Food on the Home Front during the Second World War

"Canada has determined to change the eating habits of a nation, because she has learned that efficient production of food is only half the victory. It takes efficient consumption, too, to give full meaning to the slogan, ‘Food will win the war.’"1

Food was central to Canadians’ experiences on the home front during the Second World War. This was partly because, as the above quote suggests, the federal government took a series of unprecedented steps aimed at transforming Canadians’ diets. The ubiquitous ration book would ultimately become the most vivid and lasting symbol of these efforts – but rationing was just one part of a much larger set of state interventions into Canada’s kitchens. These included a concerted propaganda campaign to promote certain ‘patriotic’ foods, the wartime launch of an unprecedented national nutrition campaign, and the introduction of literally thousands of individual controls on the price, production, and distribution of everyday foods.

At the heart of the many of the government’s wartime food policies was the need to feed Canada’s overseas allies and soldiers. As Canadians were regularly reminded by propagandists and advertisers alike, food truly was a “weapon of war.” Particularly after the fall of France in June 1940, Canadian food exports provided an essential lifeline to Britain. By the end of the war, it was estimated that Canadian exports accounted for 57 per cent of British wheat and flour consumption – down from its 1941 peak of 77 per cent – as well as 39 per cent of bacon, 15 per cent of eggs, 24 per cent of cheese, and 11 per cent of evaporated milk consumed in Britain. Much of this was achieved through major state intervention on Canadian farms. Between 1940 and 1943, the wheat acreage in the Prairie provinces was reduced by 42 percent through a combination of subsidies, price guarantees, and other controls. Areas sown for agricultural products needed to meet gaps in Canada’s domestic and export requirements like feed grains, on the other hand, increased by 72 percent, flaxseed by 800 percent, and hog marketings by 250 percent over the prewar period.2

Early in the war, Canadians were asked to contribute voluntarily to Canada’s food export commitments by avoiding foods that were needed in Britain and by consuming more Canadian foods whose European export markets had disappeared and were, therefore, threatening farmers and fishermen with massive unused surpluses. Apples and lobster were two of the earliest foods to be rebranded as “patriotic” after the export markets for both products collapsed. In December 1939, for instance, the Department of Agriculture began running glossy advertisements with the message: “Serve apples daily and you serve your country too.” Magazines such as Canadian Home Journal repeated such messages by publishing articles with titles like “It’s Patriotic and Pleasant to Eat Canadian Lobster” and which included recipes for patriotic dishes like Lobster Cocktail, Lobster à la King, and Lobster Sandwiches.3

Canadians also enthusiastically rallied behind a range of officially sanctioned food-related wartime causes. Thousands of school children, young adult girls, and adult women devoted their summers to low paid agricultural labour on farms in Ontario and British Columbia as members of the Farm Cadet, Farmerette, or Women’s Land Brigades. Created in response to shortages in agricultural labour, these components of the Farm Labour Service represented an impressive mobilization of patriotic enthusiasm to feed Canada’s soldiers and allies. A similar sentiment was shown in the dozens of international food relief campaigns that were started during the war. These included a massive Red Cross program packing life-saving food parcels for Allied prisoners of war; a Jam For Britain campaign launched by the Red Cross in partnership with rural women’s organizations such as the Federated Women’s Institutes and the Cercles Fermières; a Milk for Britain campaign organized by the Kinsmen; and a range of individual campaigns directed at food relief for Russia, Greece, France, and other Allied nations.

Canadians were also enthusiastic about domestic food conservation programs – whether they were officially sanctioned or not. From early in the war, the Department of Agriculture promoted home canning through public demonstrations by staff home economists as well as through the publication of a range of pamphlets and brochures. Most evidence pointed towards an impressive response from Canadians, with national studies indicating very high levels of home canning across the country.4 Canadians responded with similar level of enthusiasm to the Department of National War Services fats and bones collection campaign. As advertisements regularly reminded Canadians, fats and bones were essential to munitions production. Not only did bones provide essential materials for industrial glues but, as one ad informed readers, “Fat is Ammunition” – one pound of fat alone supplied “enough glycerine to fire 150 bullets from a Bren gun” and that two pounds would “fire a burst of 20 cannon shells from a Spitfire or 10 anti-aircraft shells.” The Canadian housewife was therefore encouraged to save these valuable war materials so that they she could “be a munition maker right in your own kitchen.”5 Ultimately, millions of pounds of fats and bones were collected across the country. The Winnipeg Patriotic Salvage Corps, for its part, collected 690,554 pounds of bones and 323,001 pounds of fat over its five years of wartime operations.6 

