One of the changes many Americans made in their diet was the substitution of oleomargerine for butter. Dubbed "poor man's butter" before the war, oleo became a staple on many people's tables.
To stretch real butter, people mixed it with light cream (or top milk), custard or unflavored gelatin. Cottage cheese was often substituted for meat, its sales exploding from 110 millioin pounds in the 1930s to 500 million pounds in 1944.
Even Fido did his part by givng up his fresh table scraps for dehydrated canned dog food. "Don't feed your dog precious table meat! Give him Red Heart," declared a magazine advertisement. "It contains federally inspected meats and meat by-products nd ordinarily selected for table use, but good for your dog."
Food manufacturers took advantage of wartime shortages to flaunt their patridism. Swift and Company proclaimed in its ads for Treet (similar to SPAM), "Meat is the materiel of war!" Stokely's proudly announced, "It takes food to win a war. ..and Uncle Sam's fighting men are the best fed in the world. We are proud to report that some part of every crop of Stokely's vegetables and fruits is being sent to the Allied Forces."
Grocers indulged in a little flag-waving of their own. A Saginaw, Michigan, Kroger ad cautioned, "Donít waste your meat ration! Be sure! Be safe at Kroger's." It also provided lists of food items and the points needed to purchase them. Porterhouse steaks, at 39 cents a pound, required 8 points; rib roast only cost 7 points and 29 cents per pound (fresh whitefish did not require points).
Some stores sold only nonrationed items to attract the customers tired of trying to figure out what coupon went with which item. One Ypsilanti, Michigan, market stocked large amounts of canned turkey and chicken, pickled pig's feet, pastas, pancakes, pickles and eggs instead of rationed items.
Victory gardens were another way the average citizen dealt with food shortages and contributed to the war effort. The U.S. government proposed them as a national food-growing effort, similar to the liberty gardens of World War I.
The term "victory garden" dates back to a book entitled "Victory Garden" that was written in 1603 by Englishman Richard Gardner. Gardner argued, "if any citie or towne should be besieged with the enemy, what better provision for the greatest number of people can be than every garden to be sufficiently planted with carrots?"
Empty lots, school fields, former flower gardens and back yards were cultivated for Victory gardens, viable sources of fresh and preservable foods. Even people who had never held a hoe or spade or worked with fertilizers and seeds were raising tomatoes and green beans in tiny garden plots.
For an investment of $1.30 for seeds (1940s prices). $1.50 for fertilizer, a full day's hard work to prepare the plot and approximately 7 to 8 hours per week tending the garden, the average family could enjoy 4 to 5 months' worth of fresh vegetables.
A March 30 1943 Life Magazine article praised the estimated 6 million Americans who were digging and delvng in their back yards for victory. 'We must help out professional farmers who are straining to meet quotas set by the govemment. By growing food in our back yards, we are relieving shippers and packers of their expanding war load." Public schools started instructed students on planting home gardens.
Newspapers printed frost warnings and other garden news. Some newspapers awarded 500-dollar war bonds to those urban gardeners with the best garden plots. An estimated 20 million victory gardens in the United States were producing about 40 percent of all American vegetables by 1945.
America's wartime health probably improved with rationing. The government urged people to give up their large portions of red meat and fats and eat wisely from the basic 7 food groups-green and yellow vegetables; citrus fruits, tomatoes and salad greens; other vegetables and fruits; milk and dairy products; poultry, fish, eggs and nuts; breads and cereals; and fats.
After 3 years of "use it all; wear it out; make it do; or go without," World War II came to a welcome end. Price controls and rationing did not end until 1946, though shortages continued across the country. As Americans adjusted to the hard-won peace, their consumption of meat, butter and sugar rose.
In 1946 per capita consumption of meat reached 154 pounds, 85 pounds of which were beef. Vegetables again came from the grocer, not the garden; more butter than margerine was sold; and sugar sales increased as dessert was once again served at lunch and dinner.
Today we still live with some of the results of World War II ratiioning. Enriching white bread and flour with vitamins and minerals lost through milling began during the war when people could not buy many varieties of nutritional food. The familiar blue box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner gained new popularity during the war as a substitute for rationed fresh meat and dairy products. Because 2 boxes required only rationing coupon, 80 million boxes were sold in 1943.
When bananas grew scarce during the war, the banana filling in Hostess Twinkies was changed to the vanilla-flavored cream we enjoy today. Although the frequency with which military kitchens served SPAM made it the butt of many jokes, returning Gis made SPAM a best seller. Perhaps SPAM was served with Minute Rice, since American soldiers were drafted by General Foods to taste-test the "instant" rice during its development in the 1940
. The government printed monthly meal-planning guides complete with daily menus and recipes. Good Housekeeping magazine included a special section on cooking with rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook; other national publications featured articles explaining rationing.
But how Americans dealt with rationing has not been extensively documented. Much of what we know about the impact of rationing on the home front is anecdotal, available to us through the memories of those who lived throug"the war years. The next time you see your grandma, ask her about rationing.
Note: This article first appeared in the September/October issue of Michigan History Magazine.