g of sugar. Wasting food was a criminal offence. Government information posters encouraged people to grow their own vegetables. But despite the scarcity, Britain’s population was considerably healthier when rationing finally ended in 1954.

Those days are long gone. For the first time in history, people can eat whatever they want all year round. Lettuce was a summer vegetable, so the idea of a shortage of it in February would be laughable to someone in the 1950s, rations or no rations. Meanwhile obesity levels have soared.

The 2017 vegetable shortage is a long way from wartime Britain. But it has got some thinking: what if rationing was brought back?

Less is more

Brilliant! say some. Restricting choice does not just make people healthier — it also reduces food waste and encourages creativity. It might even make us appreciate foods as special when we have them. No one wants to return to the 1940s, but imagine if strawberries were only eaten when in season. Wouldn’t you enjoy them all the more, having waited so long for them?

No thanks, respond others. This is sentimental nostalgia for a non-existent past; in reality rations were extremely unpopular. Meals were repetitive and boring. Without something like war to focus minds, it could never work — and why would we want it to? The freedom to buy lettuce all year round is one of the great wonders of the modern world. We should appreciate it more, not wish it gone.

You Decide

  1. Could you survive on wartime rations?
  2. Should people only eat the fruit and vegetables which are in season?

Activities

  1. Imagine the year is 2047, and rationing has been brought back to Britain to stop food waste. Design a public information poster encouraging people to take part.
  2. Read the list of the average wartime rations (under Become An Expert). Plan a week’s worth of meals, using only the ingredients provided. Try making one of the recipes at home, and report back to your class.

Some People Say...

“Too much freedom inhibits choice.”

Walter Darby Bannard

What do you think?

Q & A

Is rationing really going to come back?
Some shops are preventing customers from bulk buying vegetables. But there is no danger of Britain returning to a strict rationing system any time soon. However, the idea is still interesting to contemplate. It is easy to forget how unprecedented is the idea of buying any vegetable all year round. Has this almost unlimited choice been good or bad for our relationship with food?
How long will the shortages last?
Farmers and food suppliers say that things should be back to normal by springtime. But this is highly unlikely to be the last food crisis like this. It is unclear whether the unusual Spanish winter is linked to climate change, but scientists have predicted that the world could face far worse shortages by 2050, as weather becomes more extreme.

Word Watch

Courgettecrisis
Courgette prices in Spain surged by 60% in January. For aubergines it was 132%. For tomatoes it was 45%. Empty shelves were spotted in vegetable aisles across the UK.
Double
In Lidl, for example, the price of an iceberg lettuce rose as high as £1.19 from 42p.
Ministry of Food
The government department was created in 1939. Its most famous Minister of Food was Lord Woolton, who had been head of the department store chain Lewis’s. He played a key role in the propaganda around rationing — the ‘Woolton pie’ was named after him.
Healthier
Infant mortality, tooth decay and obesity rates all fell after more than a decade of rations. While the rich had been forced to eat less, the poorest had been provided with healthy balanced meals.
1954
Despite victory for Britain in 1945, rationing initially got worse — the country had to help support the newly liberated countries of Europe. It was slowly phased out in the early 1950s.
Obesity
According to the NHS, obesity in Britain has trebled in the last 30 years (to 25%). It predicts that half the population could be obese by 2050.

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