In a few cases, however, Canadians went against the wishes of the federal government in order to show their patriotic stripes. For instance, despite the official discouragement of victory gardening by inexperienced gardeners in the early years of the war, Canadians often took great pride in tending the thousands of new gardens that began to appear in front lawns and vacant lots everywhere in the early years of the war. For victory gardeners, they were an important contribution to the war effort – they freed up agricultural production and shipping space that could be used to send more food to Canada’s allies and they provided a ready supply of fresh, nutritious foods. But from the perspective of the Department of Agriculture, inexperienced gardeners were likely to waste valuable commodities in short supply. One 1942 pamphlet produced by the Department even went so far as to actively discourage unskilled “city-folk” from planting food gardens because “they would create the demand for equipment such as garden tools, fertilizers and sprays, which are made from materials needed by Canada’s war industries and because Canada’s vegetable seed supply can best be employed by experienced gardeners with equipment on hand.”7 By 1943, however, Agriculture officials reversed their position in the face of considerable protest by the country’s avid gardeners and an improved seed situation. At its 1944 peak, it was estimated that upwards of 209,200 victory gardens were in operation nationwide producing a total of 57,000 tons of vegetables.8 

In addition to food conservation, nutrition also emerged as a national priority during the early years of the war. In 1941, following warnings from the country’s leading nutrition experts that upwards of 60 percent of the country was suffering from some form of vitamin and mineral deficiency – and following the release of figures showing alarming rates of medical rejections by the Canadian military – the federal government responded by launching their first ever national nutrition education program.9 Starting with the creation of a federal Nutrition Services Division in 1941 and the launch of the Canadian Nutrition Program the following year, Canadians were inundated with nutrition advice during the war years. At the heart of this campaign was Canada’s Official Food Rules – the precursor to the contemporary Canada’s Food Guide – which, essentially, listed the six food groups required to maintain a healthy diet: milk, cereals and breads, fruits, vegetables, eggs and, finally, “meat, fish, etc.” As the slogan of the Food Rules reminded Canadians, the goal was straightforward: “Eat right, feel right – Canada needs you strong!” Or, as one headline in Saturday Night put it more bluntly, “Canada’s Faulty Diet is Adolf Hitler’s Ally.”10

The most important factor that actually changed the way Canadians shopped for, cooked, and ate food on the home front was the introduction of a universal price freeze starting in December 1941 followed by the introduction of coupon rationing of sugar in July 1942, tea and coffee in August, butter in December, and meat in March of the following year. These controls on food consumption came shortly on the heels of months of periodic food shortages and a precipitous spike in food prices. Price and rent controls, it was argued, would help to ensure that Canadians could continue to afford necessities like food, fuel, and shelter while rationing promised all Canadians a fair share of scarce necessities. The penalties for breaking the rules ranged from small fines to imprisonment, but both controls – and rationing, in particular – maintained strong popular support throughout the war. In separate polls done in March and July 1945 more than 90 percent Canadians agreed that rationing had done a good or fair job in achieving equitable distribution.11 As one postwar analyst summed up Canadians’ attitudes, “rationing has consistently given evidence of being the most popular among Canada’s wartime controls, a fact that is especially significant when one remembers that it has been more a part and parcel of every day living than any of the other controls have been.”12

In addition to these two primary controls on food consumption, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) – the federal agency responsible for overseeing and regulating Canada’s wartime command economy – also established thousands of additional controls on the production and distribution of food more generally. These ranged from prohibitions on sliced bread and iced cake in bakeries to the establishment of meatless Tuesdays in restaurants and, between 1945 and 1947, meatless Fridays, as well. Other restrictions included reductions in the production of non-essential goods like chocolate bars and soft drinks, limitations on the number of tin can sizes that could be used from 116 to only 9 standard sizes, as well as the removal of foods like carrots, beets, apples, pork and beans, and spaghetti from the list of foods that could be sold in cans.13 One effect was that Canadians were faced with an increasing number of novel food products. The artificial sweetener saccharin became far more common in a range of packaged foods and soybeans entered the Canadian diet in a number of different forms, whether as a substitute for salted peanuts and peanut butter or as a main ingredient in “chocolate” bars.14 

Canadian women, in particular, responded to these changes in a variety of creative ways. Newspapers and magazines were filled with wartime ration-stretching recipes from prominent food experts like Chatelaine’s Helen Campbell, the Montreal Standard’s Kate Aitken, the Globe and Mail’s Ann Adam, or the Vancouver Sun’s fictional food writer Edith Adams. These ranged from Anne Adam’s gelatin-based “Magic Butter Spread” to Swift Canadian Co.’s ersatz home economist Martha Logan’s ration-stretching recipes for “Tongue Rolls Florentine” and “Spaghetti with Meat.”15 At the same time, newspapers and magazines also regularly featured recipes submitted by ordinary women. Vancouver resident M.E. Coleman, for her part, sent the Vancouver Sun a fascinating recipe for a marshmallow based “Mock Whipped Cream” while Windsor resident Mrs. Graham provided the Windsor Daily Star with her own variation on the widely popular “Canada War Cake” – a typically eggless, milkless, butterless, and sugar-stretching dessert that usually included hot water, brown sugar, lard, raisins, flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves as its primary ingredients.16 

Perhaps one of the most popular outlets for wartime recipes was through the more than 200 cookbooks that were published during the war.17 While many of these were published by the food industry, celebrity home economists, or the federal government, each of these cookbook genres were outnumbered by the ubiquitous community cookbooks that were published during the war by church groups, charities, or local community organizations. These ranged from the Regina’s Knox United Church’s Victory Cook Book and the Barrie Lion’s Club Ladies’ Auxiliary’s Wartime Economy Cook Book, to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation’s 1944, Canadian Favourites: CCF Cookbook. The Calgary Wesley United Church Good Cheer Club’s 1943 Cook To Win, for its part, described itself as a collection of “wartime” recipes intended to be “your ever ready help until the day returns when ‘Freedom From Want’ is realized throughout the world.” Recipes, therefore, generally focused on ration-stretching items and included, among others, contributions from a number of local and national celebrities like a wartime stew from prominent feminist Nellie L. McClung and a meat loaf from the wife of Progressive Conservative leader John Bracken.18

Ultimately, the language of sacrifice, austerity, and thrift that dominated much of the wartime discussions of food contradicted the reality of many Canadians wartime diets: that they were typically eating more, and better, than they had for more than a decade. This was particularly true for the more than one million Canadians who saw some form of military service during the war. While the food was not always as good as many soldiers had hoped, there was plenty of it. In 1943, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s standard ration scale allowed for nearly 3900 calories per day and – thanks to the efforts of some of the country’s leading nutrition experts – included far more fruits, vegetables, and milk than it ever had before.19 Yet the same was often true of those who stayed home, as well. Statistics showed that the per capita consumption of nearly every nutrient had increased during the war. Even as late as 1945, per capita consumption of dairy products, fruit, and meat were each up 23 percent over than 1939 levels, while poultry and egg consumption was up 12 percent. While rationing did typically require the average Canadian to eat less butter, sugar, and tea, the approximately two pounds of meat per person per week promised under meat rationing ¬– in combination with access to off-ration meats in restaurants and elsewhere – actually assured a level of consumption from legal sources that was in excess of what most Canadians were eating during the Depression. In fact, per capita food consumption declined significantly after 1945 and it was not until the late 1950s that Canadians’ average food consumption levels would again reach their wartime highs.20 It is perhaps not surprising, then, that many Canadians looked back on their wartime eating experience on the home front with fondness and nostalgia. Although most Canadians put away their recipes for “Canada War Cake” for good after the end of the war, rationing and the wartime mobilization of food provided them with something approaching a truly national eating experience that, for many, would remain one of their most positive memories of a period generally characterized by much more profound sacrifices in the lives of their family, friends, and neighbours.

Ian Mosby, University of Guelph

 

  • 1. Anne Fromer, “Is Food the Answer to Increased Production?,” Saturday Night (12 December 1942), 42-3.
  • 2. G.E. Britnell, and V.C. Fowke, Canadian Agriculture in War and Peace, 1935-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 210; Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Department of Agriculture, RG 17, vol. 3426, file 1500-80, Proportion of Canadian Food In The British Diet; LAC, RG17, vol. 3426, file 1500-79, History of the War Effort Of The Federal Department of Agriculture.
  • 3. Catherine Caldwell Bayley, “It’s Patriotic and Pleasant to Eat Canadian Lobster,” Canadian Home Journal 37/3 (July 1940), 28-29 and Canadian Home Journal 36/8 (December 1939), 1.
  • 4. LAC, RG64-A-4, Series 1240, Vol. 1448, File A10-29-12, Consumer Questionnaire Analysis: Report No. 3 – Research Division, WPTB – 8 February 1946.
  • 5. Cariboo Observer, 12 June 1943, 3.
  • 6. LAC, Department of National War Services, RG 44, Vol 10, History of the Voluntary and Auxiliary Services Division, Appendix 6: Reports of Citizens’ Committee and Co-ordinating Councils.
  • 7. WPTB and Agricultural Supplies Board, Home Vegetable Gardening and Home Canning of Vegetables in Wartime (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1942). Also see, LAC, RG17, vol. 3706, file 249, Memorandum for the Special Committee on Community Gardens and Home Canning, 1 February 1943.
  • 8. LAC, Department of Agriculture, RG17, vol. 3698, file W-5-4-29, Press Release: Wartime Garden Survey, 28 April 1944.
  • 9. L.B. Pett, “Nutrition as a National Problem,” Canadian Welfare, 18/1 (April 1942), 21-29.
  • 10. Hiram McCann, “Canada’s Faulty Diet is Adolf Hitler’s Ally,” Saturday Night, (14 June 1941), 8.
  • 11. LAC, RG 36-31, vol. 27, WIB Information Brief No. 57, The Home Front: Verdict on Wartime Controls, 16 April 1945.
  • 12. LAC, RG64, vol. 23, file 256, WPTB Information Branch, Report No. 3A, Resume of Canadian Opinion on Rationing, 1 October 1945.
  • 13. CBC Digital Archives, “Food Facts and Fashions,” radio program, originally aired 12 June 1942, http://archives.cbc.ca/war_conflict/second_world_war/clips/5094/ last updated 29 September 2003.
  • 14. “They’re Talking About …,” Chatelaine 17/3 (March 1944); Priscilla Galloway, ed., Too Young to Fight: Memories from our Youth During World War II (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 20; Mary Peate, Girl in a Sloppy Joe Sweater: Life on the Canadian Home Front during World War II (Toronto: Optimum Publishing, 1988), 97-98; Food in Canada 2/9 (September 1942).
  • 15. Ann Adam, “Today’s Food,” Globe and Mail, 2 January 1943; Globe and Mail, 12 May 1943, 8; and Vancouver Sun, 23 February 1943, 6.
  • 16. “This Week’s Best War-Time Recipes,” Windsor Daily Star, 14 March 1942, 9. For M.E. Coleman’s mock whipped cream see, Edith Adams Wartime 9th Annual Cook Book (Vancouver: Vancouver Sun, 1943).
  • 17. This estimate is based on an analysis of Elizabeth Driver’s excellent and exhaustive Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
  • 18. Good Cheer Club, Cook To Win (Calgary: Wesley United Church, 1943).
  • 19. “Responsibilities of Dieticians in the RCAF,” Canadian Hotel and Restaurant 21/7 (July 1943), 14.
  • 20. LAC, Department of Agriculture, RG17, vol. 3434, file 1724, Anna M. Speers, A Report on Nutrition and the Production and Distribution of Food (Ottawa: May 1945); Wartime Information Board, Canadian Food and Agriculture in the War (Ottawa:, 25 May 1944); Nutrition Division, Canadian Food and Nutrition Statistics, 1935 to 1956 (Ottawa: National Health and Welfare, 1959), 26-29; Brinell and Fowke, Canadian Agriculture, 150-151.
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